World·Analysis

Spanish police attacks on would-be voters in Catalonia — mistake or part of a plan?

Spain's image on the world stage has been tarnished by the worldwide broadcast of images showing its police attacking would-be voters in Catalonia, and those tactics have not slowed the Catalan government's march toward independence. So the question lingers: Why, in the age of the smartphone, would Spain use force this way in order to quash a disputed independence referendum?

'Strong policing was used to send a message,' analyst says

A Spanish riot police officer shoots a rubber bullet at people trying to reach a voting site at a school assigned to be a polling station by the Catalan government in Barcelona on Sunday. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

Spain's image on the world stage has been tarnished by the worldwide broadcast of images showing its police attacking would-be voters in Catalonia, and those tactics have not slowed the Catalan government's march toward independence.

So the question lingers: Why, in the age of the smartphone, would Spain use force this way in order to quash a disputed independence referendum? Why not just declare the vote illegal and ignore it? Why hand the independence movement a public relations victory by using police to attack women, children and the elderly?

Analysts say the Spanish government apparently felt so threatened by the accelerating independence movement that it believed a show of force was needed to make it abundantly clear that even harsher tactics would be used if needed to keep Spain intact.

A Spanish riot police officer swings a club against would-be referendum voters in Barcelona on Sunday. (Manu Fernandez/Associated Press)

The government was also confident, apparently with reason, that European Union leaders would not condemn the tactics Spain used to help prevent more splintering of the 28-nation bloc.

Chatham House director Robin Niblett said the Spanish government felt it had to act despite the consequences because it could not let the vote, suspended by the constitutional court, proceed.

"I'm sure they expected it to get ugly," he said. "I'm sure they knew there was a real risk of it looking like democracy was being suppressed. But they know they have support in the rest of Spain, so the political risk domestically was worth taking."

He conceded the cost was high because of the disturbing images that emerged.

Spanish Civil Guard officers remove demonstrators outside a polling station for the banned independence referendum in Barcelona on Sunday. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

"They didn't want shots of police pulling women by the hair," he said. "That's stupid, that's really frustrating to them. In a way that becomes the story."

No apology

Spain's leaders have not backpedalled or apologized for the use of force, an indication they are willing to take whatever international opprobrium comes their way.

In fact, criticism from Europe's leaders has been relatively light, coming mostly from opposition figures.

Canada condemns violence in Catalonia

Politics News

4 years ago
0:31
Canada's International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne condemned violence in the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia and called on all sides in Spain to begin dialogue, after the disputed independence referendum there descended into chaos. 0:31

Andrew Dowling, a specialist in Catalan history at Cardiff University in Wales, said "any government in the world" would have taken similar action if under direct threat.

"The Spanish government felt it had to stop the vote because they knew within 48 hours the Catalan parliament would declare independence and then there is a really big crisis," he said. "They knew a Yes vote in favour of independence was guaranteed because most No voters weren't going to participate. I think the very strong policing was used to send a message."

Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy delivers a statement at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid on Sunday. (Sergio Perez/Reuters)

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government, he said, was counting on the Catalan police to remove people from voting places, but the regional officers "just stood by with their arms folded." So authorities sent in Spanish riot police, who had been brought in on ships for just such a possibility.

Dowling believes some police officers had been bored by their long confinement on the ships in the Barcelona port and took out their frustration on the public.

Covers are seen over Looney Tunes cartoon characters on a ferry ship in Barcelona's port, Sept. 25, rented by Spain's Interior Ministry used to house hundreds of Spanish National Police and Civil Guard reinforcements ahead of the banned Oct. 1 referendum. The covering triggered a worldwide trending topic #freepiolin (Free Tweetybird). (Albert Gea/Reuters)

"Some of the violence was pretty shocking, unrestrained, and it didn't take into account age or gender," he said. "In the age of the iPhone, it gives vivid testimony."

The world was watching

The global broadcasting of the images, and the front-page display of the photos, may have strengthened the hand of independence movement leaders in their quest for international support, even if there is little appetite for breaking up a major European state at a time of rising instability in many parts of the world.

There is also strong anecdotal evidence, based in part on Associated Press interviews, that some who had planned to sit the referendum out, or to vote to remain part of Spain, instead voted for secession because of anger about police tactics.

Spanish Civil Guard officers break through a door at a polling station for the banned independence referendum where Catalan President Carles Puigdemont was supposed to vote in Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain, on Sunday. (Juan Medina/Reuters)

Elisa Arouca said she was waiting to vote outside a Barcelona school when police yanked her and other prospective voters out of the way, smashed open the school door and seized the ballot boxes inside.

"I was always against independence, but what the Spanish state is doing made me change my mind," she said before seeking out another place to vote — this time in favour of independence.

By this yardstick, the Spanish government's approach was not successful.

"They increased the independence vote by sending the police in," said Nafees Hamid, a research fellow at Artis International who has written extensively about Catalonia. "It definitely hurt them. If the independence movement was trying to malign the image of the Madrid government, they accomplished that goal. There were some who wanted just that, that was their strategy, and it really paid off."

Catalonian vote

CBC Business News

4 years ago
6:58
Spain loses 20% of its economy if Catalonia splits, says Marc Sanjaume of the Self-Government Studies Institute in Barcelona 6:58

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