As Catalonia Referendum Nears, Tensions Rise in Spain

Speaking before the national Parliament, Mr. Rajoy defended the detentions and accused separatist politicians of promoting civil disobedience and escalating the conflict, using methods he described as “profoundly antidemocratic.”


Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain at the Parliament in Madrid on Wednesday. Credit Fernando Villar/European Pressphoto Agency

By passing a law allowing for the Catalan referendum, Mr. Rajoy said, the separatists had flouted Spanish law and “invented a new legal order.”

“Luckily,” he added, “the rule of law has functioned.”

Separatist leaders, however, have accused Mr. Rajoy of plunging Catalonia into a state of emergency rather than negotiating the terms of a referendum.

“The issue that is at stake today isn’t the independence — or not — of Catalonia,” Raül Romeva, Catalonia’s foreign affairs chief, told a group of foreign correspondents in Madrid on Wednesday, “but democracy in Spain and the European Union.”

Mr. Romeva said that Catalonia would hold the referendum as planned, and that Catalan lawmakers would act to honor the result within 48 hours — meaning they would declare independence unilaterally if people voted for it.

“There is no alternative, absolutely no alternative,” he said. “There are only two projects now on the table: a democratic project or repression.”


Protesters and Catalan regional police clashed in Terrassa, in the province of Barcelona, on Tuesday. Credit Lluis Gene/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Madrid seized control of Catalonia’s finances this week, seeking to ensure that separatist politicians could not spend further public funds on the referendum. Under the guidance of public prosecutors and Spanish judges, the police conducted raids across Catalonia to confiscate ballots and campaign materials from printing shops and delivery companies. Spain’s judiciary has also taken measures to stop advertisements related to the referendum in the news media.

Still, the Catalan government says it can hold the vote, and recently announced that it had stored about 6,000 ballot boxes in a secret location.

“The referendum will be held and is already organized,” Mr. Romeva said. “Clearly the conditions in which it will be celebrated are not those that we wished for.”

As the referendum date nears, Mr. Rajoy, who leads a minority government, finds himself under increasing pressure in Madrid to explain how the conflict over possible Catalan secession spun out of control.

Recent opinion polls have shown support for Catalan independence waning, but they also show that most people in the region want the right to vote on Catalonia’s future.

Catalonia is led by a fragile coalition, and its government has struggled to maintain unity at times as it pursues a unilateral path toward independence. On Wednesday, Miquel Iceta, the leader of the Socialist Party of Catalonia, called on the regional government to abandon plans for the October referendum and stop fueling a secessionist conflict, “which will lead us all toward disaster.”

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