Tension Mounts Ahead Of Catalonia's Controversial Independence Referendum

The autonomous state is set to hold an secession vote on Sunday, which Madrid has deemed “illegal and undemocratic.”

Confusion and chaos are swelling in Spain, where Catalan separatist leaders have vowed to defy the Spanish government and press ahead with their fast-approaching vote for independence.

Where and how the ballots will be cast, however, remains a bit of a mystery.

Catalonia, a wealthy, autonomous region in northeastern Spain that is home to some 7.5 million people, has its own regional government, but still pays federal taxes. As their slogan, “Spain is robbing us,” suggests, secession campaigners believe Catalonia’s economic contribution to Spain is too large.

They have arranged an independence referendum for Sunday, which Madrid has repeatedly deemed “illegal and undemocratic.”

Spain’s Constitutional Court has outlawed the vote, and the Spanish government has made clear that it will never change the Constitution to allow Catalan independence.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has been among the most outspoken opponents of the outlawed plebiscite. 

“Stop this escalation of radicalism and disobedience once and for all,” he urged pro-independence protesters in a televised statement last week. It would be “sensible, reasonable and democratic to stop and say, ‘there won’t be a referendum,’ which [Catalan independence campaigners] know won’t happen,” he later told his supporters.

Flanked by Rajoy in Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump also advocated for Spanish unity at a news conference this week. “It would be foolish for Catalonia to not continue in Spain,” he said. “I think Spain is a great country, and it should remain united.”

Spanish authorities raided Catalan government offices, detained more than a dozen Catalan government officials and seized millions of ballot papers last week as part of a widespread crackdown ahead of the referendum, triggering massive protests.

“Today we can affirm that there will be no effective referendum in Catalonia,” the Spanish government’s representative in Catalonia, Enric Millo, said Tuesday. “All the referendum’s logistics have been dismantled.”

But the vote will be held as planned despite pushback from Madrid, according to Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who accused Rajoy of acting “beyond the limits of a respectable democracy” in his attempt to block the referendum.

“Everything is prepared at the more than 2,000 voting points so they have ballot boxes and voting slips, and have everything people need to express their opinion,” he told Reuters. More than 6,000 boxes are being held in a secret place, he said at a news conference. The Catalan government has instructed voters to print their own ballots.

Thousands of people marched through the streets of Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital, on Friday in support of independence.

Spanish law enforcement officials will guard typical polling locations, like local schools, in an effort to prevent voting on Sunday. It’s unclear to all parties exactly what will happen as the referendum looms.

Read more about Catalonia’s upcoming independence referendum here