Catalan students rally to defend independence vote


Barcelona: Thousands of striking high school and university students rallied in Barcelona Thursday to defend Catalonia’s right to hold an independence referendum which Madrid has vowed to stop.

“We will vote!” and “Independence!” they chanted as they marched along the Gran Via, one of Barcelona’s main avenues, blocking traffic. Many were draped in red and yellow Catalan independence flags.

Barcelona police said 16,000 people took part. Organizers put the figure five times higher at 80,000.

The Catalan government has insisted it will press ahead with Sunday’s plebiscite in the wealthy northeastern region which is home to 7.5 million people, despite a crackdown by Madrid which wants to prevent a vote ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

The showdown is one of Spain’s biggest political crisis since the end of the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco four decades ago and it had deeply divided Catalonia.

Opinion polls show Catalans are split on the issue of independence, but a large majority want to vote in a legitimate referendum to settle the matter.

“The majority of young people are separatists, and if they weren’t, they have become separatist after seeing what Spain has done in recent weeks,” 16-year-old high school student Aina Gonzalez told AFP.

Over the past few days, judges and prosecutors have ordered the seizure of electoral material including millions of ballot papers, the closure of websites linked to the vote and the detention of key members of the team organising the referendum.

The electoral board set up to oversee the vote has been dissolved, and on Wednesday a judge ordered police to prevent public buildings from being used as polling stations.

The crackdown continued Thursday as police seized more than six million ballots and envelopes and 100 ballot boxes at a warehouse in Igualada, a town near Barcelona, a police source said.

It is the first time ballot boxes have been confiscated though it is unclear if they were destined for the referendum, as the company alleges they were for internal elections at the FC Barcelona football club.

– Risk of violence –

Some students have said they may occupy schools and universities that could be used as polling stations, which firefighters and farmers have vowed to protect.

Catalonia’s regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, has warned of the risk of “the disruption of public order” if officers try to prevent people from casting ballots. But Spain’s central government downplayed the risk of violence.

“If the judge’s orders are carried out… there is no reason for there to be a violent response on the part of anybody, and I trust this will be the case,” secretary of state for security, Jose Antonio Nieto, told reporters.

Justice Minister Rafael Catala accused Catalan president Carles Puigdemont of “serious irresponsibility” for pressing ahead with the vote and repeated Madrid’s call that the separatists “stop this process”.

Madrid argues that the referendum is illegal as it goes against the Constitution. Catalonia’s leaders retort they have a right to decide their future even if it not allowed by the Constitution.

– ‘Not solve anything’ –

“This referendum does not solve anything, it is a problem because it pits the two sides of Catalonia against each other,” said Alex Ramos, the vice president of a group that opposes secession called the Sociedad Civil Catalana (SCC).

He said the “silent majority” of Catalans who oppose the referendum would not protest in the streets to avoid raising tensions.

Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau called for European Union mediation in the standoff over the vote in an opinion piece in Britain’s Guardian daily newspaper, writing the city “does not want a collision with unforeseen consequences”.

Meanwhile, media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders complained that journalists were the target of pressure from both the pro and anti-independence camps.

The Bank of Spain warned that political tensions over the independence drive in Catalonia, which accounts for about a fifth of the Spanish economy, put its growth forecasts at risk although it kept them unchanged for this year and the next.

Lorena Torrecillas, a 27-year-old physiotherapist who passed by the student protest, said she opposed independence because the pro-separatist camp had not explained well enough what the advantages of splitting from Spain would be.

“I prefer to remain with what is known than with what will come because it could be very good or very bad,” she told AFP.