Spain's prime minister under fire for botched response to Catalonia independence vote

The brutal, violent response by Spanish security forces to citizens trying vote in the Catalonia independence referendum has shocked the Spanish people and is causing a backlash against the government of Prime Minister Mariana Rajoy. More than 800 Catalonians were injured by Spanish riot police.

Scenes of police wading into crowds assembled outside of polling stations swinging batons and firing rubber bullets played out on TV screens across Spain. Children were clearly visible in the crowds that were assaulted. 

The international reaction has been one of shock and anger. But even pro-union Spanish citizens are criticizing Rajoy for the way he has handled this crisis.

Catalonia unions have called for a general strike on Tuesday. And it is very likely that the street demonstrations have only just begun.


The streets of Barcelona, the Catalan capital, were quiet on Monday, but newspaper editorials said the referendum, in which Catalan officials said 90 percent of voters had chosen to leave Spain, had set the stage for a decisive clash between Madrid and the region.

“It could all get worse,” the moderate Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia said in an editorial after Spanish police used batons and rubber bullets to disrupt the vote, which had been declared illegal by Madrid. Catalan officials said 840 people had been injured.

“We’re entering a phase of strikes and street protests ... and with more movement, more repression.”

Catalonia is a centre of industry and tourism accounting for a fifth of Spain’s economy, a production base for major multi-nationals from Volkswagen to Nestle, and home to Europe’s fastest-growing sea port. Although it already has extensive autonomy, its tax revenues are crucial to Spain’s state budget.

Catalonia’s regional leader, Carles Puigdemont, declared on Sunday that voters had earned the right to independence and said he would present the results to the region’s parliament, which then had the power to move a motion of independence.

What is incomprehensible about the Spanish government's handling of this crisis was that the vote had absolutely no legally binding authority. The government had not only declared the vote illegal, but the Spanish supreme court also ruled that the referendum had no legal basis.

Why the massive crackdown on a vote with no real meaning?

Rajoy offered to call all-party political talks on Sunday to “reflect on the future” of Catalonia, but maintained his outright rejection of independence as an option.

The Madrid government’s attempts to prevent Sunday’s referendum through the use of police force brought criticism from fellow members of the European Union, including Britain and Belgium. But there has been silence from the EU itself.

At home, the crisis does not appear to have endangered support for Rajoy’s minority national government, with mainstream parties largely backing his opposition to Catalan independence.

In Rajoy's defense, the pro-union forces in Catalonia were under seige from the minority of pro-independence activists. But in trying to prop up those Catalonians who wish to remain part of Spain, he has angered and alienated a large segment of the population of the province who may have been lukewarm towards independence or on the fence. In other words, Rajoy's over the top response to the vote has polarized the region and made unrest and street violence more likely over the coming months.

The violent scenes of police attacking Spanish citizens will not be forgotten any time soon. And it remains to be seen whether Rajoy's offer of an all-party dialogue will be - or can be - accepted by the pro-independence Catalonian regional government. 


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