BARCELONA: Catalonia’s leader Carles Puigdemont said the region had won the right to break away from Spain after 90 percent of voters taking part in a banned referendum voted for independence, defying a sometimes violent police crackdown and fierce opposition from Madrid.
His declaration appeared to set the restive region on course for a deeper split with the Spanish government, after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy reiterated his government’s position that the vote was an illegal act, to which the state had reacted “with firmness and serenity.”
Any attempt to unilaterally declare independence is almost certain to be opposed not just by Madrid but also by a large section of the Catalan population which is deeply split on the issue.
The regional government said 2.26 million people actually took part in Sunday’s referendum, or 42.3 percent of the electorate.
A jubilant Puigdemont said his people had “won the right to an independent state” and urged the European Union to stop looking “the other way.”
Puigdemont has said that in the event of a “yes” victory he would declare independence for Catalonia, which accounts for 19 percent of Spain’s economic output.
At least 92 people were confirmed injured out of a total of 844 who needed medical attention, Catalan authorities said.
Further adding to tensions, unions and Catalan associations called a region-wide strike for Tuesday due to “the grave violation of rights and freedoms,” urging people to take to the streets.
Helmeted police armed with batons moved in en masse early Sunday to seal off polling stations and seize ballot boxes, sparking clashes.
Videos posted on social media showed police dragging voters from polling stations by their hair, throwing people down stairs and attacking Catalan firefighters protecting polling stations.
The interior ministry said 33 police required treatment.
Rajoy declared the plebiscite had been blocked, and called the vote a process that “only served to sow division, push citizens to confrontation and the streets to revolt”, but left the door potentially open to negotiations on greater autonomy for the region.
The referendum was organized under the threat of reprisals and criminal charges but thousands of Catalans stood in defiance of the central government crying “Votarem”— “We will vote.”
Puigdemont said in an address after polls closed: “With this day of hope and suffering, the citizens of Catalonia have won the right to an independent state in the form of a republic.”
The referendum law foresees a declaration of independence soon after a “yes” vote but it remains unclear if the regional government will actually do so.
Even before the vote, judicial officials ordered police to seize ballot papers, detain key organizers and shut down websites promoting the referendum after Madrid and the courts deemed it unconstitutional.