Catalonia leader seeks to make independence referendum binding

A Catalan officer stood in front of protesters Monday after violent clashes with police marred Sunday’s voting.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images
A Catalan officer stood in front of protesters Monday after violent clashes with police marred Sunday’s voting.

BARCELONA — The president of Catalonia insisted Monday that Sunday’s independence referendum, though marred by clashes and rejected by the Spanish government, had legitimately endorsed a separate state and that he would press ahead to make the vote binding.

Without specifying when, Carles Puigdemont, who heads all three branches of the Catalan government, said he would submit the result for approval to the regional Parliament.

That could lead to a unilateral declaration of independence and tip the country even deeper into crisis — already one of the worst since the start of Spain’s democracy in the 1970s.


Puigdemont called for international mediation to help resolve the crisis and for the European Union ‘‘to stop looking the other way.’’

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Shortly after midnight Sunday, the Catalan government announced that 90 percent of almost 2.3 million voters had cast ballots in favor of independence. But a consensus on the vote, even among Catalans, was by no means assured, despite Puigdemont’s stated determination.

The referendum’s tallies could not be independently verified; the voting registers used were based on a census whose validity is contested; and, most important, Spain’s constitutional court had ordered that the referendum be suspended.

Rafael Catalá, Spain’s justice minister, warned Monday morning that the central government in Madrid was prepared to use its emergency powers to prevent a unilateral declaration of independence.

Under Spanish law, the government could suspend Puigdemont from office, and take full administrative control of Catalonia.


“If somebody tries to declare the independence of part of the territory — something that cannot be done — we will have to do everything possible to apply the law,” Catalá said on national television Monday.

Most polling stations stayed open Sunday, he said, “because the security forces decided that it wasn’t worth using force because of the consequences that it could have.”

In fact, hundreds of Catalans were injured as Spanish police forces moved in to block the vote.

Puigdemont also called on the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, to “encourage international mediation,” though it has made clear that it considers the dispute internal to Spain.

Catalan separatists face several major hurdles to having the vote recognized as legitimate, in Spain and abroad, though for them, simply holding the referendum amounted to a victory of sorts.


If nothing else, it has helped shift the debate from the issue of independence — which has split Catalans, and for which there had not been majority backing — to the more basic question of whether Catalans have a right to decide on statehood.

In the short term, the police crackdown on the independence movement could help Catalan separatists, who are part of a fragile coalition in the regional government, broaden their support.

On Sunday, Ada Colau, the influential leftist mayor of Barcelona who has been ambivalent about independence, called on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to resign, describing his decision to bring in police officers from around the country as an act of cowardice.

Ernest Urtasun, a leftist Catalan politician, said on Spanish television Monday that “today, Catalan society isn’t discussing whether the result is valid or not, but is in a state of shock about how the voting took place.”

Puigdemont called on Madrid to remove its police forces, which Catalans criticized as having overreacted on Sunday, and said that he would open an investigation into their actions.

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, issued a statement Monday saying he was “very disturbed” by the violence. “I urge the Spanish authorities to ensure thorough, independent, and impartial investigations into all acts of violence,” he said.

Juan Ignacio Zoido, the Spanish interior minister, acknowledged Monday that Catalonia had witnessed “a very sad day,” but he defended the Spanish police and blamed separatist leaders. He said they had pushed Catalans “to the brink of a precipice” by encouraging them to vote in an illegal referendum.

Zoido said the police had intervened only to withdraw election-related equipment, but had been confronted by major obstacles, including voters forming a human chain to stop police officers from leaving polling stations.

“The resistance was passive in some cases, but also active in others,” he told the Spanish broadcaster Antena 3. The clashes, he said, mostly started after police officers were stranded inside polling stations.

The police used rubber bullets, he said, “to avoid something even worse.”