BARCELONA: At least 10,000 striking high school and university students rallied in Barcelona on 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.
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 crises 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 said.
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.
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.
Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2017