Tens of thousands of secessionist Catalans have taken to the streets in Barcelona to promote the ‘Yes’ campaign in their final rally ahead of the controversial referendum on independence from mainland Spain.
Organizers said around 100,000 Barcelona residents took part in the mass demonstration on Friday evening amid attempts by the central Madrid government to disrupt the independence referendum, which it views as illegal.
Addressing the rally, Carles Puigdemont, the president of the autonomous region, said Catalonia has already won against the government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whom he accused of being “authoritarian.”
“Today we won against the fear and threats, we won against the pressure, the lies and the intimidation, we won against an authoritarian government who didn’t want us to get to this point,” said the leader.
The referendum, which is planned for Sunday, is considered by the central government as a violation of the constitution.
In order to halt the vote, Madrid has increased pressure on Catalan officials over the past week. It has deployed thousands of extra police from across the country to Catalonia to stop the vote.
The government also announced it would block access to public buildings designated as polling stations.
In a show of defiance, some 30 pro-independence activists occupied a school in central Barcelona, saying they were “defending the place where we want to vote.” People living in the vicinity of the school gathered in solidarity with the activists.
Meanwhile, some 70 other residents camped outside a retirement home in Barcelona to prevent police from shutting down the facility.
Spain’s military police also raided Catalan government offices, during which at least 14 junior officials and associates were arrested and almost 10 million ballot papers were seized.
The websites informing Catalans about the election have been shut down. Google has also deleted a smartphone application publicized by the regional Catalan officials aimed at directing voters to their nearest polling stations.
The regional government has, however, vowed that poll will go ahead on Sunday despite Madrid’s crackdown.
‘Catalonia perpetrating coup’
Spain’s main opposition party, known as Citizens–Party of the Citizenry also rushed to the central government’s help, holding a counter-rally in Barcelona on Friday against Catalonia’s separation from Spain.
The party’s spokesperson Miguel Garcia accused Catalan officials of “side-stepping the Constitution” and “perpetrating a coup d’état.”
As tensions rise over the vote, the mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau called on the European Union to help resolve the conflict. She also blamed the central government for worsening the situation.
“Given the seriousness of the situation in Catalonia…it is my obligation as mayor of its capital, Barcelona, to call on the European Commission to open space for mediation between the Spanish and Catalan governments to find a negotiated and democratic solution to the conflict,” she wrote in an editorial published in The Guardian newspaper.
“The Catalan question has become Europe’s most serious territorial crisis in recent years,” she added.
Catalonia’s head of foreign affairs, Raul Romeva, also urged the EU to take steps over the issue.
“Democracy in Spain decays day by day. Spain is a member of the EU, so the European Commission can no longer argue that it is an internal affair,” Romeva said.
Catalonia, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, held a symbolic referendum back in November 2014, in which more than 80 percent of the 2.3 million people who cast ballots backed independence for the region, according to Catalan officials.