Tensions high as Catalonia readies for disputed independence vote

Supporters of Catalan independence maintained their standoff with the Spanish government Saturday as they prepared to hold a fiercely disputed referendum.

Parents even occupied schools into the weekend in a bid to prevent police from restricting access so they can't be used as polling stations on Sunday.

Huge crowds massed in Barcelona, the regional capital, on Friday night for a final campaign rally by independence supporters, many waving the distinctive Catalan flag aloft.

At one point, dozens of representatives of Catalan civil society, from firemen to teachers and religious leaders, came on stage together to spell out the sentence "referendum is democracy," as the crowds cheered.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont then gave a rousing call for people to go out and vote despite the obstacles.

"We are people who have experience with difficulties and every difficultly makes us stronger," he said. "Friends, so that victory is definite, on Sunday let's dress up in referendum (clothes) and leave home prepared to change history, to end the process and start progress, social progress, economic progress and cultural and national progress."

Spain's central government has issued stern warnings against the referendum -- which the country's highest court has barred as unconstitutional -- seized ballot papers and drafted in thousands of extra national police, or Guardia Civil, in a bid to prevent it going ahead.

On Saturday, Guardia Civil officers also raided the Catalan government's telecommunications and information technology center, Joan Maria Piqué, the international communications director for the government of Catalonia, told CNN.

According to Piqué, the raid was intended to stop the use of vote-counting software linked to Sunday's referendum. He added that the Catalan government has an alternative to the software that was taken down by the Guardia Civil.

In defiance of the government's stance, Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull told reporters Friday that there would be 2,315 polling stations where people can vote across the region, mostly inside schools.

José Maria Salvatierra, a 55-year-old public worker, is a polling coordinator at one of those schools. He told CNN that parents have planned activities such as soccer games and karaoke discos over the weekend so that police won't have a legal reason to close the schools. Parents have also arranged to sleep in shifts on site as an additional precaution, he said.

"What we want, most of all, is to be able to vote. Then, if 'Yes' or 'No' it's up to each person," Salvatierra said.

Increased tensions

Public support for the referendum within Catalonia, a wealthy region in Spain's northeast, has become increasingly vocal as the vote has neared.

More than 5.3 million voters are on the electoral roll, according to the Catalan government. They will be asked to respond yes or no to the question: "Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state, in the form of a Republic?"

The Catalan government has not yet made clear how it will respond if the plebiscite results in a "yes" vote. However, Carles Mundo, Catalonia's Minister of Justice, told reporters there was no minimum participation level required for the referendum result to be binding.

Regardless, Spain's central government insists the referendum is illegal, must not go ahead and that the result will not be recognized.

Tensions have increased as the vote approaches, although the situation has so far remained peaceful even as each side has hardened its position.

In one development Friday, a Spanish court ordered Google to remove a voting location app from its Play Store, saying it was helping Catalan separatists to organize in advance of the disputed referendum.

Piqué told CNN that police entered the offices of a company that works for Google to execute the Catalonia high court order to delete the "On Votar 1-Oct" app and that some people were held for a few hours.

Google also was ordered to block other future applications put forward by the developer, which had used an email that includes the vote's date.

A Google spokesperson told CNN that Google doesn't have an office in Barcelona and that no one from the company has been detained. In a statement, Google Spain wrote: "We only remove content from our platforms to comply with a valid court order or when it violates our policies."

The Spanish Data Protection Agency also warned Friday that anyone working in the polling stations could be fined up to 300,000 euros ($354,000) for doing so.

'Right to choose'

Catalans who spoke to CNN in Barcelona stressed that what they wanted was the freedom to exercise their democratic right to hold a vote, whatever the outcome. Some had come to the University of Barcelona to pick up ballot papers handed out by student associations, in case police confiscated more election material.

Ramon Hernández, 80, said: "I think it's about democracy and liberty. We want to be able to express our opinion, even the ones who don't want to be independent."

Raul Robert, 43, an industrial engineer, said: "I don't feel like an independentist nor Catalan for that matter but I think every people must be given the right to choose its own destiny. I think it's a matter of democratic rights."

Robert added that he would much rather live in a place allows the democratic right to vote than one that doesn't.

Catalonia has its own regional government -- or Generalitat -- which already has considerable powers over healthcare, education and tax collection.

But Catalan nationalists want more, arguing that they are a separate nation with their own history, culture and language and that they should have increased fiscal independence. Many complain that Catalonia ends up subsidizing other parts of Spain.

This BBSNews article was syndicated from News | WPLG, and written by News | WPLG. Read the original article here.