by Daniel Bosque and Marianne Barriaux Just two days ahead of an independence referendum in Catalonia opposed by Madrid, Catalan leaders sought Friday to dissipate doubts over how it can go ahead despite a crackdown on preparations for the vote.
Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull told reporters there would be “2,315 polling stations all over the region”, and more than 7,200 people involved in holding Sunday’s referendum which has been ruled unconstitutional by the courts.
At the end of the press briefing, Turull, Catalan Vice-President Oriol Junqueras and Raul Romeva, in charge of foreign relations for the Catalan executive, unveiled a plastic ballot box with a regional government stamp on it.
The authorities in Madrid have instructed police to ensure no votes are cast as they tackle one of the biggest political crises to hit Spain since democracy was restored in the 1970s following the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco.
Police have for days been seizing electoral items such as ballot papers but they have so far failed to find any significant number of ballot boxes.
Over the past few days, judges and prosecutors have also ordered 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 dissolved itself to avoid costly fines, and on Wednesday a judge ordered police to prevent public buildings from being used as polling stations.
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.
– Alternatives -Catalonia’s separatist executive has vowed to go ahead with the vote in the region of some 7.5 million people, which is about the size of Belgium, despite Madrid’s ban.
With firefighters and farmers vowing to protect polling stations, Catalonia’s regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, have warned of the risk of the “disruption of public order” if they try to prevent people from casting ballots.
But Spain’s interior ministry, which is coordinating the security operation for the date of the vote, insists Catalan police must take action.
In case they resist, Madrid has sent thousands of extra police officers from other forces to Catalonia — which accounts for one fifth of Spain’s economy — to help suppress the referendum it deems illegal.
The government has hired three ferries, including one decorated with some “Looney Toons” characters which has been much mocked online, to house the officers in the ports of Barcelona and Tarragona.
Junqueras told reporters that if “someone closes a polling station, there is an alternative for citizens to vote,” without giving further details.
He urged people to vote “responsibly” and “not to yield to provocations of those who want to stop the vote.”
– ‘Many difficulties’ -The crackdown against preparations for the referendum has sparked noisy street protests in Barcelona and other Catalan cities.
“We know that there will be many difficulties on October 1, but we know that for every difficulty there are two solutions,” Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said late on Thursday.
With its own language and customs, Catalonia already has significant powers over matters such as education and healthcare.
But Spain’s economic worries, coupled with a perception that the region pays more in taxes than it receives in investments and transfers from Madrid, have helped push the independence question to centre stage.
During the last regional elections in Catalonia in 2015, pro-separatist parties captured 47.6 percent of the vote, giving them a narrow majority of 72 seats in the 135-seat regional assembly.
The pro-independence camp is “a very, very vocal minority,” said Luis Garicano, a top official with Ciudadanos, the main opposition party in Catalonia which opposes secession.
“It is a very succesful in terms of organisation and communication but it really is, and remains, a minority,” he said during an interview with CNBC television, adding support of independence have never topped 50 percent in Catalan government polls. DM
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