Catalans vote to split from Spain amid violent crackdowns at the polls

The Catalan government claimed victory early Monday in a contested referendum on independence from Spain, after Spanish government forces cracked down at polling stations.

Of 2.2 million ballots counted so far, about 90% were in favor of independence, regional government spokesperson Jordi Turull said in a news conference shortly after midnight. Catalonia has 5.3 million total eligible voters.

Turnout would have been higher if not for suppression at the polls by Spanish national police, Turull said. Hundreds were injured Sunday as riot police raided polling stations and fired rubber bullets in a concerted attempt to block what Madrid considers an illegal referendum.

Catalonia’s separatist government pushed forward with the vote despite opposition from Madrid and a ruling from the country’s top court declaring it illegal.

In scenes that reverberated around Spain, riot police smashed their way into some polling locations and beat back voters attempting to take part in the referendum. Regional officials said more than 800 people were injured.

The Spanish Interior Ministry said authorities closed 92 of about 2,300 polling stations; Catalan officials said 319 stations were closed.

Shortly after voting ended, Spain’s Prime Minister said there was no referendum and that most Catalans were fooled into participating in an illegal vote. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who was elected in part on a pledge to maintain national unity and quash the secession movement, stood by the crackdowns.

“The referendum that wanted to liquidate our constitution and separate a part of our country with no regards to the opinion of the whole nation did not came into existence,” he said. “We showed that our democratic state has the means to protect itself from such a serious attack as the one this illegal referendum represented.”

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont called the violence a “shameful page” in the country’s history. He insisted Catalans “won the right to an independent state” in the face of oppression.

“Today Catalonia won many referenda,” he said late Sunday, before preliminary tallies were announced. “We have won the right to be heard, to be respected, and to be recognized. Today, millions of people mobilized and faced all the difficulties and threats, and spoke loud and clear, addressing a message to the world: We have the right to decide our future, we have the right to freedom and to live in peace, without violence and apart from a state that is incapable of proposing a single convincing reason that doesn’t follow the imposition and use of brute force.”

“Today, after a day weighed down by the dignity of the millions of people that made it possible today, Catalonia has gained its sovereignty and full respect,” he said.

The vote risks plunging the country into one of its worst political crises since the end of Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in 1975. Catalonia has its own regional government, with considerable powers over healthcare, education and tax collection. But Catalonia has long complained that its revenues subsidize other parts of Spain. Catalan nationalists argue the region is a separate nation with its own history, culture and language, and that it should have increased fiscal independence.

The long-running dispute goes back to the brutal years under Franco, whose dictatorial regime repressed Catalonia’s earlier limited autonomy. It wasn’t until 1979, four years after his death, that the region gained full autonomy.

In 2006, the Spanish government backed Catalonia’s calls for greater powers granting nation status and financial control to the region. Four years later, that status was rescinded by the Constitutional Court, which ruled that while Catalan is a “nationality,” Catalonia is not a nation itself.