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Everything you need to know about the Catalan referendum

Violent clashes are taking place in Barcelona and other areas of the Spanish region as would-be voters face off against police.

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Spanish riot police have smashed their way into polling stations to try to halt a disputed independence referendum and fired rubber bullets at protesters outside a Barcelona polling station.

The officers opened fire on Sunday morning while clearing protesters who were trying to prevent cars from the national police force from leaving after officers confiscated ballot boxes from the voting centre.

How have relations between Catalans seeking independence and the Spanish government descended to this? Here’s what you need to know.

Why do some in Catalonia want a referendum?

Over previous centuries, the language and culture of the Catalan region was suppressed by successive Spanish governments. After the death of dictator Francisco Franco, Catalan culture experienced a resurgence, along with calls for independence.

Currently, Catalonia is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions and enjoys a relatively large level of autonomy, except over the areas of infrastructure and taxes. It is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions with its own language and a population of 7.5 million.

Pro-Spanish unity demonstrators march in downtown Barcelona on Sunday (Enric Marti/AP)
Pro-Spanish unity demonstrators march in downtown Barcelona on Sunday (Enric Marti/AP)

Following the global economic downturn of 2008, separatist Catalans felt disproportionately affected by cuts and economic hardship, fuelling renewed calls for independence.

However, not all in the region agree. As some went to cast ballots, other citizens boycotted the vote – and even protested against it – calling for a united Spain.

Is the referendum legally binding?

One of the ballot papers printed for the vote (Bob Edme/AP)
One of the ballot papers printed for the vote (Bob Edme/AP)

On September 6, the Catalan regional parliament approved a referendum on independence, agreeing the question on the ballot paper would read: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?”.

The Spanish government and its security forces are trying to prevent voting in the referendum. Spain’s Constitutional Court has suspended the vote, but regional separatist leaders pledged to hold it anyway, promising to declare independence if the “yes” side wins. They have called on 5.3 million eligible voters to cast ballots.

Are people being allowed to vote?

A woman raises her fist into the air (Bob Edme/AP)
A woman celebrates casting her ballot in Gracia, Barcelona (Bob Edme/AP)

Since the Spanish government considers the vote illegal, it has ordered police to stop the voting process.

In the days before the vote, more than 10 million ballot papers were confiscated and key officials arrested.

In the hours before the polls opened, police moved to seal off many voting centres. But some centres were filled with activists determined to hold their ground.

Pro-referendum supporters sleep at a school listed to be a polling station by the Catalan government (Felipe Dana/AP)
Pro-referendum supporters sleep at a school listed as a polling station (Felipe Dana/AP)

As well as removing the physical ability of many to place a vote, Civil Guard agents also dismantled the technology to connect voting stations, count the votes and vote online, leading the Spanish government to announce that holding the referendum would now be “impossible”.

Spanish riot police forcefully removed a few hundred would-be voters from a polling station at a school in Barcelona, with footage of the incident showing violent clashes.

Police have also stormed other community centres and schools designated as polling stations by the Catalan regional authorities.

So far, Catalonia’s government has said 337 people have been injured in the clashes, some seriously.

How is the world reacting?

Nicola Sturgeon, head of the Scottish National Party, called on the Spanish authorities to let the vote press ahead peacefully.

Jeremy Corbyn condemned “police violence against citizens”, and the Belgian prime minister called for political dialogue.

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