'Everything prepared' for Catalan vote, but Madrid says it won't happen

Courts have ordered police to cordon off schools scheduled to be used as ballot stations.

Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont arrives to give a speech in Barcelona on 20 September 2017. Picture: AFP.

BARCELONA - Catalonia’s leader made clear his government was determined to go ahead with a Sunday vote on independence that Madrid calls illegal and which has thrust Spain into its most dramatic political crisis for decades.

The central government, which has sent thousands of police reinforcements to the region to prevent people from voting, meanwhile insisted on Friday the referendum would not happen.

“Everything is prepared at the more than 2,000 voting points so they have ballot boxes and voting slips, and have everything people need to express their opinion,” Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont told Reuters in an interview on Friday.

At a news conference on Friday, regional officials displayed one of the white plastic ballot boxes, bearing the crest of the regional government. Puigdemont has said more than 6,000 of them are hidden in a secret place.

Courts have ordered police to cordon off schools scheduled to be used as ballot stations. In a bid to keep them open, parents have called for a mass school sleepover this weekend, with tents and sleeping bags, free paella and cinema. Organisers said 60,000 had already registered to participate.

Separatists have called on people to turn out early at polling stations in a mass statement of “peaceful resistance”, even if they are prevented from voting.

“I don’t believe there will be anyone who will use violence or who will want to provoke violence that will tarnish the irreproachable image of the Catalan independence movement as a pacifist,” Puigdemont said.

CRIMINAL CHARGES

Madrid, which claims the authority of a constitution that declares the country to be indivisible, remained implacably opposed to the vote, but also expressed the hope Sunday would be peaceful.

“I insist that there will be no referendum on 1 October,” central government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo told a news conference following the weekly cabinet meeting. He said organisers would face criminal charges for trying to hold it.

Hundreds of thousands of Catalans have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest against Madrid’s campaign to suppress the referendum. Police have confiscated thousands of voting slips, and courts have fined and threatened to arrest regional officials.

In a sign that large crowds are expected on the streets on Sunday, department store chain El Corte Ingles said it would shut three stores in central Barcelona. The central government said airspace above the city would be partially restricted.

Lines of tractors draped in the red-and-yellow striped Catalan flag left provincial towns on Friday, planning to converge on Barcelona in a sign of support for the referendum.

Catalan leader Puigdemont called on the police not to act in a “political” way when carrying out their duties on Sunday.

“I would like them to use the same standards that the Catalan regional police use. Not political standards, not on political orders, but policing and professional standards,” he said.