Spanish police confronted voters in the region of Catalan and began seizing ballot boxes at polling stations to try and stop an independence referendum that authorities in Madrid have called “illegal” and have vowed to block.
Riot police and voters shoved each other at one polling station in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, on October 1 shortly after polls opened at 9 a.m. Hundreds of would-be voters were forcefully removed from a station at a city school, AP reported, quoting witnesses at the scene.
Just before voting was to start, Catalan government officials said voters could print out ballots at home and cast them at any polling station not closed down by police.
"We have been made to do something we didn't want to do," Enric Millo, the Spanish government's representative in Catalonia, told a news conference.
"It's all a sham, a farce. It is the first time in history that the rules of the game are changed 45 minutes before the start of voting," Millo said.
Many referendum supporters had been holding out at the schools, playing games with their children and bedding down in sleeping bags in an effort to keep the sites open until balloting starts.
The proposed referendum has raised tensions in the Catalan region and throughout the rest of Spain since Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont on September 10 declared "everything ready" for the referendum.
Puigdemont cast his ballot in Cornella del Terri in the province of Girona, a different place from where he was initially supposed to vote.
The vote has sparked the country’s worst constitutional crisis in decades and raised concerns of violence as a test of will between Madrid and Barcelona plays out.
In defiance of central authorities, the regional government secretly created ballots, formed electoral rolls, organized polling stations, and made other moves to prepare for the referendum.
Puigdemont had said that the government could move within 48 hours to declare independence if the "yes" vote won, but other officials have since said the national government’s crackdown on the referendum has undermined the vote.
Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis on September 30 said the referendum was unconstitutional and that referendums have become "the instrument of choice of dictators" and are counter to the “goals and ideals" of the European Union.
"What they are pushing is not democracy. It is a mockery of democracy, a travesty of democracy," Dastis told the AP.
Some 5.3 million people are eligible to vote, but many who oppose independence have said they will not take part in the referendum.
Polls indicate a minority of around 40 percent of the region’s total 7.5 million Catalans support independence, although a majority of residents in the region nonetheless want the referendum to be carried out.