Catalonia's banned independence referendum plunges Spain into biggest crisis since Franco

Catalan students rally in favor of independence referendumIBT

Thousands of students marched through Barcelona on Thursday (28 September) to protest against Spain's crackdown on Catalonia's independence referendum, planned for Sunday 1 October, but outlawed by central government. Many carried the red and yellow Catalan separatist flag known as the Estelada. Others wore masks depicting the unlikely hero of the pro-independence bloc – the cartoon character Tweety Pie.

Students with Tweety masks take part in a pro-referendum demonstration in BarcelonaJosep Lago/AFP
Students wearing Tweety Pie masks take part in a pro-referendum demonstration in BarcelonaJosep Lago/AFP
Students wearing Tweety Pie masks take part in a pro-referendum demonstration in BarcelonaJosep Lago/AFP
A Tweety Pie fluffy toy sits under a banner depicting Pablo Picasso's painting Guernica, depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil WarDavid Ramos/Getty Images
28 September: Students hold up ballot boxes and pictures of Tweety Pie to protest against the Spanish government's banning of the independence referendumDavid Ramos/Getty Images
A tourist wrapped in an Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) takes a photo of a poster featuring Tweety Pie outside the University of BarcelonaJon Nazca/Reuters

The yellow canary, known in Spain as Piolin, became a symbol of the referendum when central government sent a Looney Tunes-themed cruise liner to Barcelona to help house the thousands of national police it is deploying to stop Catalonia holding an independence referendum.

A ship decorated with Looney Toons characters is seen moored in Barcelona's port on 21 SeptemberJosep Lago/AFP
25 September: The Looney Toons characters are covered up on a ship moored in Barcelona's harbour to house police reinforcementsJosep Lago/AFP
26 September: People wave Spanish flags and cheer as Civil Guards depart their command centre in Algeciras and head to Catalonia to reinforce the banning of the independence referendumReuters

The banned referendum has plunged Spain into its biggest political crisis since the restoration of democracy in the 1970s after decades of military dictatorship. The central government has carried out raids on Catalan government buildings, arrested regional officials and confiscated voting material in a bid to halt the poll which it says contravenes the constitution.

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People throw ballot papers from a building on Sant Jaume square in Barcelona on 23 SeptemberLluis Gene/AFP
27 September: A protestor holds a ballot paper with the proposed question for a referendum on breaking away from Spain during a protest outside of Catalonia's Supreme Court in BarcelonaAlbert Gea/Reuters
A pro-referendum demonstrator paints the word "Yes" on the ground during a demonstration outside Barcelona's university on 24 SeptemberJosep Lago/AFP
23 September: A youth puts up posters at a bus stop in Barcelona advising people to vote 'No' in the banned independence referendumJon Nazca/Reuters
28 September: Firefighters hang a huge banner in favour of the banned October 1 independence referendum at the Museum of Catalan History in Barcelona's Old PortJon Nazca/Reuters
28 September: Firefighters hang a huge banner in favour of the banned October 1 independence referendum at the Museum of Catalan History in Barcelona's Old PortJon Nazca/Reuters

Catalonia's prosecutor has ordered the regional police – known as the Mossos d'Esquadra – to take control of any voting booths by Saturday. The prosecutor's office said they would take the names of anyone participating in the vote and confiscate relevant documents. Anyone in possession of the keys or entrance codes to a polling booth could be considered a collaborator to crimes of disobedience, malfeasance and misappropriation of funds.

Catalonia's interior minister says the region's authorities are aiming to ensure that the disputed referendum will take place peacefully. Joaquin Forn says that officials are determined to proceed with the vote, even though Spain's government says it's illegal and can't happen.

Forn says the central government is deploying 10,000 police officers in Catalonia for the ballot. He insisted, however, that the Catalan police force take their orders from local authorities. The force's loyalty has been torn between the central and regional governments.

A woman puts flowers on the windshield of a vehicle of Catalan police, known as Mossos d'Esquadra, during a pro-referendum rally in Barcelona on 24 SeptemberJosep Lago/AFP
Catalan regional police officers, Mossos D'Esquadra, try to disperse protesters in front of the headquarters of Catalonia's foreign affairs ministry in BarcelonaPau Barrena/AFP

Catalan separatists, led by Carles Puigdemont, have vowed to defy Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government. Catalonians say their desire for independence is fuelled by their unique identity, as well as their quest for a better future. They say that Catalonia, one of Spain's wealthiest autonomous communities, is transferring too much in tax revenues to poorest regions and would be better off economically if it was independent.

Catalonia has its own culture and language. Catalan, which is spoken alongside Spanish, was banned from schools and public use during General Francisco Franco's fascist dictatorship from 1939-1975.

Students gather in Barcelona to demonstrate against the Spanish government's banning of the independence referendum Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Catalan firefighters take part in a pro-referendum march in BarcelonaDan Kitwood/Getty Images
Students gather in Barcelona to demonstrate against the Spanish government's banning of the independence referendum Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
26 September 2017: A woman walks over a pedestrian crossing, painted in the form of an Estelada (Catalan pro-independence flag) in Arenys de Munt, north of BarcelonaAlbert Gea/Reuters
28 September: Students pass in front of an Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) at Barcelona universityJuan Medina/Reuters
28 September: Students carry an Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) as they attend a demonstration in favour of the banned independence referendum in BarcelonaJuan Medina/Reuters
Students draped in Catalan pro-independence flags leave the University of Barcelona prior to a demonstration on 28 SeptemberDavid Ramos/Getty Images
A young boy plays with a Catalan flag during a pro-independence rally in Barcelona on 24 SeptemberDavid Ramos/Getty Images
27 September: A man wears a T-shirt referring to the date of the fall of Barcelona during the War of the Spanish SuccessionPau Barrena/AFP

The Catalan government says it will unilaterally declare independence within 48 hours of a "yes" vote. It would then begin to write a new constitution and build up the structures of the new state, like a treasury, a central bank or an army.

Since Madrid considers the vote illegal, it would swiftly act to prevent the Catalan government doing this. The "nuclear option" would be to exercise Article 155 of the constitution, which grants Madrid the power to suspend the regional government's authority to rule.

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