October 1, 2017 / 4:03 AM / 3 months ago

Catalan leader opens door to secession from Spain after vote

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Catalonia’s regional leader opened the door to a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain on Sunday after voters defied a violent police crackdown and, according to regional officials, voted 90 percent in favour of breaking away.

Despite Spanish police using batons and rubber bullets to disrupt the banned referendum, which was declared unconstitutional by Madrid, the Catalan government said 2.26 million people had cast ballots, a turnout of about 42 percent.

Carles Puigdemont’s comments followed a television address by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who ruled out independence and accused separatists of trying to “blackmail ... the whole nation”. He offered all-party talks on the region’s future.

Catalan officials say more than 800 people were injured in clashes with Spanish riot police during the referendum, which has pitched the country into its deepest constitutional crisis in decades and deepened a rift between Madrid and Barcelona.

“On this day of hope and suffering, Catalonia’s citizens have earned the right to have an independent state in the form of a republic,” Puigdemont said in a televised address.

“My government, in the next few days will send the results of today’s vote to the Catalan Parliament, where the sovereignty of our people lies, so that it can act in accordance with the law of the referendum,” he said.

The law of the referendum, deemed unconstitutional by Madrid, foresees a unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament if the majority votes to leave Spain. The law does not set a minimum turnout for the outcome to be valid.

The results announced early on Monday were not a surprise, given that many unionists were not expected to turn out to vote.

Earlier in the day, the streets of Catalonia, an industrial and tourism powerhouse accounting for a fifth of Spain’s economy, erupted into violence as national police burst into polling stations with batons, dragging voters away.

The action drew criticism at home and abroad. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson voiced worries over the violence while backing Madrid’s view that the vote was unconstitutional.

Spain’s deputy prime minister said force used by the police had been proportionate.

“The absolute irresponsibility of the regional government has had to be met by the security forces of the state,” said Soraya Saenz de Santamaria.

A woman (C) is applauded by people as she leaves a polling station after casting her vote for the banned independence referendum in Barcelona, Spain, October 1, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina

The euro lost about a third of a U.S. cent after the violence-marred vote before steadying. It touched a low of $1.1776 in thin Asian trade but soon steadied at $1.1801.

In the run-up to the referendum, Puigdemont had said he would move to a declaration of independence within 48 hours of a “yes” vote. But the fragmented nature of the polling, with many voting stations closed, could complicate any move to a formal declaration.

Puigdemont called on Europe to step in to make sure fundamental rights were fully respected.

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In another sign tensions would endure beyond the vote, secessionist groups and trade unions in Catalonia called a general strike for Tuesday, La Vanguardia newspaper said.

Catalan officials said 844 people had been injured in the police crackdown and the Spanish Interior Ministry said 12 police officers had been hurt.

“I propose that all political parties with parliamentary representation meet and, together, reflect on the future we all face,” Rajoy said in his televised address.

Opinion polls had shown around 40 percent of the northeastern region wanted independence from Spain although a majority were in favour of a referendum on the issue.

National police sent in to Catalonia for the referendum swept into polling stations, hitting people with batons, firing rubber bullets into crowds and forcibly removing would-be voters from polling stations, some dragged away by their hair.

“Regardless of views on independence, we should all condemn the scenes being witnessed and call on Spain to change course before someone is seriously hurt,” Scotland’s pro-independence leader, Nicola Sturgeon, said on Twitter.

Despite the national police action, some polling stations remained open, especially in areas supervised by the Catalan police force which adopted much milder tactics.

“I‘m so pleased because despite all the hurdles they’ve put up, I’ve managed to vote,” said Teresa, a 72-year-old pensioner in Barcelona who had stood in line for six hours to vote.

The ballot will have no legal status as it has been blocked by Spain’s Constitutional Court which ruled it at odds with the 1978 constitution that effectively restored democracy in Spain after the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

Additional reporting by Angus Berwick in Sant Pere de Torello, and Adrian Croft, Sonya Dowsett and Julien Toyer in Madrid; Writing by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Sandra Maler

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