- - Wednesday, September 20, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain — A battle over the future of Spain is intensifying as conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the central government in Madrid are on a collision course with a left-wing separatist movement in Catalonia, the country’s richest region, over a planned referendum on independence, which Spanish high courts have declared illegal and many fear will explode into violence as federal security forces try to block the vote.

Catalonia’s capital, Barcelona, is a center of industry and culture, equivalent to Spain’s California or New York, whose secession could lead to an unraveling of the Spanish state. With its own language and a tradition of suspicion toward Madrid, Catalonia was the bastion of communist and anarchist forces during Spain’s 1930s civil war, nurturing strong regional parties that have dominated its politics since Spain restored democracy in the 1970s.

Defiant crowds gathered outside government buildings in Barcelona on Wednesday in an effort to prevent police from carrying away 16 local officials accused of using public funds to finance the referendum. It was part of a massive security operation underway since last week aimed at neutralizing any vote. Federal authorities also seized 10 million ballot papers printed for the planned Oct. 1 provincial vote.

In a televised address Wednesday night, Mr. Rajoy warned local officials directly of “greater harm” if they don’t drop the referendum bid, which he called a “totalitarian act,” according to an account by The Associated Press.

“If you care about the tranquility of most Catalans, give up this escalation of radicalism and disobedience,” he said. “You still have time to avoid a greater harm.”

Some were predicting Madrid’s hard line could backfire, sparking sympathy for the independence movement as polls show Catalans sharply divided over the idea of breaking away.

Thousands of Spanish national police and gendarmes have fanned out across Catalonia to search political party offices, warehouses and private homes. They have confiscated literature, ballot boxes, voter registrations and other electoral material with the aim of neutralizing the referendum’s logistics.

Court citations have been issued to 721 Catalan mayors who support the referendum, and separatist websites have been closed in acts that Carles Puigdemont, president of the Catalan regional government, has equated to martial law.

Among the Catalan regional government figures reportedly swept up in the arrests: Josep Maria Jove, secretary general of economic affairs, and Lluis Salvado, secretary of taxation.

“The central government has intervened against the rightfully elected authorities of Catalonia,” Mr. Puigdemont told a press conference on Wednesday as some of his closest aides were being taken to jail.

Mr. Puigdemont is supported by Spain’s leftist Podemos party, whose leaders recall the Franco dictatorship’s crackdown on any manifestation of regionalism. Opinion polls show that 65 percent of Spaniards support Mr. Rajoy’s crackdown.

While pro-independence protesters take the streets of Barcelona, spontaneous shouts of “Long live Spain” are increasingly heard at bars and cafes throughout the rest of the country. Insulting Catalan independence leaders has become as popular as cheering the Real Madrid football team.

Write-in ballots

Mr. Puigdemont has refused to call off the Oct. 1 vote and urged supporters to turn out with write-in ballots and cast them at improvised polling stations that will be set up at party offices, homes and other private premises. Police have closed off town halls and schools that are normally used in elections.

Catalan leaders have said they will declare independence from Spain if they win the referendum by a single vote, in a referendum in which only the “yes” side can be expected to participate.

The looming threat of violence was illustrated by the presence of a notorious militant of the Basque terrorist organization ETA, Arnaldo Otegui, at a half-million-strong independence march in Barcelona last week.

“As far as we know, Catalan officials only have a plan A, which mainly involves strengthening their hand with Madrid,” said one well-known local political analyst, who declined to be quoted by name because of threats critics of the independence movement have received. “But there are more radical actors who have a plan B and may seek to use Catalonia’s frustrated national aspirations to mount a violent separatist movement of the type which plagued the Basque region for a generation.”

Factions of the pro-independence CUP party, the main driver of the independence referendum, have participated in training camps and indoctrination courses organized by the Basque youth movement JARRAI, which served as a support group and recruiting pool for ETA, according to sources of the Spanish gendarmerie, the Guardia Civil.

A CUP faction called ARRAN has circulated threats through social media against elected Catalan officials representing Spain’s national parties, including mainstream opposition social democrats, showing their names and pictures with guns pointed at their heads.

Anti-referendum mayors and town councilors say that their children have been harassed and bullied at schools and that spray-painted graffiti and other acts of vandalism have defaced their homes.

ARRAN leader Mar Ampurdans has called on militants to “take Barcelona” on the day of the referendum, saying that “independence will be achieved only through pressure from the streets.”

Fears of growing unrest and lack of legal protection could be causing a capital flight from Catalonia. The region has lost almost $2 billion in private investment since last year, according to Spain’s Mercantile registry. Eight thousand companies have transferred their headquarters from Barcelona, according to the source, including several U.S. and European multinationals, according to the U.S.-Spain Chamber of Commerce.

Spanish government security forces have chartered three cruise ships to billet 4,000 national police officers and Guardia Civil gendarmes being deployed to Catalonia. Police officials say the reinforcements would not be as secure at hotels or guest houses under current conditions.

Security analysts also say that the army is deploying armored personnel carriers painted in police colors.

The vote is being planned as Barcelona reels from a string of deadly terrorist attacks in and around the city Aug. 17 carried out by a previously unknown cell of local Muslim youths. The clash is drawing in even those not normally associated with politics.

Barcelona’s world-famous soccer team put out a statement saying it “condemns any act that may impede the free exercise of [democratic] rights.” The soccer team vowed to “continue to support the will of the majority of Catalan people and will do so in a civil, peaceful and exemplary way.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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