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Protesters gather in Barcelona as Catalan referendum dealt a blow

Pro-referendum demonstrators protest in front of Spanish National Police officers during a demonstration near the Economy headquarters of Catalonia’s regional government in Barcelona on September 20, 2017.<br />Thousands took to the streets of Barcelona as Spanish police detained 13 Catalan government officials in a crackdown ahead of an independence referendum which Madrid says is illegal. With tensions mounting, separatist organisations called for more people to protest as leaders in the northeastern region pressed ahead with preparations for the October 1 vote despite Madrid’s ban and a court ruling deeming it unconstitutional. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO¬†

Catalonia’s vice-president admitted Thursday that plans to hold an outlawed independence referendum had been dealt a major blow by a crackdown the previous day, as people gathered in Barcelona for a second day of protests.

Thousands took to the streets of the Mediterranean seaside city on Wednesday after police detained key members of the team organising the vote slated for October 1 in a region deeply divided over independence.

Authorities seized nearly 10 million ballots destined for the vote, seriously damaging separatist plans for a referendum with a semblance of legitimacy, even if it was never going to be recognised by Madrid or abroad.

After a day-long protest that lasted well into the night, several thousand independence supporters gathered again Thursday in front of the high court in what influential separatist organisations said would be a “permanent mobilisation” until the officials are freed.

Oriol Junqueras, the region’s vice-president whose deputy was among those arrested, told Catalonia’s TV3 television that the operation meant “the rules of the game have been changed.”

“The circumstances today are different because a significant part of our team, half of the economics team, has been arrested,” he said.

“That (the referendum) cannot be held in the circumstances that we wanted is obvious,” he said, adding he was convinced the “majority” of Catalans wanted to vote.

Police have also seized over 45,000 notifications destined for Catalans selected to staff polling stations, threatened to arrest mayors who facilitate the vote if they do not comply with a criminal probe and tightened control over the region’s finances.

The confiscation of millions of ballot papers on Wednesday delivered an added blow to referendum plans.

Divisions
In a televised statement on Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called on Catalonia’s separatist leaders to “stop this escalation of radicalism and disobedience once and for all”.

“There is still time to avoid bigger problems,” he said.

A spokesman for Spain’s interior ministry said three of the 14 detained had already been released.

And Inigo Mendez de Vigo, a spokesman for the Spanish government, downplayed the importance of the protests.

“There are more people who don’t protest than who do,” he said during an interview with Onda Cero radio.

But Junqueras vowed “to make October 1 possible in the best conditions,” though he did not say how.

Polls show that while Catalans are sharply divided on whether they want independence or not, a large majority would like to vote to settle the matter.

But Madrid is against it, pointing to the constitution which states that the unity of the Spanish nation is “unbreakable” and that only the central government has the power to call a referendum on any matter.

Separatists in Catalonia, a region with its own language and customs, have responded they have a democratic right to decide on their future.

Pro-separatist parties captured 47.6 percent of the vote in a September 2015 Catalan election which was billed as a proxy vote on independence, giving them a narrow majority of 72 seats in the 135-seat Catalan parliament.

But a survey commissioned by the regional government in July showed that 49.4 percent of Catalans were against independence while 41.1 percent were in favour.

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