We love Spain, but we’ll vote on independence: Catalan leaders

MADRID: The stand-off between Spain’s central government and secessionists in Catalonia showed no sign of letting up on Friday, with only one day to go before an unauthorised independence referendum in the north-eastern region.
The Spanish government has pledged to stop the October 1 vote after it was invalidated by the Constitutional Court. Police have arrested pro-independence officials and seized millions of ballot papers, including 2.5 million found on Thursday.
“We want to express our respect, our esteem and, if you allow me, our love towards Spain,” Catalonia deputy regional leader Oriol Junqueras said in a Friday press conference in Barcelona, hours before a final Yes campaign rally in the city.
Yet, Madrid’s anti-referendum plans “do not weaken, but strengthen” Catalan authorities’ resolve to do “everything possible to allow all citizens to vote,” he added, while Catalan Foreign Minister Raul Romeva i Rueda said they exercise would be “absolutely peaceful.”
In a pro-referendum mobilisation, Catalonia’s farmers drove more than 2,150 tractors through the region’s main cities, including some 400 in Barcelona, the Unio de Pagesos trade union said, as quoted by the Europa Press news agency.
Spanish and Catalan police have been ordered to seal off schools, which usually serve as polling stations. Junqueras said “there will be alternatives” if they cannot be used.
More than 5.3 million Catalans will be eligible to vote in 2,315 polling stations from 9 am to 8 pm (0700-1800 GMT), Catalan authorities estimated, as they unveiled a prototype plastic ballot box.
In Madrid, after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy chaired a cabinet meeting, Spanish government spokesman and Education Minister Inigo Mendez de Vigo said the government would “defend the constitutional unity of Spain.”
He warned Catalan leaders, who have already been threatened with arrest, of “financial and personal” consequences if they insist on forging ahead with a “pretend referendum” with no legal basis and improvised procedures.
Earlier this week, former Catalan president Artur Mas and three of his ex-ministers were fined 5.2 million euros ($6.1 million) by the Spanish court of auditors for wasting public money on a previous unofficial referendum, in 2014.
Amid doubts about the readiness of Catalonia’s autonomous police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, to implement anti-referendum measures dictated by Madrid, Mendez de Vigo said: “I am absolutely sure that they will apply the law.”
When it called the referendum this month, the Catalan parliament said a Yes victory would be followed by a declaration of independence within 48 hours. In response, Rajoy could suspend Catalonia’s autonomy, which would be unprecedented. — dpa