Thousands of parents, many with young children, began occupying many neighborhood schools across Catalonia on Saturday, one day ahead of a controversial referendum for independence fro Spain.
Catalan officials estimated about half of the elementary and high schools in and around Barcelona had been occupied by pro-independence Catalonians despite warnings from Spain’s national police and Guardia Civil that the buildings would be locked on Sunday so they cannot be used as polling stations.
The Spanish central government based in Madrid and the Spanish Constitutional Court have ruled the referendum illegal and the Spanish government has employed several means to prevent it from happening.
Spanish police have seized millions of ballots, arrested regional officials helping to organize the vote, ordered cellphone apps designed to usher voters to their polling stations to be deleted from Google and on Saturday, raided the Catalonian regional government’s telecommunications and IT center.
Police at several of the contested schools warned parents that they would be arrested if they did not leave the premises by 6 a.m. local time Sunday, three hours before the vote is said to begin.
The Washington Post described scenes that looked at first glance like a field trip or evening of summer camp, though parents, many of whom used clandestine independence committees and anonymous chat apps to organize their sit-ins, admitted they were nervous about how the situation would resolve itself.
“I would not deny that we are nervous because we don’t know what is going to happen,” said Roger Serra, one of about 50 parents sleeping inside one school.
Catalan officials promised the vote would go off without issues. They unveiled a large plastic tub sealed with orange zip ties and the seal of the Catalan government they said would serve as ballot boxes after the Spanish government forbade them access to normal election apparatus. Officials said poll workers at each of the 2,315 polling stations they plan to open will accept ballots for or against Catalonian independence. Voters will be asked to show identification, workers will verify their identities against the regional government’s voter rolls and at the close of voting poll workers will tally their results. The regional government said it would track the results from each polling station and announce the results Sunday night.
The Spanish government has moved to ensure the voting will not be that easy. They have pledged to lock schools, seize elections apparatus including blank ballots, ballot boxes and voter rolls. And with many of the polling stations under heavy police presence, the validity of the vote itself is being called into question. Many pro-government voters in what polls have shown could be a closely contested referendum said they are scared to show up at polls heavily influenced by the pro-independence side.
The Spanish ambassador to the United Kingdom called the referendum “a slow-motion, low-cost coup d’etat” and warned it could bring instability to the European Union.
What happens after the vote is also unclear. The Catalonian government said it could simply declare its independence within 48 hours if it passes. It could also lead to a new round of negotiations between the two sides.
By Eric DuVall