Voting rights have been under siege in the U.S. in recent years, with charges of attempted electoral interference, legislation that seeks to make access to the polls more difficult, and gerrymandering, in a case that reached the Supreme Court this week. But no citizens here or in any democracy expect that they may be attacked by the police if they try to vote. Yet that is what happened on Sunday in the Spanish region of Catalonia, where thousands of members of the Guardia Civil paramilitary force, and riot police, were deployed by the central government in Madrid to prevent the Catalans from holding an “illegal” referendum on independence from Spain. Masked and helmeted police used pepper spray and knocked people to the ground, kicking and beating some, and dragging others by their hair. Social-media sites quickly filled with images of bloodied and battered voters. Whatever the avowed legality of the action, it was not only a shocking display of official violence employed against mostly peaceful and unarmed civilians but an extraordinary expression of cognitive dissonance: since when did European governments prevent their citizens from voting?
In a way, Sunday’s events were a chronicle of a disaster foretold. Secessionist sentiments have been building for some time in Catalonia, an ancient principality that was annexed by the Kingdom of Castile in 1714, during the War of Spanish Succession, and which has since held on-and-off-again autonomy. Under General Francisco Franco, who ran Spain as a Fascist dictatorship from 1939 until 1975, Catalonia’s autonomy was suppressed, and the Catalan language was outlawed. (The region was also the site of the last stand of the Republic in Spain’s brutal civil war, and Catalans paid a heavy price for their resistance: thousands were imprisoned and executed after Franco’s forces defeated the Republicans.)
During the country’s transition to democracy, in the late seventies and early eighties, Catalonia was once again granted autonomous status, along with other Spanish regions, but in the past few years the idea of independent nationhood has captivated a large number of its people. The nationalist mood has been exacerbated by dissatisfaction with Catalonia’s share of the national budget: a region with a population of seven and a half million people, and Barcelona as its capital, Catalonia is Spain’s economic powerhouse, producing about a fifth of the country’s G.D.P. and paying a significant amount of tax. The decision, in 2010, by Spain’s constitutional court to deprive Catalonia of its previously granted designation as a “nation” within the constitutional monarchy was, for many Catalans, the turning point. The Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, a veteran of the Partido Popular, a party founded by Franco’s political disciples, who was elected in 2011, has repeatedly called the independence campaign “illegal,” “unconstitutional,” and even an attempted “coup d’état.” His primary Catalan nemesis is Carles Puigdemont, a former journalist who became the regional President last year and has long been an adherent of independence; he recently said that there is “nothing” that the Spanish state can do to deter him from the campaign—including putting him in prison.