An elderly woman forcibly dragged from a polling booth, another with blood trickling down her face and police attacking firefighters as they tried to protect the crowds of Catalan voters – all of this in a stable European democracy.
The shocking scenes of violence that marred Catalonia’s independence vote on Sunday made headlines around the world, threatening to turn the already divisive vote into a public relations debacle for Spain’s central government.
The actions of the authorities contrasted sharply with the calm determination and composure shown by those who turned out to take part in a vote that Spain’s constitutional court had declared illegal.
Catalan officials said more than 90 percent of voters had said 'Yes' to independence from Spain, although turnout was estimated at just over 42 percent, with 2.26 million voters having defied Madrid’s injunction not to take part in the referendum.
“We showed we are a united and peaceful people,” said Artur, 30, who spent much of the day guarding a polling station at the Miguel de Cervantes school in Barcelona to prevent police from seizing the ballot boxes.
‘Strategy of repression’
But while Catalan separatists have largely succeeded in holding a vote the Spanish government had promised to thwart, few were in the mood to claim victory after Sunday’s chaotic scenes.
“At what price?” asked Cristina, 48, after casting her ballot in the Catalan regional capital. “It has been a day of suffering, with many injured people still in hospital, unable to vote.”
Catalan officials said 844 people had sought medical care while the Spanish interior ministry said 33 police officers had also been injured.
Like many others in Barcelona, Cristina was baffled by the Spanish government’s “strategy of repression”.
“Is this what Spain is about?” she fumed. “This isn’t democracy! […] If the [Spanish] government said this referendum doesn’t count, then why did it use such force?”
Sharing Cristina's outrage was her sister Myriam, who likened the riot police’s “Robocop” methods to those of the Franco era.
“They used rubber bullets, even though they are banned here in Catalonia,” she said.
Myriam noted the contrast with the conduct of the Catalan regional police force, known as the Mossos, who mostly refused to enforce Madrid’s orders and sometimes sided with the crowd.
Pressure on Rajoy
While Madrid praised the riot police for “acting with professionalism and responding proportionately”, opposition figures were scathing in their criticism of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his government.
Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, who adopted a neutral tone in the run-up to the vote, said Rajoy had “crossed all the red lines with the police actions against normal people, old people, families who were defending their fundamental rights".
She called Rajoy a “coward” and urged him to resign.
Miguel Urban, a member of the European Parliament and spokesman for the left-wing Podemos movement, said the government had been irresponsible in claiming to “defend democracy with batons”.
“We need to unite to drive Rajoy out of power,” he added.
Meanwhile, the head of Catalonia’s regional government, Carles Puigdemont, said Sunday’s events showed Catalans had “won the right to become an independent state”. He called on Europe to step in to make sure fundamental rights were fully respected.
A spokesman for his administration, Jordi Turull, said the “savage” actions of the Spanish police had turned Spain into “the shame of Europe”.
Europe’s muted response
Catalan separatists are now hoping the fallout from the violent vote will spur European governments into action.
So far, EU officials and most member states have been reluctant to intercede in the escalating dispute between Spain’s central government and its richest region, viewing it as an internal Spanish matter.
But Sunday’s violence, witnessed by European observers at polling stations in Catalonia, has put pressure on Spain’s European partners to speak out.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel was among the few national leaders to urge restraint, writing on Twitter that, “Violence can never be the answer!”
Former Belgian premier and senior European lawmaker Guy Verhofstadt said that while he did “not want to interfere” in Spain’s domestic affairs, “I absolutely condemn what happened today in Catalonia.”
In other countries, governments faced calls from opposition leaders to denounce the police brutality, which Germany’s Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz described as a “worrying” escalation.
In Britain, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn slammed the “shocking” violence used against Catalan citizens while Scotland's pro-independence leader, Nicola Sturgeon, called on Spain to “change course before someone is seriously hurt”.
But by Sunday evening Rajoy had given no indication that he planned to soften his stance, doubling down by denying that the vote had even taken place.
"Today there has not been a self-determination referendum in Catalonia," he said, blaming the violence on “those who violated the law”.
In a warning to his opponents in Barcelona, he noted that he still enjoyed “the unconditional support of all European leaders.”