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Catalans vote to split from Spain amid violent crackdowns at the polls

The Catalan government said it earned the right to independence from Spain after a contested referendum exploded into violence Sunday.

Hundreds were injured as riot police raided polling stations and fired rubber bullets to suppress voter turnout, in a referendum the Spanish government considers illegitimate. “At this point, I can tell you very clearly: Today a self-determination referendum in Catalonia didn’t happen,” Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said in a televised speech.

Catalonia’s separatist government pushed forward with the vote despite opposition from Madrid and a ruling from the country’s top court declaring it illegal. Of 2.2 million ballots counted so far, about 90% were in favor of independence, regional government spokesperson Jordi Turull said in a news conference shortly after midnight. 15,000 votes are still pending, Turull said.

Turnout in Catalonia, which has 5.3 million total eligible voters, would have been higher if not for suppression at the polls by Spanish national police, Turull said. At least 770,000 votes were lost in polling station crackdowns, the Catalan government said Monday.

A disputed referendum

In scenes that reverberated across Europe, riot police smashed their way into some polling locations and dragged away voters attempting to take part in the referendum. Regional officials said more than 800 people were injured and 400 polling stations were closed in the crackdown. The Spanish Interior Ministry said 92 of about 2,300 polling stations were closed.

Shortly after voting ended, Spain’s Prime Minister said most Catalans were fooled into participating in an illegal vote. Rajoy, who was elected in part on a pledge to maintain national unity and quash the secession movement, stood by the government’s intervention.

“The referendum that wanted to liquidate our constitution and separate a part of our country with no regards to the opinion of the whole nation did not come into existence,” he said. “We showed that our democratic state has the means to protect itself from such a serious attack as the one this illegal referendum represented.”

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont called the violence a “shameful page” in the country’s history. He insisted Catalans “won the right to an independent state” in the face of oppression.

“We have won the right to be heard, to be respected, and to be recognized,” he said late Sunday, before preliminary tallies were announced.

“Today, after a day weighed down by the dignity of the millions of people that made it possible today, Catalonia has gained its sovereignty and full respect.”

How we got here

The vote risks plunging the country into one of its worst political crises since the end of Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in 1975.

Catalan nationalists argue the region is a separate nation with its own history, culture and language, and that it should have increased fiscal independence.

A wealthy region in Spain’s northeast, Catalonia has its own regional government. The Generalitat has considerable powers over healthcare, education and tax collection. But the region pays taxes to Madrid, and pro-independence politicians have complained that its revenues subsidize other parts of Spain at an unfair cost to Catalonia.

The long-running dispute goes back to the brutal years under Franco, whose dictatorial regime repressed Catalonia’s earlier limited autonomy. It wasn’t until 1979, four years after his death, that the region gained full autonomy.

In 2006, the Spanish government backed Catalonia’s calls for greater powers granting nation status and financial control to the region. Four years later, that status was rescinded by the Constitutional Court, which ruled that while Catalan is a “nationality,” Catalonia is not a nation itself.

Catalonia’s campaign to break away has been gaining momentum since 2010, when Spain’s economy plunged during the financial crisis. Catalonia held a symbolic poll in 2014, in which 80% of voters backed complete secession — but only 32% of the electorate turned out.

The national government has ardently resisted separation. In the runup to the vote, national authorities seized ballot papers, voter lists and campaign material. Thousands of extra national police were sent to the region and high-ranking Catalan officials involved in organizing the referendum were arrested.