SANT PERE DE TORELLO, Spain (Reuters) - As Spanish police wielded batons and fired rubber bullets at crowds attempting to vote in Catalonia’s banned independence referendum on Sunday, the region’s own police force gave many voters a much gentler reception.
In Catalonia’s pro-independence heartland, among the farming towns of Osona county north of Barcelona, the Catalan force made little attempt to remove people from polling stations despite being tasked with the same court order to shut them down.
Local courts received several complaints on Sunday against the Catalan police accusing them of inactivity and failing to close polling stations, despite the court order, the region’s High Court said in a statement.
In Sant Pere and Osona’s capital of Vic, crowds waited in orderly queues and cast their ballots in school halls, though the mood was jittery as photos of bloodied voters circulated via social media from the cities of Barcelona and Girona.
More than 840 people were injured during Sunday’s police crackdown, Catalan officials said. Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, however, praised the police for carrying out their duties and upholding the law.
In Sant Pere, children ran along the street playing tag, young people passed around barbecued kebabs and flagons of red wine, and pensioners at a retirement home nearby sat by windows and waved Catalan flags.
“If we don’t win today, we will never be able to do it. This is the opportunity,” Ramon Jordana, a 92-year-old former taxi driver said as he dropped his vote into a ballot box that organizers had smuggled into the town in the dead of night.
At the polling station in Sant Pere, a town of some 2,500 people close to the Pyrenees which symbolically declared independence from Spain in 2012, voters arrived before sunrise and Jordana cast the first vote at 9 a.m.
Officers from Catalonia’s regional police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, had tried to enter Sant Pere and Vic’s polling stations before voting began but crowds clustered around the entrances to stop them. They withdrew to applause and cheers.
“We won’t use force to enter, but we’ll stay outside all day in case at some point we can,” one of the officers in Sant Pere told Reuters afterwards. He asked not to be identified.
The two officers in Sant Pere chatted casually with locals outside the polling station, and one of them posed with a child for a photo. After a second attempt to enter the voting center, the crowd resisted and they retreated around a street corner.
In Osona’s overwhelmingly separatist-controlled municipalities, opinion polls show support for independence tops 80 percent on average, around double the overall support among Catalonia’s 7.5 million population.
The referendum has been declared illegal by Rajoy’s central government in Madrid, which says the constitution states the country is indivisible, and it has dispatched police across Catalonia to seize ballot boxes and prevent people voting.
However, national police and the Mossos have taken very different approaches, despite Spain’s state prosecutor telling Mossos recently that they had been put under a single chain of command reporting directly to the interior ministry in Madrid.
The Mossos are held in great affection by Catalans, especially after they hunted down Islamists accused of staging coordinated attacks in Barcelona in August which killed 16 people.
In contrast, the Civil Guard national police were branded “Rajoy’s thugs” on Twitter on Sunday.
National police unions said officers had carried out an “impeccable intervention” to preserve the constitution and called the Mossos’ inaction “scandalous”.
“The national police are disappointed and indignant ... The Mossos’ presence has been insufficient, deliberately weak and embarrassingly neutral,” the unions said in a statement.
In Sant Pere, before voting got underway, the town’s mayor, Jordi Fabrega, asked a crowd of about 200 people to guard the booth’s entrance all day and to resist peacefully any attempt by police to enter.
“The moment we leave it unguarded, they will come,” Fabrega said.
The first count of Sant Pere’s vote showed 80 percent turnout with 97 percent of voters supporting independence. High turnout will be key to legitimizing a “yes” vote, which the Catalan government says would lead to a declaration of independence from the regional parliament within 48 hours.
Locals blocked streets with vans and construction trucks as word spread that national police, who have been drafted into Catalonia in their thousands, were en route to raid the polling station.
“If the police really want to get the ballot boxes, they will get them,” said one Sant Pere voter, 66-year-old Carles, who declined to give his surname as he was worried the Spanish government would come after him.
In the end, no national police turned up.
Organizers said it had been no easy task to get to this point. Joan Vaque Casas, Sant Pere’s head coordinator, said he had received a text message at about 2 a.m. to meet at a secret location to pick up the ballot box and voting papers.
Editing by Mark Bendeich, Ralph Boulton and Dale Hudson