MADRID (Reuters) - Spain’s central authorities moved on Thursday to crush plans by the northeastern region of Catalonia to hold an independence referendum and took steps to prosecute regional lawmakers backing the ballot.
A long-running campaign for independence by a group of Catalan politicians, who hold a majority in the regional parliament, came to a head on Wednesday when they approved a law to allow a vote on secession from Spain scheduled for Oct. 1.
The country’s Constitutional Court, Spain’s highest legal authority on such matters, suspended the referendum law late on Thursday to allow judges time to consider whether the vote breaches the country’s constitution.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said earlier on Thursday he had appealed to the court to declare the referendum illegal. The constitution states Spain is indivisible.
“This referendum will not go ahead,” he said.
In a separate move on Thursday, Spain’s state prosecutor’s office said it would present criminal charges against leading members of the Catalan parliament for allowing Wednesday’s parliamentary vote to go ahead.
Catalan lawmakers have said they are prepared to go to jail over the issue.
The state prosecutor-general, Jose Manuel Maza, told reporters he had also asked the security forces to investigate any preparations by the Catalan government to hold the referendum. This could involve printing leaflets or preparing polling stations.
Teachers, police and administrative workers are among civil servants that could risk fines or potentially the loss of their jobs by manning polling stations or taking part in other activities deemed as helping the vote.
Polls show the debate over independence in the region is close-run, with those preferring to stay united with Spain slightly outnumbering ‘independentistas’. A majority of Catalans do want the right to hold a referendum, however.
Barcelona residents on Thursday had mixed feelings about the possibility of a referendum.
“It will never be legal if it’s not agreed with the government,” said 53-year-old interior designer Laurent Legard. “This is not the right path.”
Dolores, a 55-year-old receptionist who declined to give her surname, disagreed.
“We are delighted - we’ve been waiting for this moment for many years. It really is a democracy to allow people to give their opinion about how they want to live and how they want their country to be,” she said.
Prime Minister Rajoy’s recourse to the courts to block any independence referendum now and in a non-binding 2014 vote on a split from Spain has raised hackles in the industrial region.
Any heavy-handedness on behalf of his government to stop leaflet printing or confiscate ballot boxes could trigger social unrest.
Catalan’s regional head, Carles Puigdemont, has said the results of the referendum will be binding no matter what the turn-out is. Analysts have said a low turn-out would harm the legitimacy of the result.
Catalonia will declare independence within 48 hours of a “yes” vote, the referendum law states.
Additional reporting by Reuters TV and Angus Berwick; Writing by Sonya Dowsett