Thanks to Gunther Dauwen, Director of the European Free Alliance, I was able to join the delegation of international observers touring polling stations around Barcelona. Polling stations had been chosen based on a range of criteria that indicated different levels of support for Independence.
Unlike Scotland, support for holding a vote has been at 70 per cent which indicates substantial support from “no” voters for holding a referendum, since support for “yes” had been much lower than this among the general population, certainly before Madrid tried to prevent the vote taking place. However, support has been growing among non-native Catalans, due to Madrid’s attempts to suppress the vote. A change that Madrid may not have anticipated, according to the next interviewee, Jordi Sebastia.
At the first polling station we visited, there was a long queue of people already waiting to vote at 8.30am. Many had been there since 5am, including the woman below, whose father was a polling official already inside the building, trying to get the Internet up and running. There was a request made to the crowd to ask if there were any IT specialists waiting to vote who could help the polling staff. Two people volunteered. This was to be a recurring theme during the day with polling officials and Catalan government IT specialists trying to keep the digital version of the electoral roll available while Madrid kept taking it down. The digital version was required as voters had been told they could vote at any polling station, to get round the problem of individual polling stations being closed by the Guardia Civil.
The second polling station we visited had recently been closed by the Guardia Civil and the ballot boxes taken. On the way to the third station we were due to visit, we passed others with large queues. Polling was mostly delayed for three hours while internet access was established in polling stations that remained open and polling officials had to try to access the voting register on their mobile phones as it went back up online each time with a new IP address. This was the case at the third polling station we visited near Passeig de Gracia. We passed a large building that was due to be used as a polling station that was closed with metal crowd barriers all round it and a large Guardia Civil presence with military police vans waiting by the barriers.
Outside what turned out to be the only polling station open in the area, there was a queue of people at least a mile long waiting to vote. In front of the polling station and stretching some distance in the opposite direction from the queue and away down a street at a right angle from the building, there must have been well over 500 people, making around 1,000, including the queue. What I did not realise at first was that the group pressed tightly against the front gates were forming a human shield against the Guardia Civil, who were expected to turn up.
There were many old people sitting in the polling station waiting patiently to be able to vote while polling officials tried to access the electoral roll on their phones. A lawyer for a human rights group spoke to me explaining that they had heard of extreme violence from the Guardia Civil and the use of rubber bullets, including one person having been hit in the eye and very many injured. This was the first we had heard of the violence being unleashed on peaceful crowds of voters. The reason the atmosphere felt tense suddenly became clear, along with the need for such a large human shield outside.
As we were leaving, more volunteers were requested to defend the rear entrance to the building.
There was a rumour that six vans of Guardia Civil were approaching. A large group went to try to block the end of the narrow street that the military police were expected to approach from, with young people, some of whom appeared to be scouts, giving advice on how to stand to slow the progress of the police. This advice included standing with your hands behind your back, presumably to make it slightly more difficult to be grabbed by the arm. International observers were asked to wait and witness the expected attack. In the end, it never came, probably due to the size of the crowd, which shows the power of a large, peaceful demonstration. This is something I hadn’t fully appreciated before.
The next polling station we were taken to was near Selva del Mar. It had been chosen as the area was considered to be fairly anti-independence. Please note that this does not mean that people opposed the vote being held, as noted above. The polling station was busy when we arrived but had cleared somewhat by the time we left. The polling official who spoke to me there was very pleased with how voting had gone at his polling station. I suspect his happiness indicated relief that the Guardia Civil had not turned up.
As, with most other polling stations, we were applauded loudly and thanked profusely on the way in and on the way out for witnessing the vote after it was announced that we were international observers.
The next polling station was also open, near Placa de Saints. This was being guarded by around 400 people. Unfortunately, the Internet signal was not strong and I was not able to broadcast the next interview. I didn’t take the offered access to the wifi as I was aware how desperately this may be needed if the Internet connection went down again. The polling official who spoke to me there said that staff had been served with a writ by the Mossos (local police) first thing in the morning, ordering them to close the polling station. However, the officers from Mossos then turned around and left the building and stood guard, as at other polling stations, some distance from the entrance, dealing with requests for directions and information from voters and the public. The Guardia Civil had turned up twice during the day apparently and had been seen off twice by the crowd.
This polling station had been busy earlier, apparently, but by this time it was 7pm and the polling station was relatively quiet inside. Elderly voters brought in, with relatives helping them walk or in wheelchairs, were applauded. These are people who remember the Franco era and being unable to vote freely. Being able to choose whether or not Catalunya becomes independent will have been hugely significant for them. Even though there was the “air of a No voter” about many of them, applause was given freely for braving the intimidation of Madrid and the simple participation in the democratic process.
The final polling station that we visited was near Placa de Catalunya. Again, there was a large human shield outside, though due to the narrowness of the street, I’d guess this one was around 200 people. The Mossos turned up outside and were welcomed by the crowd, however, the Guardia Civil who turned up later were not and the crowd blocked the entrance. There was no violence that we were aware of at the time or reported later in relation to this visit by the military police. Again, the internet signal failed, probably due to strain on the network. This polling station had also been busy but had suffered the same issues with loss of access to the digital voting register. By the end of the day, voters ID card numbers had to be taken by hand in order for them to be able to cast their votes and their IDs checked against the digital electoral roll after the polling station had shut and internet access was re-established.
Voting closed on time and we witnessed the counting of the votes. In Catalunya, counting is done by the polling officials in each polling station. There is no mass transfer of ballot boxes to a central count as this is considered insecure. However, the ballot boxes were taken out of sight of the large windows as it was feared the sight of the count being under way might provoke the Guardia Civil to break in to the building. However, all stages of the voting were witnessed by the international observers and others.
Votes are verified and counted largely as in Scotland. First the number of votes removed from the ballot boxes is checked against the number recorded as having been cast. Then the votes are opened and divided into piles of Yes, No, blank and invalid, with the main difference being that the person who opens the ballot paper reads out the vote aloud and another person checks that they agree with how that vote has been cast. Votes are piled up, Yes, No, blank and invalid and then counted and recounted. Once the final tally was agreed, the result was announced to the crowd from a window. The tally at this polling station was 1281 for Yes and 153 for No. We left again to applause and thanks from the crowd for witnessing their struggle. I am enormously grateful to them for protecting us from the Guardia Civil.
As I sit writing this, on the morning of 2nd October, Catalan TV has revealed that the ballot boxes were made in China and delivered to France. They were then collected and distributed by car by private individuals in what was described as a very complex operation.
I leave Catalunya deeply impressed with the bravery of the Catalan people and the cowardice of Westminster.