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A Year After Catalonia Secession Vote, New Unrest and Still No Resolution

MADRID — Catalan activists on Monday marked the first anniversary of their disputed independence referendum by blocking train tracks and roads across Spain’s restive northeastern region and trying to break into the Catalan Parliament, underlining how charged the conflict over separatism remains.

Early on Monday, separatist activists briefly blocked the tracks of the high-speed train that links Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, to the city of Girona to the north. They also cut off some highways, as well as the most important roads that cross Barcelona. In Girona, they broke into a government building to replace the Spanish flag with the separatist Catalan flag.

By late afternoon, tens of thousands of demonstrators had taken to the streets of downtown Barcelona. Some radical militants also surrounded Police Headquarters and Parliament.

The police responded by making several charges against the militants. Toward midnight, the police managed to disperse the last protesters, amid some minor clashes.

The referendum anniversary followed clashes on Saturday between the police and demonstrators that left two dozen protesters injured and six detained. The police intervened to stop separatists who were trying to prevent a separate demonstration backed by the police labor union, to honor the Spanish officers who intervened to block the independence vote.

A year after the referendum, Catalan society remains deeply split over whether the region should have been allowed to hold the vote, and some Catalan elected officials who defied the central government remain in jail or in self-imposed exile. The political deadlock shows no sign of ending soon, even though the political leadership has recently switched in both Madrid and Barcelona.

Last year, under Catalonia’s regional president, Carles Puigdemont, the region’s separatist government forged ahead with the Oct. 1 independence referendum, even though it had been declared illegal by Spain’s courts and the central government, which urged voters not to participate.

The Catalan police force refused to intervene to prevent the vote, so the government in Madrid, headed by Mariano Rajoy, then the prime minister, used 10,000 police officers who had been sent from other parts of the country to disrupt the referendum. They wielded batons and fired rubber bullets in an attempt to close down polling stations and disperse voters — clashes that dominated news coverage, as the vote descended into chaos.

Mr. Rajoy had promised to stop the referendum, but his hard-line approach failed to prevent voting from taking place, though the result was declared null and void by Madrid. With anti-secession voters heeding his call to boycott the referendum, the proposal to create an independent Catalan republic won an overwhelming majority of the votes cast.

Separatist lawmakers used the result to make a botched declaration of independence, and the central government responded by ousting the separatist leaders and imposing direct rule over Catalonia for several months.

In June, Quim Torra took office as regional leader of Catalonia, vowing to pursue the separatist agenda of Mr. Puigdemont, who is living in Belgium to avoid a Spanish arrest warrant. But Mr. Torra has not offered any specific plan to put his region back on the road toward independence.

Mr. Torra heads a fragile coalition of separatist parties that are increasingly split over whether to provoke another clash with Madrid, at a time when a new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has offered instead to return to political dialogue. The separatists are well aware that any steps toward secession could land them before the Supreme Court, where they would join some former colleagues who are already in jail, awaiting trial.

On the other hand, Mr. Sánchez — who also took office in June, after a series of scandals brought down Mr. Rajoy’s government — has a tenuous grip on power in Madrid, and has struggled to alter significantly the situation in Catalonia. He leads a minority Socialist government that is under intense pressure from his center-right opponents not only to resist Mr. Torra, but also to reassert central government control of Catalonia should Mr. Torra refuse to abandon secessionism.

On Monday, Pablo Casado, the new leader of the Popular Party of Mr. Rajoy, Spain’s main conservative party, called on Mr. Sánchez to either restore rule from Madrid, or call a snap general election.

Mr. Sánchez was elected promising to restore the political dialogue with Catalan separatists, and he met with Mr. Torra shortly after taking office. A government official recently suggested that Catalan politicians accused of rebellion for organizing last October’s referendum could eventually be granted pardons, but when asked about that possibility on a trip last month to Montreal, Mr. Sánchez only replied that more “empathy” was needed in Catalonia.

On Monday morning, Mr. Torra and other separatist officials marked the anniversary by traveling to a small municipality near Girona, where Mr. Puigdemont had planned to vote last Oct. 1 before he was prevented from reaching the polling station by the Spanish police. Mr. Torra deposited a carnation on a set of pictures showing Catalan politicians who have either fled Spain or are in jail, awaiting trial for their involvement in the referendum.

Roger Torrent, the separatist speaker of the Catalan Parliament, told the crowd that last October’s referendum “shows us the path we have to take: that of the ballot boxes, of the democracy that we will never abandon.”

But as tensions mounted in Barcelona as the day went on, Mr. Torra and other politicians appeared overwhelmed by the turn of events. On Monday night, Mr. Torrent condemned the attempt by radical militants to break into the Parliament building.

“Some images don’t help us grow and, on the contrary, they belittle us,” he said in an interview on a local television channel, 3/24. On Twitter, Mr. Puigdemont said the radical protesters were not linked to the citizens who voted for independence in the referendum a year earlier “in peaceful fashion.”

After being ousted by the central government, Mr. Puigdemont and other members of his government fled at the end of October to Brussels, where he has avoided extradition and managed to remain on the front line of Catalan politics, at the helm of a new party. On Monday, he released a video message in which he told his supporters that the creation of a Catalan republic remained “the only possible way to live in a full democracy.”

While many Catalans were marking last year’s referendum, a very different commemoration was held Monday in Madrid, to mark the end of the separatist violence in the Basque region and to honor its victims. The separatist group ETA formally dissolved itself this year, after killing more than 800 people during decades of bombings and targeted assassinations in its push for an independent Basque homeland.

The ceremony was attended by Mr. Sánchez as well as by the French prime minister, Édouard Philippe, and the leader of the Basque region of Spain, Iñigo Urkullu. Mr. Philippe handed over to the Spanish government thousands of documents and other material seized by the French police from ETA, whose militants sought to use neighboring France as a safe haven from where they could plan terrorist attacks across the border.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Year After a Catalan Vote To Secede, New Unrest. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Source: NYT > World

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