Catalonia’s president has accused the Spanish government of a massive and profoundly undemocratic overreaction to its bid for independence, saying the state’s efforts to stop the looming referendum exceed the security measures used at the height of Eta’s terror campaign.
Speaking to the Guardian at the end of a turbulent week that has seen 14 senior Catalan officials arrested, almost 10m ballot papers seized and thousands more police ordered to the region, Carles Puigdemont said he feared Spain was returning to the repressive practices of the Franco era.
“Most normal people would agree on what to call this kind of situation,” he said. “And it’s not a normal, democratic one. There’s a serious and worrying return to the fall of democracy in Spain and it’s not just us who are realising that.”
Puigdemont said the arrival in Catalan ports of at least three ferries intended to accommodate thousands of police officers tasked with preventing the referendum taking place on 1 October was proof of the Spanish government’s authoritarian attitude.
“In the worst years of the Eta era, you didn’t get such massive [police] deployments,” he said.
“And anyway, we haven’t killed anyone here. When Eta was killing so many people, a lot of people said, ‘If the violence ends, then we can start talking’. But there’s no violence here.
“The government is misleading people. We’ve spent six years organising things very calmly and fighting political battles. They may have been pretty noisy battles, but they were political and democratic battles, and they’re behaving as if we were in a violent conflict.”
The regional president said that many would be struggling to reconcile the current scenes in Catalonia with 21st century European parliamentary democracy.
“How would people in the UK feel if ferries stuffed with police officers suddenly turned up where they live? Or if they saw police vans all over the motorway and paramilitary police – like the Guardia Civil – raiding newspaper offices or government buildings or private homes and arresting people as if they were dealing with terrorists?”
He said that the government of the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, had already reached for the nuclear option by effectively suspending Catalonia’s autonomy by cutting off its finances and drafting in so many more police.
Puigdemont also insisted that Wednesday’s arrest of 14 Catalan officials who were working on the referendum had been politically motivated. Although the arrests were carried out by Spanish Guardia Civil officers on the orders of a Barcelona judge, he said that the complaint that led to them had been brought by a far-right Spanish party.
The Catalan president has recently been criticised for encouraging people to go and ask their local mayors whether they will cooperate with the referendum, which the Spanish government says is illegal and unconstitutional.
Polls show that Catalonia is deeply divided over splitting from Spain and some say Puigdemont’s exhortation has led to anti-independence Catalan mayors being hectored and opposing voices being drowned out. One mayor has complained of obscene and homophobic abuse, while another said: “Putting mayors in the crosshairs won’t fix anything. It’ll just add fuel to the fire.”
Asked whether some independence campaigners were contributing to the febrile atmosphere in the region by bullying those with different views, Puigdemont was blunt.
“People have rung up my parents house saying they’ll kill all the Puigdemonts, but it’s never occurred to me to put stuff on social media because you don’t want to confuse one madman with the entire anti-independence movement, which has every right to express itself. Name a country where there aren’t madmen. Wasn’t an MP killed during the Brexit campaign in the UK?”
He said people had “obscenely misinterpreted” his comments for propaganda purposes, adding that he had said only that people had the right to ask their representatives whether they should be allowed to vote or not.
“We are the servants of the people and people [come up to] me every day,” he said. “But it needs to be done in a civil way … Most of the people who I meet in the street are respectful. I’d never see it as some kind of unacceptable pressure. Please! What kind of people do mayors think they are? They’re not above the citizens. They are there to serve them.”
He also shrugged off suggestions that Catalan society would find itself deeply divided on 2 October, as the UK had the day after the Brexit referendum, saying: “Is the UK less democratic after Brexit?”
Despite the fact that the vote is due to take place in a little over a week, Puigdemont said his government would still happily cancel the poll if it received public assurances that the Spanish state would negotiate a mutually agreed referendum and provide a timeframe.
But he was not holding his breath. In the meantime, he added, Rajoy’s response to the territorial crisis was only strengthening the independence movement and turning the region against the Spanish state.
“A lot of people are angry about the democratic abuses that have been committed by the Spanish government,” he said.
“We’re seeing a reaction – and people taking to the streets with pots and pans – in areas where the independence movement isn’t supposed to exist. People have to choose between one model and another. Everyone in Catalonia has realised that not taking part means ratifying the politics of repression of the Spanish government.”
Puigdemont said the referendum was not about Catalonia turning its back on Spain but more a case of a long and turbulent marriage finally running its course.
“It’s a bit like a couple: things aren’t working out and we need to face that in front of the whole world. Let’s do what a mature couple would do and treat each other with respect. It would be lovely if things had worked out, but they haven’t.”