Riot police drag a member of the public away from a school being used as a polling station for the banned referendum, in Barcelona, Spain. (Photographer: Geraldine Hope Ghelli/Bloomberg)

Rajoy Invites PR Nightmare as Spanish Police Beat Catalan Voters

(Bloomberg) -- Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy risked a backlash in the court of international public opinion as images of riot police beating up voters in Catalonia and seizing ballot boxes provoked outrage on social media and beyond.

Responding to a constitutional court order that called the independence vote illegal, Rajoy sent thousands of police to restore public order. As forces deployed, camera phones beamed the confrontations to the world. In one video, broadcast by a local newspaper, a woman is seen being thrown down a flight of stairs. In another, police rip ballot boxes from the hands of would-be electoral officials.

After years of soft-pedaling his response to Catalan separatism to avoid exacerbating the problems, Rajoy is now threatening the full force of the state to obstruct the illegal plebiscite. But his attempt to negate the result may have instead given secessionists the international support they’ve craved, analysts said -- at a time their backing was at a five-year low.

“It’s a huge PR disaster for the Spanish government. It’s hard to justify the police beating up people,” said Angel Talavera, an analyst at Oxford Economics in London. “We are going to see the secessionists start to try to win more international support. They will present the events as evidence for their thesis that they are up against a repressive regime.”

Interior Minister Jose Ignacio Zoido said Spanish police had acted proportionately in defense of the law. His Ministry tweeted images of attacks on police that had left nine officers and three civil guards injured. The Catalan government said at least 465 people had been injured in today’s clashes.

Political leaders outside Spain had publicly backed Rajoy to enforce the law ahead of the vote. At a news conference in Washington last week, U.S. President Donald Trump said he preferred Spain to stay united. French President Emmanuel Macron said in Tallinn, Estonia, that his only interlocutor on Spanish issues is the Madrid government.

And while there’s still support for notion that only 16 percent of the population shouldn’t be allowed to reduce Spain’s borders and escape its laws, images of Sunday’s crackdown tested that backing.

“Violence can never be the answer!” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said on Twitter. “We condemn all forms of violence and reaffirm our call for political dialogue.”

U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that “police violence against citizens in Catalonia is shocking. The Spanish government must act to end it now.”

Political leaders were joined by celebrities. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling told her 12.7 million Twitter followers that the violent images were “repugnant and unjustifiable.” Former Barcelona FC captain and Spanish national soccer team player Xavi Hernandez said it was “unacceptable that in a democratic country the people cannot vote.”

While independence for Catalonia remains a distant prospect, Spain’s biggest constitutional crisis since the political settlement that followed the death of dictator Francisco Franco may have just gotten a boost.

“Today the Spanish state has just lost Catalonia,” former Catalan President Artur Mas told reporters on Sunday. “It’s a before-and-after moment.”