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Spain's king calls independence vote by Catalonia 'totally outside law and democracy'

| Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, 9:12 p.m.
People gesture toward members of the Spanish National Police outside the General Direction of the National Police of Spain building to protest against the violence that marred Sunday's referendum vote during a regional general strike on Oct. 3, 2017, in Barcelona, Spain.
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People gesture toward members of the Spanish National Police outside the General Direction of the National Police of Spain building to protest against the violence that marred Sunday's referendum vote during a regional general strike on Oct. 3, 2017, in Barcelona, Spain.

BARCELONA — In remarks unprecedented in modern-day Spain, King Felipe VI told the nation in a televised address Tuesday that the separatist government in Catalonia had acted "totally outside law and democracy" by staging a disputed referendum on independence.

The king charged, "They have meant to fracture Spain."

Sitting at his desk in Zarzuela Palace in Madrid, the king said the central government must ensure constitutional order in Catalonia.

The Spanish constitution describes the monarch as head of state and commander in chief, although the king serves a largely symbolic role these days. He traditionally addresses the nation during the Christmas holidays — not during political crises.

His words are likely to bolster the central government's case that the Catalan separatists have gone too far — and may signal new get-tough measures by Madrid against the Barcelona rebellion.

As the king addressed the nation, trade unions in Catalonia led a powerful general strike Tuesday that shut down businesses, highways and schools in a mass protest against police violence during the region's chaotic independence vote.

Huge crowds poured through the streets of Barcelona and other cities in the region in the latest act of defiance against the central government and its rejection of Sunday's referendum, in which more than 2 million people voted in support of Catalonia's bid for nationhood.

Demonstrators said they were appalled by images of officers of Spain's national police and civil guard, sent to shut down Sunday's referendum, beating voters with rubber batons and dragging them away from ballot boxes.

On the streets Tuesday, the marchers chanted, "Occupying forces get out!"

The raw emotions — and the stark divisions between the separatists and those who want to keep Spain united - are only growing.

Paula Miranda, a university student, said, "I felt lots of impotence and rage. I was not expecting this."

Marches Tuesday were led by Catalan firefighters in orange jackets and yellow helmets. Others were guided by leftist theater troupes and union longshoremen from the Barcelona port. There were anarchists and families with children in strollers. Some demonstrators covered themselves in makeup that was meant to appear like ashes. The demonstrations were peaceful, by turned somber and festive.

While the secessionists in Catalonia kept up the pressure by stoking anger over alleged police brutality, the central government in Madrid continued to defend its actions and reminded the world that the Spanish courts had ruled the Catalan referendum illegal.

Spanish leaders offered broad support for the police and condemned the Catalan government as rebels who have broken with the constitution and muffled the many here who oppose independence.

Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said, "I want to express my total support for the security forces, who are defending legality and the rights of everyone in Catalonia."

The Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido tweeted, "We will not accept the incitement of hatred toward the police and Civil Guard."

Carles Puigdemont, the regional president and a leading secessionist, said Sunday that Catalonia had won "the right to independence" and on Monday he called on European leaders to support the cause.

But Spain's European Affairs Minister Jorge Toledo told Politico the crisis was an internal matter, and any future discussions must be between the central and regional governments.

"You can change the law, you can oppose it, but you cannot disobey it," Toledo said.

According to the Catalan government, which announced the referendum results early Monday, 90 percent of the voters chose independence. More than 2 million people voted for it, while fewer than 177,000 voted no, the regional government said.

The turnout for the referendum was just 42 percent, Catalan authorities said.

Catalans who were against declaring an independent state did not vote.

Some of that intimidation was visible as the general strike began on Tuesday morning, as groups of young people marched in the neighborhoods, shutting down intersections, heckling taxis and blocking tourist buses, warning the drivers against breaking the strike.

Most shops and cafes had pulled their metal shutters down. Those small businesses that remained open faced crowds who banged on their doors or spray-painted their shop windows with slogans.

Several activists surrounded a deliveryman with a handcart loaded with milk cartons. He told them in tough Spanish — not in the region's Catalan language — that he could not care less about their strike and that they should get out of his way, or else.

When marchers tried to force a pharmacy to close its doors, Gregorio Peña, a retired banker, came to their aid.

"Leave them alone!" he shouted.

Peña, who opposed Sunday's referendum, said he thought Catalans were being manipulated — "brainwashed" — by hardcore secessionists.

Surveys taken in the months before Sunday's referendum show Catalans roughly divided between those who wanted an independent republic and those who wanted to remain in Spain.

"What we are seeing now is the part of Catalonia that controls the government, with a minority government, which in a best-case scenario never got more than 46 percent of the vote, trying to change the rules and impose on the other part of Catalonia and on the whole of the country a revolution," said Catalan lawyer, Ignasi Guardans, a former member of the European Parliament.

The Catalan filmmaker Isabel Coixet said pro-independence authorities have muffled debate.

"We are completely silenced," she said. "They have created a climate of tension in which anyone who doesn't agree with them, doesn't exist and is discredited. And, honestly, there are so many people keeping quiet. The biggest problem I see is the double fracture that has been created — the division with Spain and the division between the Catalans."

Coixet said the "independence narrative" sells well abroad, but doesn't reflect the silent majority at home.

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