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Catalonia to vote on independence from Spain despite arrests, fines, police threat

The people of Catalonia, an autonomous four-province region bordering France, will head to the polls Sunday to vote in a referendum on independence from Spain. On each ballot will be just one question: "Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?" Catalonia's regional parliament in Barcelona has declared Sunday's vote binding, but the central Spanish government in Madrid deems the entire referendum illegal.

The vote is scheduled to proceed despite fierce opposition from Madrid, including seizure of millions of ballot papers, arrests of Catalan election officials, censorship of referendum websites, and heavy daily fines for election board members as long as the vote moves forward. A cruise ship and other boats together housing some 16,000 Spanish national police officers brought from other regions are docked in Barcelona's harbor in an attempt to stop the vote. It is unclear how Catalan police will behave.

Catalan independence is the subject of three centuries of contention dating to the 1714 conquest of Barcelona by King Philip V of Spain. Catalans have a distinct language and culture from the rest of Spain, and their independence efforts were subject to particularly brutal repression during the mid-century regime of military dictator Francisco Franco. In 2006, Catalonia was granted the designation of "nation," but four years later, Spain's highest court reversed that rule, deeming that Catalans have a special "nationality" but not their own "nation." The Spanish constitution says Spain is "indivisible."

Polling data is limited but suggests a majority of Catalans support independence. In part because of the threat of police action, turnout on Sunday is expected to heavily favor the pro-independence side. The European Union has declined to intervene despite concerns about police tactics.