Catalonia's Independence Referendum Is Getting Messy. Here's What's Going On

A crowd of protesters gather outside the Catalan region's economy ministry in Barcelona, Spain, on September 20. Albert Gea/Reuters

It's all kicking off in Catalonia, the northeastern region of Spain that's preparing for a referendum on its independence at the start of October.

On Wednesday, the region's president, Carles Puigdemont, accused the Spanish government of imposing a "de facto state of emergency" across the region. His comments came amid the detention of 13 officials from his regional government.

So what's going on?

Spain Won't Let Catalonia Have a Referendum

Many in Catalonia, which at various times during Spain's history has had a degree of self-government and currently has a regional administration with limited powers, want it to be independent from Spain. It's sort of similar to the situation in Scotland, where a regional nationalist government is pushing for independence from Britain.

The big difference is that in 2011, the British government granted Scotland permission to hold a referendum on the issue, which was held in 2014, with a narrow victory for the pro-U.K. side.

Meanwhile, in Catalonia, the Spanish government has never accepted that Catalonia has a similar right. So when, earlier this month, the Catalan government passed a law calling for a referendum on October 1, the Spanish government appealed to the country's constitutional court.

Catalonia Is Going Ahead Anyway

While the court assessed the claim, it called for a suspension of the referendum, but the Catalan government said it would press on regardless. This follows 18 months in which the government has begun setting up many of the trappings of an independent state.

The Spanish government has declined to rule out any options for preventing the referendum from taking place. Spanish police have been hunting for hidden ballot boxes prepared by the regional government. They have also threatened to arrest mayors who facilitate the vote and seized 45,000 information documents that were to be handed to polling station staff.

Now they have taken a step further in arresting Catalan officials. The precise charges are not yet clear, although the government has repeatedly made clear its view that the referendum is illegitimate.

Pro-independence Catalans have taken to the streets in Barcelona, the region's largest city, to protest the detentions.

Tensions Will Only Rise

As well as the heated debate that would be expected before a plebiscite of this kind, there are several reasons the situation could get very heated.

Catalonia has a regional police force, the Mossos d'Esquadra, while one of Spain's national police forces, the Guardia Civil, is now also involved. A regional government spokesperson said the latter was searching the offices of the presidency on Wednesday.

As the referendum approaches, the Mossos will face important questions. Do they uphold the law as decreed by the Spanish government or as laid out by the separatist regional politicians?

Meanwhile, further street protests are likely, with heavy-handed treatment by Spanish authorities or more arrests likely to inflame them.

And local mayors, many of whom back the independence cause, will need to make individual judgment calls, battered by vocal pro-independence groups on the one hand and the threat of arrest on the other.