Spains image on the world stage has been tarnished by the worldwide broadcast of images showing its police attacking would-be voters in Catalonia, and those tactics have not slowed the Catalan Governments march toward independence.

So the question lingers: Why, in the age of the smartphone, would Spain use force this way in order to quash a disputed independence referendum? Why not just declare the vote illegal and ignore it? Why hand the independence movement a public relations victory by using police to attack women, children and the elderly?

Analysts say the Spanish Government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy apparently felt so threatened by the accelerating independence movement that it believed a show of force was needed to make it abundantly clear that even harsher tactics would be used if needed to keep Spain intact. The Government was also confident that European Union leaders would not condemn the tactics Spain used to help prevent more splintering of the 28-nation bloc.

Chatham House director Robin Niblett said the Government felt it had to act despite the consequences because it could not let the vote, suspended by the Constitutional Court, proceed. Im sure they expected it to get ugly. Im sure they knew there was a real risk of it looking like democracy was being suppressed. But they know they have support in the rest of Spain, so the political risk domestically was worth taking.

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He conceded the cost was high. They didnt want shots of police pulling women by the hair. Thats stupid, thats really frustrating to them. In a way that becomes the story.

Spains leaders have not backpedalled or apologised for the use of force, an indication they are willing to take whatever international opprobrium comes their way.

Andrew Dowling, a specialist in Catalan history at Cardiff University, said any government in the world would have taken similar action if under direct threat. The Spanish Government felt it had to stop the vote because they knew within 48 hours the Catalan Parliament would declare independence ... I think the very strong policing was used to send a message.

The Spanish Government, he said, was counting on the Catalan police to remove people from voting places, but the regional officers just stood by with their arms folded. So authorities sent in Spanish riot police.

The global broadcasting of the images, and the front-page display of the photos, may have strengthened the hand of independence movement leaders in their quest for international support, even if there is little appetite for breaking up a major European state at a time of rising instability in many parts of the world.

They increased the independence vote by sending the police in, said Nafees Hamid, a research fellow at Artis International. It definitely hurt them. If the independence movement was trying to malign the image of the Madrid Government, they accomplished that goal. There were some who wanted just that, that was their strategy, and it really paid off.

He does not believe, however, that the police violence was widespread. He said he spent voting day touring Barcelona and did not witness any abuses.