Separatists on Sunday won a clear majority of seats in Catalonia's parliament in elections that set the region on a collision course with Spain's central government over independence.
“Catalans have voted ‘yes’ to independence,” acting regional government head Artur Mas told supporters, with secessionist parties securing 72 of 135 seats in the powerful region, which is home to 7.5 million people and includes Barcelona.
Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Monday he is willing to hold talks with Catalan authorities but always within the scope of existing law, which does not allow regions to seek sovereignty. He has vowed to use his powers to block any move toward independence.
However, the strong pro-independence showing dealt a blow to Rajoy, three months before national elections. His center-right government, which has opposed attempts to hold a referendum on secession, has called the separatist plan “nonsense” and vowed to block it in court.
But opposition parties and the mainstream media noted Monday that parties opposed to independence took 52 percent of the votes.
Madrid-based newspapers pointed out that most voters backed parties opposed to independence with leading newspaper El Pais' front-page headline proclaimed, "The independents win the elections but lose the referendum."
The main secessionist group, Junts pel Si (Together for Yes), won 62 seats, and the smaller leftist Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (Popular Unity Candidates) got 10, according to official results.
They jointly obtained 47.8 percent of the vote, in a record voter turnout of 78 percent — a big boost to an independence campaign that has been losing support over the last two years.
Both said before the vote that such a result would allow them to unilaterally declare independence within 18 months, under a plan that would see Catalan authorities approving their own constitution and building institutions like an army, central bank and judicial system.
Addressing supporters of Junts pel Sí in central Barcelona, Mas said a “democratic mandate” now exists to move forward with independence. “That gives us a great strength and strong legitimacy to keep on with this project,” he told the exultant crowd, which chanted “In-inde-independencia” and waved secessionist flags.
Albert Llorent, a taxi driver from Barcelona who showed up to celebrate, said the result was historic. “What I think, what I feel, is that I belong to the best possible nation in the world. Long live Catalonia,” he said.
The vote in Catalonia, Spain’s second-most-populous region, is widely expected to influence the course of the Spanish general elections in December.
Spain’s two dominant parties — the ruling People’s Party and the opposition Socialists — lost tens of thousands of votes compared with the last elections in 2012, boding ill for their national ambitions, with the People’s Party suffering a much deeper setback than its rival.
Anti-austerity Podemos also registered a disappointing total, with 9 percent, sharply down from May’s nationwide regional and local elections.
Among parties opposed to independence, pro-market Ciudadanos, often cited as a national kingmaker, emerged as the only winner, jumping to 18 percent of the vote.
Despite the separatist victory, analysts believe the most likely outcome of the elections will be to force a dialog between Catalan and Spanish authorities.
“Many have voted for Junts pel Sí even if they don’t favor secession because they saw the vote as a blank cartridge ... and a way to gain a stronger position ahead of a negotiation," said José Pablo Ferrándiz from polling firm Metroscopia.
Opinion polls show a majority of Catalans would like to remain in Spain if the region is offered a more favorable tax regime and laws that better protect language and culture.