Catalans handed Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy an electoral defeat on Thursday as secessionists won a crucial snap poll called following a failed independence bid that rattled Europe and triggered Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.
With turnout at a record high of 82 per cent, Thursday’s election handed a mandate back to the region’s ousted separatist leaders after they campaigned from exile and behind bars.
In a clear indicator of the huge gulf over independence afflicting Catalan society, anti-secessionist centrist party Ciudadanos won the biggest individual result with 37 of the 135 seats in the regional parliament.
But unless the three pro-independence parties fail to clinch a deal to work together in the coming months, they will rule Catalonia with 70 seats — two less than their previous tally.
For Catalans on both sides of the divide the day had been a moment of truth, following weeks of upheaval and protests unseen since democracy was reinstated following the death in 1975 of dictator Francisco Franco.
Emboldened, separatists saw the vote result as vindicating their cause.
“This is a result which no one can dispute,” deposed leader Carles Puigdemont said from self-imposed exile in Belgium.
“The Spanish state was defeated. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his allies lost,” he told reporters.
The Spanish government called the election after it took the unprecedented step of stripping Catalonia of its treasured autonomy in the aftermath of an independence declaration on October 27 that rattled a Europe already shaken by Brexit.
At stake was the economy of a region that has seen its tourism sector suffer and more than 3,100 companies — including the largest banks, utilities and insurers — move their legal headquarters out of Catalonia.
The declaration came weeks after a banned independence referendum on October 1, which was marred by a brutal police crackdown.
Rajoy and his conservative cabinet tried to nip the independence movement in the bud, sacking the regional government and dissolving its parliament.
In a further obstacle for the separatist cause, the judiciary pressed charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of funds against the secessionist leaders.