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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Catalan separatists win absolute parliamentary majority

With turnout at a record high and over 90 percent of the ballots counted, the election handed a mandate back to the region's ousted separatist leaders

People react to results in Catalonia's regional elections at a gathering of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) in Barcelona, Spain December 21, 2017. REUTERS/Albert Gea
People react to results in Catalonia's regional elections at a gathering of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) in Barcelona, Spain December 21, 2017. REUTERS/Albert Gea

Catalan separatists won a crucial snap poll Thursday, plunging their region into further uncertainty after a failed independence bid rattled Europe and triggered Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

With turnout at a record high and over 90 percent of the ballots counted, the election handed a mandate back to the region's ousted separatist leaders, even 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 was meanwhile on course to win the biggest individual result.

But unless the three pro-independence lists fail to clinch a deal to work together in the coming months, they will rule Catalonia with 70 percent of the 135 seats in parliament -- two less than their previous tally of 72.

Together for Catalonia – the party led by deposed Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont – took 34 seats, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) took 32 and the far-left, anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy took four. On Thursday night, a jubilant Puigdemont termed the results a victory for “the Catalan republic”.

Between them, the three parties will have enough seats to reassemble the parliamentary majority that put them into office after the 2015 elections if they can agree a new coalition.

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.

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 since the referendum.

The declaration came weeks after a banned independence referendum on October 1, which saw a police crackdown that sent shockwaves around the world.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano 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.

Ousted regional president Carles Puigdemont, who had fled to Belgium where he tried to rally international support for the separatist cause, has not since returned to Spain, where he faces arrest.

His Together for Catalonia list nonetheless looked set to secure the best result of the three separatist groupings -- in a major upset for Rajoy's government.

Unlike Puigdemont, his former deputy Oriol Junqueras and three other separatist leaders stayed behind, and were remanded in custody on November 2.

They campaigned for votes from exile and behind bars, with Junqueras sending messages to voters in handwritten letters shared on Twitter, a trickle of phonecalls and interviews, and even poems.

"Practically and emotionally, it has been a very difficult election campaign. We didn't have our candidate here, (ousted) president Puigdemont was in exile in Brussels, and number two on the list, Jordi Sanchez, was in prison," said Elsa Artadi, Puigdemont's Together for Catalonia list campaign manager.

Sergi Sebria, spokesman for Junqueras's ERC party, said his party had had to face the election "in the worst conditions, in absolutely unequal conditions, with its candidate in prison until the last day.

"Despite this we have done everything with hope," he said, adding that "a high turnout legitimises the election result."

Crucially, the pro-independence camp is not expected to attempt another breakaway from Spain but rather try to enter into negotiations with Madrid.