Pro-secession parties pushing for Spain's northeastern Catalonia region to break away and form a new Mediterranean nation won a landmark vote Sunday by capturing a majority of seats in the regional parliament, setting up a possible showdown over independence with the central government in Madrid.
With 98 percent of the vote counted, the "Together for Yes" group of secessionists had 62 seats in the 135-member parliament. If they join forces with the left-wing pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy party, which won 10 seats, they will have the 68 seats needed to try to push forward their plan to make Catalonia independent from Spain by 2017.
But CUP had insisted that it would only join an independence bid if secessionist parties won more than 50 percent of the popular vote. They won only about 48 percent because of a quirk in Spanish election law that gives a higher proportion of legislative seats to rural areas with fewer voters.
Still, Catalonia leader Artur Mas claimed victory as a jubilant crowd interrupted him with cheers and chants of "Independence!" in Catalan, which is spoken side by side with Spanish in the well-off and industrialized region bordering France.
Many Catalans who favor breaking away from Spain say their region, which represents nearly a fifth of Spain's economic output, pays too much in taxes and receives less than its fair share of government investment. Independence sentiment grew during Spain's near economic meltdown during the financial crisis.
"As democrats we were prepared to accept the defeat. Now, we demand that they accept the victory for Catalonia and the victory of the 'yes,'" he said. "We have a lot of work ahead, we won't let you down, we know we have the democratic mandate. We have won and that gives us an enormous strength to push this project forward."
The pro-independence parties had nearly 48 percent of the popular vote, falling just short of a majority because of a quirk in Spanish election law that gives a higher proportion of legislative seats to rural areas with fewer voters. Critics said the pro-independence forces failed to gain legitimacy for their secession push with the election result and demanded Mas' resignation.
"Artur Mas convoked these elections because he said the majority of Catalans were with him. Today the majority of Catalans turned their back on him and the only thing he must do is resign," said Ines Arrimadas, the leading regional parliamentary candidate for the anti-independence Citizens party.
CUP leader David Fernandez insisted in a television interview that his party "will not be the one to fail independence." But differences are already apparent because he has said he wants an immediate declaration of independence rather than the 18-month secession roadmap favored by the "Yes" bloc.
Secessionists have long pushed for an independence referendum, but Spain's central government refused to allow it, saying such a vote would be unconstitutional. So the pro-independence parties pitched the vote for regional parliamentary seats as a de facto plebiscite.
The parliament, based in Barcelona, represents the northeastern region of 7.5 million people bordering France that is responsible for nearly a fifth of Spain's economic output.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's ruling Popular Party government says it will use all legal means to prevent Catalonia from breaking away, an exit European leaders have warned would include ejection from the European Union despite claims by secession supporters that a way may be found for an independent Catalonia to stay.
Spain's government has also said it is concerned that if Catalonia tries to break free it would disrupt the fragile signs of economic recovery for the country that has endured unemployment of over 22 percent for several years.
But the ruling party's candidate to lead Catalonia, Xavier Garcia Albiol, acknowledged that Sunday's result was a blow.
"These are not the results that we expected or wanted," he said.
Catalans from both sides of the independence divide are fiercely proud of their Catalan language, which is spoken along with Spanish and was suppressed under three decades of Gen. Francisco Franco's dictatorship.
Jordi Perez, a 50-year-old civil servant said he voted for "Together for Yes" because he feels Spain has historically disparaged Catalan culture and its language.
"I have wanted independence ever since I was young," Perez said after voting in Barcelona. "During three centuries they have robbed us of our culture. We have reached the moment that the Catalan people say 'enough is enough.'"
While the pro-independence camp has organized massive rallies of hundreds of thousands in recent years, those in favor of remaining a part of Spain kept a low profile.
School teacher Sandra Guerrero, 30, said that the election motivated her to vote for the first time — for the anti-independence Citizens party.
"I feel part of Spain. I am proud to be Catalan, but also to be Spanish," she said. "I had never voted before because I was disillusioned with politics. But this time I have because these are important elections."