BARCELONA — Catalonia’s separatist leader Carles Puigdemont is close to regaining leadership of the region in a blow to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who sacked him two months ago, reigniting Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.
With 96 percent of ballots counted in a vote to elect Catalonia’s regional parliament, separatist parties are seen winning 70 seats out of 135, with Puigdemont’s Junts Per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) party retaining its position as the largest separatist force.
A pro-independence absolute majority would open a new, uncertain chapter and cast doubts over Rajoy’s ability to draw a line under the crisis that has damaged Spain’s economy and prompted a business exodus away from Catalonia.
The election has become a de facto referendum on how support for the separatist movement has fared since Rajoy sacked Puigdemont’s government for holding a banned October 1 referendum on splitting with Spain and unilaterally declaring independence.
Puigdemont has campaigned from self-imposed exile in Brussels since then, while Spanish authorities have sought his arrest on allegations of rebellion.
A victory in the election would mark his redemption after the secessionist movement lost some momentum over the months since the referendum. If he again becomes regional president, it is unclear whether he faces arrest should he return.
“As you see, we are the comeback kids,” Puigdemont’s spokesman Joan Maria Pique said in a text message to Reuters.
Rajoy had hoped the election would return Catalonia to what he has called “normality,” under a unionist government or with a separatist government that would not seek a unilateral split.
He has said he would rescind the direct rule he imposed on Catalonia whatever the result, but could re-impose it if a new government again pursues independence illegally.
At pro-independence rallies around Barcelona, supporters chanted “President Puigdemont” and “Long Live the Catalan Republic” as the results came in, with some unfurling giant red-and-yellow pro-independence flags.
“I feel happy and relieved. We want independence now – no more waiting,” said Elena Carreras, a 51-year-old teacher, smiling broadly as a band played the drums nearby.
The results surprised pollsters who were expecting separatist parties to lose control of the parliament and face weeks of haggling over a viable coalition.
Unionist party Ciudadanos (Citizens) is set to be the single party that wins the most votes, but a dismal performance by the other members of its coalition — Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party and the Socialist Party — mean the three will remain far from the majority.
Analysts said a new absolute majority for the pro-independence camp would put the ball back in the central government’s court.
“What this shows is that the problem for Madrid remains and the secession movement is not going to go away,” Antonio Barroso, deputy director of research at London-based research firm Teneo Intelligence, said.
‘An irrepressible people’
Turnout on Thursday reached a record high with over 83 percent of eligible Catalans voting.
The atmosphere was one of peace and order as long queues of voters formed, in contrast to the October 1 referendum which was marked by police firing rubber bullets and wielding truncheons to prevent people voting as the central government cracked down on the illegal ballot.
Separatist leaders on Thursday said their expected victory showed that Catalans had rejected Madrid’s actions since the referendum.
“We demand the re-establishment of the legitimate government, the freedom of the prisoners,” the Catalan National Assembly (ANC)’s deputy leader Agusti Alcoberro told a cheering crowd in Barcelona.
Puigdemont’s former deputy Oriol Junqueras and several other Catalan politicians are in prison, along with the leader of the ANC, the main separatist grassroots movement.
Earlier on Thursday, Puigdemont urged voters to show they back the movement.
“Today we will demonstrate the strength of an irrepressible people. Let the spirit of October 1 guide us always,” Puigdemont said. He was due to make a statement later on Thursday.
The independence crisis has damaged Spain’s economy and prompted a business exodus away from Catalonia, its wealthiest region, to other parts of the country.
Direct foreign investment in Catalonia fell by 75 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier, dragging down total investment data for the entire country for the same quarter, according to economy ministry data this week.
More than 3,100 companies have moved their legal headquarters out of the region since the beginning of October.
International investors showed few signs of nerves on Thursday, with Spanish debt and the euro in demand. The Madrid stock market lagged its euro zone counterparts, however.
The crisis has also caused concern in other European countries with secessionist regions.