Separatist parties are expected to win control of Catalonia's parliament in a historic election on Sunday — though it appears unlikely that the outcome will provide enough of a majority for a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain.
Around 5.5 million eligible voters were officially choosing lawmakers for Catalonia's 135-seat regional assembly, but the vote was widely viewed as a de facto referendum on secession. Voter turnout stood at 63 percent on Sunday afternoon, the highest on record since the end of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s, according to Reuters.
An exit poll commissioned by Catalonia's TV3 channel showed the secessionist group Junts Pel Si ("Together for Yes") winning 63-66 seats in parliament, according to the Associated Press, a total that would leave them short of the 68 seats needed for a majority to forge ahead with the push for independence without negotiations.
Polls closed at 8pm local time, and final results are expected late Sunday or early Monday.
The secessionist campaign has been losing support since it peaked in 2013, making securing the majority of seats a defining accomplishment. The vote will also heavily influence the Spanish general election in December. Some see the crucial ballot as a potential catalyst for Catalan and Spanish authorities to negotiate a favorable tax regime and laws that better protect Catalan language and culture.
"Politicians have to roll up their sleeves now, stop their game of chicken and make concessions," one voter told Reuters moments after casting her ballot.
A backlash over Spain's recent economic recession provoked the latest push for Catalan independence, according to economist and and sociologist José García Domínguez.
"Independence has been a temptation lurking on the larger Catalan nationalism for over a century," he said. "But in the last few years, and after the devastating effects triggered by the great recession of 2008, it has grown exponentially. The new pro-independence parties are only seeking secession because of the economic crisis."
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to block the secession in court, calling it a "nonsense plan" that is not allowed by the Spanish constitution.
One Catalan who voted on Sunday told Reuters the election presented the world with a negative image of Spain and Catalonia. "This election is shameful," he said. "It would have been much better to organize a vote like in Scotland with debates and proper information so that voters can make up their mind."
The critical vote follows a demonstration on September 11, Catalonia's National Day, when more than 1.5 million people flooded the streets of Barcelona calling for independence. Junts Pel Si and the leftist party CUP believe a victory on Sunday will pave the path to a unilateral declaration of independence within 18 months, allowing Catalan authorities to approve their own constitution and build new institutions.
"It would be huge," Alejandro Quiroga, a Spanish historian at Newcastle University in the UK, told VICE News. "It's never happened in the Western world that a country has unilaterally decided to quit in a peaceful manner and without any agreement with the other country."
Europe's banking sector fears the effect that Catalan independence could have on the euro, and Spain's national bank said the uncertainty over savings accounts could lead to a financial panic.
Secessionist leader Artur Mas has said Catalonia won't assume its share of Spain's national debt — estimated at more than 180 million euros — if the Spanish government refuses to participate in negotiations to allow the breakaway to proceed.
Junts Pel Sí has said Catalonia would like to stay in the EU and keep the euro as its currency, while CUP leaders want to discuss the conditions that would be required for that to happen, saying they are happy to leave the EU if a favorable agreement is not reached.
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Maria Altimira, Quique Badia, and Reuters contributed to this report.