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 regional parliamentary majority, setting up a possible showdown over independence with the central government in Madrid.
With 99 percent of the vote counted, the "Together for Yes" group of secessionists from across a broad political spectrum had 62 seats in the 135-member regional parliament.
Catalans are fiercely proud of their own distinct language and culture. Many 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 economic near-meltdown during the financial crisis.
If the secessionist alliance join forces with the radical pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy party, known as CUP, which won 10 seats, they will have more than the 68 seats needed to try to push forward their plan to make Catalonia independent from Spain by 2017.
CUP had insisted that it would join an independence bid only if secessionist parties won more than 50 percent of the popular vote, but analysts predicted that it would drop the demand. The pro-independence parties got a majority in Parliament with only 48 percent of the vote because of a quirk in Spanish election law that gives extra weight to rural voters.
Catalonia's pro-independence 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 prosperous, industrialized region bordering France.
"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,'" Mas 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."
Catalonia's rural regions are more supportive of independence than urban areas like Barcelona, so the pro-independence parties benefited from the Spanish law giving more representation to rural areas. Critics, however, said the result showed that secessionist forces failed to gain legitimacy for their effort and demanded Mas's resignation.
"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.
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.
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.