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Voters Back Pro-Independence Parties In Catalonia

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Pro-independence parties won this week's elections for a regional Parliament in Catalonia. Spain's government was hoping that election would tamp down a separatist movement. Guy Hedgecoe reports on what happened instead.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

(CHEERING)

GUY HEDGECOE, BYLINE: At an election watch party in Barcelona, supporters of Catalan independence celebrated after the results were announced. It was a close-run contest, reflecting how divided Catalan society is over the issue of secession. A unionist party, Ciudadanos, was the official winner, taking the most seats, but close behind it were two pro-independence parties, Together for Catalonia and the Catalan Republican Left. They and a third party secured a majority in the regional Parliament. It's a major setback for the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy. He introduced direct rule in Catalonia at the end of October after the region's nationalist government had issued a unilateral declaration of independence. Rajoy also called this election, hoping a unionist victory would marginalize those wanting to break away.

But this result will keep independence at the center of the political agenda. The candidates of Rajoy's popular party, Xavier Garcia Albiol, who came joint last, acknowledged that it was an overwhelming defeat.

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XAVIER GARCIA ALBIOL: (Through interpreter) Today is a bad day for the popular party in Catalonia. It's bad because of our result, but it's also bad in terms of the future of Catalonia. We are very worried about Catalonia's social and economic future with a possible pro-independence majority in the Parliament.

HEDGECOE: The deposed president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, fled to Belgium when direct rule by Spain was introduced. He was trying to avoid being put on trial for sedition. But Puigdemont said during the campaign that if he and his allies won this election, he would return to become Catalan president again. An arrest warrant against him remains in force, meaning he would probably be detained on arriving. But this election result now puts the Spanish government in an extremely uncomfortable position.

For NPR News, I'm Guy Hedgecoe in Barcelona. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.