Separatists have won a clear majority of seats in Catalonia's parliament which may now set in motion a move towards independence.
"Catalans have voted yes to independence," acting regional government head Artur Mas told supporters after secessionist parties secured 72 out of the 135 seats up for grabs in the region of 7.5 million people that includes Barcelona. The pro-separatists have won more than the 68 seats needed for an absolute majority in the regional parliament.
According to official results, the main secessionist group, "Junts pel Si" (Together for Yes) won 62 seats while the smaller leftist CUP party secured the other 10 seats. Both groups jointly received 47.8% of the votes in a record turnout of 78%.
Reuters noted that both groups had said that a win would allow them to unilaterally declare independence within 18 months, under a plan that would see the new Catalan authorities approving their own constitution and building institutions like an army, central bank and judicial system.
Mas said a "democratic mandate" now existed to move forward with independence. That gives us a great strength and strong legitimacy to keep on with this project," he told supporters chanting "in-inde-independencia" and waved secessionist flags.
AFP said that Mas has turned the regional election as an indirect vote on independence after the central government blocked him from holding a straight referendum on secession.
The win is a big blow to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who will be facing a national election in three months. His centre-right government has opposed attempts to hold a referendum on secession, and has called the separatist plan "nonsense" and has vowed to block it in court.
"The government will continue to guarantee the unity of Spain," ruling Popular Party spokesman Pablo Casado told reporters in Madrid, according to AFP.
He said that the pro-separatists had "failed" by not winning a majority of votes and falling short of a majority for the Together for Yes group. "He [Mas] should either resign over tonight's failure or start governing for all Catalans. This election should serve to end the independence debate once and for all."
Reuters said the Spanish constitution does not allow any regions to break away and as such the prospect of Catalonia doing so remains "highly hypothetical."
The news agency said the regional election in the second-most populous area, is widely expected to influence the general election in December.
It said the ruling People's Party and the opposition Socialists, both lost tens of thousands of votes compared to the last election in 2012.
Despite the separatist victory, analysts believe that the win will force a dialogue between Catalan and Spanish authorities rather than an outright move for independence. AFP notes that the Together for Yes alliance faces tough talks ahead if it wishes to strike a deal with CUP, an anti-capitalist citizens' movement for social justice.
"Many have voted for Junts pel Si even if they don't favour secession because they saw the vote as a blank cartridge ... and a way to gain a stronger position ahead of a negotiation," said Jose Pablo Ferrandiz from polling firm Metroscopia.