BARCELONA • Voters in Catalonia flocked to the polls yesterday with support for its separatist and unionist camps running neck and neck, leaving prospects of an end to Spain's worst political crisis in decades looking slim.
Final pre-election surveys published last Friday showed parties backing the region's independence drive, galvanised by an autumn referendum, could lose absolute control of its Parliament but might be able to form a minority government.
That would keep national politics mired in turmoil and raise concerns in European capitals and financial markets, though the secessionist campaign has lost some momentum since the Oct 1 plebiscite, which Madrid outlawed, and investors gave yesterday's poll a muted reception.
Catalonia's pro-independence president Carles Puigdemont, deposed by the authorities in Madrid following the region's referendum and a unilateral declaration of independence, rallied supporters from self-imposed exile in Brussels.
"Today we will demonstrate the strength of an irrepressible people. Let the spirit of Oct 1 guide us always," he said on Twitter. He voted through a proxy cast by an 18-year-old, Laura Sancho, at a polling station on the outskirts of Barcelona.
Another secessionist leader, Mr Puigdemont's former deputy Oriol Junqueras, took a more conciliatory tone towards Madrid in comments published earlier this week.
Long queues formed outside voting stations in the affluent region of north-eastern Spain shortly after they opened at 4pm Singapore time. Polls were due to close at 3am this morning Singapore time. Results are expected today.
"I'm not very optimistic that these elections will return a stable government," said Mr Miguel Rodriguez, 53, who was queuing to vote in L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, a working-class suburb south of Barcelona.
"We've had all our rights taken away," said Mr Rodriguez, who voted for independence in October's referendum, irked that the Spanish government had fired Mr Puigdemont's administration.
International investors showed few signs of nerves yesterday, with Spanish debt and the euro in demand, though the Madrid stock market lagged behind its euro zone counterparts.
"(The election) cannot be ignored going into year end," said European fixed-income strategist Orlando Green at Credit Agricole in London. "But the secession movement has been significantly diminished and would need a decisive move to revive it."
The independence campaign pitched Spain into its worst political crisis since the end of fascist rule and the return of democracy in the 1970s.
Conservative Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called yesterday's vote after sacking Mr Puigdemont's government.
The election has become a de facto referendum on how support for the independence movement has fared in recent months.
Mr Rajoy hopes it will return Catalonia to what he has called "normality" under a unionist government or separatist government that will not seek a unilateral split.
None of the six parties in the Catalan Parliament is expected on its own to come close to the 68 seats needed for a majority.
Analysts expect the next Catalan government will emerge only after weeks of haggling between parties.