BARCELONA • Spain's effort to snuff out an independence drive in Catalonia was dealt a significant blow as secessionists narrowly won an election called by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in hopes of calming the country's constitutional crisis.
After Catalonia's separatist lawmakers declared independence in late October, Mr Rajoy invoked emergency powers for the first time in Spain's democratic history.
He ousted the Catalan government and imposed direct rule on the formerly autonomous region.
Mr Rajoy then called new elections for the regional Parliament, calculating that Catalan voters would punish the secessionist leaders.
That gamble did not pay off.
Official results on Thursday showed Catalonia's separatist parties once again winning a narrow majority in the region's Parliament - as they had before - an outcome that could allow them to revive their independence drive.
Catalonia, a former principality with its own language, has stepped up its push for independence in recent years as its economy has boomed.
Spanish stocks were down on fears that tensions with the country's richest region will hurt the euro zone's fourth-largest economy. Catalonia accounts for a fifth of Spain's economy.
Secessionists say it pays an unfair share of taxes to Madrid, but investors fear independence would knock the indebted region out of the European Union and the euro zone by default.
Speaking from Brussels, Mr Carles Puigdemont, the former leader of Catalonia who was removed by Mr Rajoy, said Thursday's record turnout of about 83 per cent had produced "an indisputable result" in favour of the separatists.
Mr Puigdemont had fled to Belgium to escape a Spanish court probe that resulted in a clutch of his allies being jailed. "I'm open to meet (PM Rajoy) in Brussels or in a different country within the EU that would not be Spain," he said in a televised speech in Brussels.
Mr Puigdemont's party won 34 seats in the next regional Parliament, two more seats than its rival separatist party.
Mr Rajoy's Popular Party earned just three seats and ended up last among the main unionist parties.
It was the biggest loser of the night.
After months of feuding, Mr Rajoy, Catalonia and indeed all of Spain ended up close to where the crisis had started.
Mr Rajoy yesterday rejected a call by Mr Puigdemont for a meeting, and also ruled out calling a national election. Mr Rajoy said he would make an effort to hold talks with the new Catalan government.
Spanish financial markets recoiled at the surprise result.
By risking an election in the wealthy region, Mr Rajoy appears to have made the same mistake that leaders such as Greece's Mr Alexis Tsipras, Britain's Mr David Cameron and Italy's Mr Matteo Renzi made in recent years: betting that voters would resolve their troublesome domestic conundrums for them.
Spanish stocks were down on fears that tensions with the country's richest region will hurt the euro zone's fourth-largest economy.
Catalonia accounts for a fifth of Spain's economy.
More than 3,100 firms have moved their headquarters out of the region since the independence drive boiled over this year into a referendum that Madrid declared unconstitutional.
"More companies leaving, less economic activity there - and worse for everyone," said the chief executive of a major listed Spanish company, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the tense climate of the independence debate.
Germany yesterday called for reconciliation and respect for the Constitution in Spain.
"We hope that the current division in Catalan society can be overcome and that a common future can be found with all political forces in Spain," German government spokesman Ulrike Demmer said at a regular government news conference.