BARCELONA (AFP) - After being sacked by Madrid and fleeing to Belgium, Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has made a stunning comeback, his supporters in Barcelona celebrating after elections handed separatist parties another majority in Parliament.
“Puigdemont, president!” they shouted in the basement of a hotel in the Mediterranean city when the results were out just before midnight on Thursday (Dec 21).
Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia list, the leftist ERC party and the tiny, anti-capitalist CUP have won 70 seats out of 135, even if they only got 47.5 per cent of the votes.
They still need to agree to join forces to form a regional government, but for now, supporters are savouring the victory – a near repeat of 2015 elections.
“With this result, the message to Spain is: sit down and talk,” says Mr Francesc Portella, 50, who works in marketing. “And the message to Europe: open your eyes, react!”
Puigdemont himself is not there, having left for Belgium after the Catalan Parliament declared unilateral independence on Oct 27, after which Madrid put the semi-autonomous region under direct rule, sacked the government and called snap elections.
“The Spanish state moved heaven and earth to destroy the independence movement but the Catalan people are way stronger and more peaceful than Spain with its batons,” says Mr Portella.
One of the sore points for independence supporters is a referendum held on Oct 1 despite a court ban, which saw police brutally repress voters.
Next to him, Mr Oriol Sanchez, 19, shouts “freedom” with more gusto than other supporters.
His father, Jordi Sanchez, is in jail on a charge of sedition for his role in the independence drive as leader of the civic association ANC, a strong mobiliser of those who support secession.
“He’s in prison for his ideals. I’m very proud of him and the country,” he says of Catalonia.
Puigdemont himself addresses the supporters by video link.
“The Catalan republic won against the monarchy of the 155,” he said, referring to Article 155 of the Constitution that the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy used to place the region under direct rule.
Mr Rajoy’s deputy claimed last weekend that the ruling Popular Party (PP) had “decapitated” the independence movement, with Puigdemont in Belgium and his deputy Oriol Junqueras in jail.
But the PP has fared miserably in the Catalan elections, winning just 4.2 per cent of the votes.
“You can see it’s not going their way,” says Ms Montserrat Grane, a 60-year-old civil servant.
But she remains pessimistic. “The PP will never negotiate, it doesn’t understand negotiation, only surrender.”
Many other Catalan voters, however, say they are not hell-bent on independence, but vote for the separatists in rejection of Mr Rajoy’s conservative government, in power since 2011.
And whatever they do, the separatists will have to acknowledge Catalans who don’t share their dreams.
In fact, the party that won most seats and votes is centrist Ciudadanos, against independence, even if it remains far behind the three separatist parties combined.
A victory for the party’s young candidate Ines Arrimadas, 36, who is happy it won in “the 10 most populated cities” including Barcelona.
“Nationalist parties won’t ever again be able to speak in the name of all of Catalonia,” she told a crowd of supporters near Spain Square in Barcelona.
Still, for many of her supporters, the victory is bittersweet.
Mr Lino Navio, a 75-year-old retiree, is not so jubilant as he waits for Ms Arrimadas to take to a stage where smoke machines are already going and music blaring.
“We’re where we were before,” he says.
His wife quips in with one word: “disillusion.”
But there is hope among some of those who reject independence.
“A war isn’t won with just one battle,” says Mr Ramon Duran, a 28-year-old who is unemployed.
In Brussels, the few dozen people gathered in a conference centre to watch the results were guarded about the future.
"It's a bitter victory," said Mr Michel Vila, a 70-year-old retired engineer who has lived in Belgium for the past three decades.
"The electoral campaign was totally manipulated, because the two candidates for the main parties were in exile here and the other was in prison. As an independence supporter, I would say we resisted well."
"But it's a fact that the pro-independence vote didn't pass 48 per cent."
As for whether there would now be a return to Spain for Puigdemont, "that we don't know," he said.
Where tens of thousands of Catalan independence supporters marched through Brussels a few weeks ago, the turnout was far more modest at Thursday's results event.
There were around 50 Catalans and 35 Flemish independence supporters whose party has backed them - but they were outnumbered by journalists.
Puigdemont struck a defiant tone as he addressed his fans, calling the result a "slap" for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
"This is a result which no one can dispute," Mr Puigdemont told supporters, as they chanted "president, president".
He warned, however, that the likelihood of future rows with Madrid "might stop us cracking open the cava yet" - referring to the sparkling white wine produced in Catalonia.
Ms Maria Arbos, 57, a retired tourism worker who is from Catalonia but lives near Brussels, said she had mixed emotions.
"We are happy because we got a majority. But we would rather Ciudadanos (pro-union with Spain party) was not been the biggest party because then the Spanish newspapers will say they won," she said.
"But they haven't won. We have the majority."
Ms Arbos called on Europe - which said on Thursday it would not change its view that the matter was an internal one for Spain - to help resolve the Catalan question.
"Europe would do well to listen to us, because there is a problem that is not resolved," she said, adding that Puigdemont "is our president with these results".
She accused Spain of being a "dictatorship" as key separatist leaders remained in jail, adding, "it's just not right."
Supporter Marina Sanchez made a similar comparison to authoritarian rule.
"It's really unique in Europe to have a president and a future president in exile, and another in exile. It's like Turkey," she said.