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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The Latest on the regional election in Catalonia (all times local):
Catalonia's fugitive leader of its separatist movement says that the collective victory of pro-secession parties in elections in the Spanish region represents "a slap to the face" of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Carles Puigdemont told a rally in Brussels that "the Spanish state has been defeated."
Rajoy dismissed Puigdemont and his government after an illegal declaration of independence by Catalonia's parliament on Oct. 27. He then fled to Belgium to avoid a judge's summons for questioning in an investigation into the role of his government and separatist leaders in pushing for secession in violation of the Spanish Constitution.
Puigdemont said: "Europe must take note that Rajoy's solution doesn't work. All those in Europe who have supported Rajoy's position, even with their silence, should take notice. Catalonia must decide its future."
The leader of the pro-Spanish party that won the most votes in Catalonia's elections promises her party will continue to fight the region's separatists.
Ines Arrimadas says "the pro-secession forces can never again claim they speak for all for Catalonia. We are going to keep fighting for a peaceful co-existence, common sense and for a Catalonia for all Catalans."
She adds "today we have sent a message to the world. that the majority of Catalans feel Catalan, Spanish and European and will continue to do so."
The upstart Citizens won the elections with 37 seats. Pro-secession parties, however, can retain their majority with a combined 70 seats.
Catalan separatist political parties are claiming victory in the regional election, although an upstart party that doesn't want Catalonia to break away from Spain is topping the ballot, according to in provisional results.
Elsa Artadi, the campaign manager for the party of fugitive former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, claimed the win for Together for Catalonia, ERC and CUP, the three separatist forces which would garner 70 of 135 seats in provisional results. Marta Rovira, the No. 2 in the ticket of the left republican ERC party, also made a similar claim.
The figures also show that an upstart unionist party topped the ballot. The anti-independence Ciutadans (Citizens) party got 37 seats Thursday with nearly 99 percent of the votes counted.
It remains to be seen if the parties who pushed ahead with a banned independence referendum can agree now to form a new government but either way the result is likely to keep political tensions high in Spain.
The acting leader of the main pro-secession grassroots group has claimed victory for pro-secession parties in Catalonia's elections.
Agusti Alcoberro, vice president of Catalan National Assembly, says that "we can say that pro-independence forces have won the elections."
Alcoberro told a crowd gathered in Barcelona's Maritime Museum that "we demand the restitution of the (Catalan) government and the release of the political prisoners."
Spain's government deposed Catalonia's regional government after the Catalan parliament made an illegal declaration of independence on Oct. 27.
A judge also imprisoned the then president of the Catalan National Assembly, Jordi Sanchez. Sanchez resigned his post to run in the election.
Pro-independence parties are poised to regain a majority in Catalonia's regional parliament, according to provisional results with more than 90 percent of votes counted.
Unless the results change after the final votes are counted, the three secessionist parties together have won enough votes for 70 seats in the 135-seat assembly.
However, the unionist Citizens party, looks set to become the biggest single party, with 35 seats in the parliament.
The result would mean that the pro-independence parties would once again get a chance to form a regional government, nearly two months after Spain dismissed the previous government.
Catalan authorities say that pro- and anti-independence parties are in a tight race with 50 percent of the vote counted in the regional election, but that the pro-secession bloc is heading toward regaining a majority.
The regional electoral board said the anti-independence Ciutadans (Citizens), led by 36-year-old lawyer Ines Arrimadas, is likely to win the highest number of votes for a single party, and 35 seats in the 135-member chamber.
But it said the pro-independence ticket led by fugitive former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont would garner 34 seats for the Together for Catalonia group. In third place would be the pro-secession leftist republican ERC party with 32 seats.
With the help of the radical pro-independence radical CUP party, which could get four seats, the pro-secession bloc could regain a majority in parliament.
The regional election is being closely watched in and outside Catalonia as a crucial test of strength for the region's powerful secession movement.
Voting has finished in a crucial election in Spain's northeastern Catalonia region, as polling stations closed at 8 p.m. (1900 GMT).
The regional election is being closely watched in and outside Catalonia to see if support for a separatist push will grow, subside or remain for the time being, fueling much political tension with Spain.
Catalan authorities said voting turnout was up by more than 5 percentage points at 6 p.m., with 68.3 percent of Catalan voters having cast ballots, compared to 63.12 percent in the last election in 2015.
Surveys in recent weeks had predicted record turnout numbers.
The day passed off without any major incident beyond lengthy lines at polling stations at peak times of the day.
Catalan authorities say voting turnout is up by more than 5 percentage points with two hours of balloting to go in a crucial Spanish regional election.
Regional election board said 68.3 percent of Catalan voters had cast ballots by 6 p.m. (1700 GMT; 12 p.m. EST) Thursday, compared to 63.12 percent in the last election in 2015.
Surveys in recent weeks had predicted record turnout numbers.
The regional election is being closely watched in and outside Catalonia to see if support for a separatist push will grow, subside or remain for the time being feeding political tension with Spain.
Catalan authorities say that more than a third of eligible Catalans cast their ballots in the first four hours of voting Thursday.
Figures released by the official electoral board show a turnout of 34.7 percent at 1 p.m. (1200GMT), slightly lower than the 35.1 percent figure registered at midday in the 2015 election.
Surveys in recent weeks had predicted record turnout numbers.
The key regional election is being closely watched in and outside Catalonia to see if support for a separatist push will grow, subside or remain for the time being feeding political tension with Spain.
Elections traditionally take place on a Sunday, but a working day was chosen this time by central authorities to avoid voting on Christmas Eve.
More than 5.5 million Catalans are eligible to vote in the election. Results are expected later on Thursday after polling stations close.
The pro-Spanish unity candidate leading some of the polls in Thursday's Catalan election has vowed to end the social division that she blames on separatists in the northeastern region.
"We are going to fight very hard for Catalonia to return to normalcy," Ines Arrimadas, who heads the ticket for the Ciutadans (Citizens) party, told reporters after casting her vote in Barcelona.
The candidate of the socialist PSC party, Miquel Iceta, also voted on Thursday in the regional capital calling for a "change of direction" in Catalan politics and vowing "to work to make progress possible."
Left-republican ERC's Marta Rovira noted in remarks to reporters after voting in the northern town of Vic that her party's candidate is in jail.
Former vice president Oriol Junqueras faces rebellion and sedition charges as part of a wider probe of efforts to make Catalonia independent.
"We vote today with the hope that democracy will be able to impose itself," Rovira said.
Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont says that an election back home is "extraordinarily important" for the region's return to normalcy after Spanish authorities seized control this fall.
Speaking to Catalan reporters in Brussels, where he is evading a Spanish arrest warrant, Puigdemont said that "from the results will come the formula to recover democracy" in Catalonia.
Puigdemont fled to Belgium after central authorities sacked him for pushing ahead with unilateral independence for the region. Other members of his former cabinet, including his no. 2, were jailed under preliminary sedition charges.
"It's not normal, an election that takes place with candidates in prison and candidates in exile," Puigdemont said, referring to his own situation as an imposed absence.
The separatist politician, who can't vote from Belgium, thanked in a tweet an 18 year-old woman who on Thursday cast a ballot paper on his behalf in a town near Barcelona.
Some voters in Catalonia's regional election are hoping the ballot will open a door to eventual independence from Spain.
Emelia Pierra, a 65-year-old retired secretary, voted for Together for Catalonia, which seeks secession, though she doesn't expect Spain's current conservative government to allow the region to break away.
Even so, she says, "we have to keep pushing because eventually it will come one way or another. But it will take a long time."
Maria Antonio Galeano, a 51-year-old teacher, also voted for former regional president Carles Puigdemont's party. She said after voting Thursday that "it is a complete uncertainty what will happen now" and hoped separatists and unionists would negotiate a solution for the northeastern Spanish region's future.
She added, "I think there needs to be a change and that it is starting here."
Catalan politicians are casting their ballots in the regional snap election, but that's easier for some than for others, who are in jail or keeping out of the country to avoid arrest.
Carles Riera, the candidate of the anti-establishment CUP party, a key driver in the regional independence push, cast his ballot Thursday, noting that the election was extraordinary because it had been ordered by Madrid.
He also recalled that members of the ousted Catalan separatist government are in jail or in self-imposed exile in Brussels.
Former Catalan vice president and leading candidate Oriol Junqueras mailed his ballot from a jail near Madrid, his left-republican ERC party said earlier this week.
An 18-year-old woman who has remained anonymous is expected to cast a symbolic vote on behalf of former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who can't vote in the Belgian capital. His wife, Marcela Topor, voted in a northern town near the family residence.
Puigdemont wants to be re-elected as the region's president despite facing immediate arrest if he enters Spain.
Many of the separatist politicians displayed on their lapels a yellow ribbon that has become a symbol to call for the release and return of the ousted politicians.
Sergi Balateu, a 37-year-old marketing director, voted in Catalonia's regional election at Barcelona's Ramon Llull school, where less than three months ago police in riot gear used force to stop him and others voting in an independence referendum.
The Spanish government said the referendum called by pro-independence parties was illegal and sent police to stop it. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy fired the regional government and dissolved the Catalan parliament, calling the snap regional election that is taking place Thursday.
Balateu said he voted for Together For Catalonia, which wants the region to secede. He says "it is a strange feeling to vote here today" because of the memories of the Oct. 1 clash, when he and other separatists held hands and tried to protect the referendum ballot boxes.
He says that "for me it is a question of identity. I feel more Catalan than Spanish."
Voters are queuing at polling stations across Catalonia to choose lawmakers who will be tasked with electing a new regional government.
Manuel Abella, a 64-year-old retiree, says he's voting for Ciutadans (Citizens) because he sees in the upstart pro-business party a fresh alternative to both the Catalan conservatives that have embraced independence and the old guard of unionist parties.
"I want unity," Abella said after voting in a school turned into polling station in central Barcelona. "People are divided. We are at the point that we can't talk politics. A nation's flag should be a symbol of pride, but here it is the opposite. Here people jeer the flag. We have a war of flags."
Also voting in downtown Barcelona, the city's mayor Ada Colau called for a high turnout to mark "a historic day to recover institutional normality in Catalonia."
Colau's left-wing party, which favors more autonomy for Catalonia but not independence, is likely to hold the key to building a majority for a new government.
Polls have opened across Catalonia in a hotly contested election aimed at breaking a bitter deadlock over the region's independence drive.
Voting began at 9 a.m. Thursday and the nearly 2,700 polling stations will remain open until 8 p.m. (1900 GMT).
The vote was called by Spain's central authorities after they seized control of the northeastern region in late October. It will be closely watched beyond the country's borders.
Opinion polls have shown fugitive and jailed separatist candidates neck-and-neck in opinion polls with unionists, who claim to be in the best position to return Catalonia to stability and growth.
With a record turnout expected, the more than one-fifth who are undecided among the 5.5 million eligible voters could shift the election outcome.