MADRID — Residents of Spain's Catalonia region showed that they want the right to decide on possible independence but split their votes between fractious separatist parties, making that overall goal less likely than ever.
Artur Mas of the northeastern region's ruling center-right coalition had sought an absolute majority in Sunday's vote to get a mandate for an independence referendum that the central government says would be unconstitutional. But his Convergence and Union party lost seats while another rival, the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia, made big gains.
While the two parties share the goal of holding the referendum, they are far apart on almost everything else and analysts said it would be very difficult for them to form an alliance.
"They agree on the issue of the right to decide the future of the Catalan people, but on economic issues they have opposite positions," said Carlos Berrera, a communications professor at the University of Navarra.
In power for the past two years, Convergence and Union has introduced painful austerity cuts in Catalonia that have been vigorously opposed by Republican Left.
Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people that includes Spain's second-largest city of Barcelona, is one of the areas suffering the most after Spain's real estate bust produced a 4-year-old economic crisis. Spain's economy is now in shreds and unemployment is 25 percent and rising.
Catalonia is responsible for around a fifth of Spain's economic output and many residents complain that the central government in Madrid takes in more tax money from the region than it gives back. But now it's the most indebted region in Spain and had to seek a €5.4 billion bailout from Madrid.
The result of Sunday's vote was welcomed by the central Spanish government, which fiercely opposes the idea of a referendum.
Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo called the outcome "a good result for Catalonia, Spain and Europe, though not for Convergence and Union."
Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria described the election as "a serious blow for Mas" but one that "put the priorities in order."
"Voters want governments focusing on the crisis and creating jobs," she added.
In all, the ruling party lost 12 seats, going down to 50 seats in the 135-seat regional Catalonia legislature, with Republican Left coming in second with 21 seats. Five other parties split the remainder, with most of those seats going to parties opposed to independence.
Mas did not immediately outline plans Monday on how he would try to form a government. Republican Left leader Oriol Junqueras said voters issued a "mandate to hold a referendum" but he ruled out forming a coalition with Convergence and Union.
Junqueras said his party would continue to demand that Mas' government change its austerity policies, calling for lower taxes for most and for banks and the rich to shoulder more costs. But he didn't rule out working with Mas on specific issues.
Mas might try to seek a deal with the Republican Left only on the referendum and other issues, which falls short of building a coalition, said Jordi Matas, a political science professor at the University of Barcelona.
While the pro-referendum parties won a majority, he said the result of a hypothetical referendum is hard to predict.
Catalan has had a long history separatist sentiment, especially since its own language and cultural traditions were harshly repressed by Gen. Francisco Franco's military dictatorship from the end of Spain's Civil War in 1939 until his death in 1975.
That sentiment was reignited this fall, when Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refused to ease Catalonia's tax load and 1.5 million people turned out in Barcelona for the largest nationalist rally since the 1970s.
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