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Catalan separatist Puigdemont looks likely to retake regional leadership after vote

  • Preliminary results in Catalonia showed secessionist parties taking a majority in regional elections
  • Separatist parties were seen getting 70 seats in the 135-seat assembly, Reuters reported, citing official data
  • Serious problems lie ahead for the wealthy region and for Spain at large
Eric Vidal/Reuters

Catalonia's separatist leader Carles Puigdemont looked likely to regain the leadership of Spain's northeastern region after preliminary results showed secessionist parties taking a majority in regional elections.

The results marked a serious rebuke to Spain's central government and the European Union, likely prolonging a crisis that has hurt the Spanish economy and prompted many companies to depart from Catalonia.

Separatist parties were seen getting 70 seats in the 135-seat assembly, Reuters reported, citing official data. Puigdemont's Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) was seen winning 34 of those seats, ahead of two other separatist parties.

Speaking from Brussels, Puigdemont on Friday said the absolute majority won by separatists was a victory of the "Catalan republic" over Spain, Reuters reported.

Puigdemont went into self-imposed exile after his government was scrapped by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in October when it declared independence from Spain.

The euro slid Friday against the dollar after results pointed to the win for pro-independence parties.

Deep divisions won't heal easily

Spanish politicians are assessing how to rebuild the divided and polarized region after the election.

The vote is unlikely to settle Catalan's independence question, according to Enea Desideri, an analyst at think tank Open Europe.

"The polls and debate and what we're expecting in terms of the vote reflect the polarization in the political debate in the region," he told CNBC prior to the election. "Other issues have been almost totally side-stepped by this question of independence and identity, which has become the one issue that has defined politics in the region."

Voter turnout was expected to be very high in the snap election, which was called by Spain's government after it fired the regional parliament in October. Spain invoked Article 155 to seize control of the region.

Luis Garicano, economic advisor and executive board member of anti-independence party Ciudadanos, said he expected the voice of anti-independence voters to be heard. "The pro-independence parties have always, historically, been very mobilized for the regional elections and the voters who are not voting for pro-independence parties tend to be more mobilized for other elections," he told CNBC Thursday.

"Hopefully we'll enter a new period for Catalonia where things start to settle down and we can start to worry about the problems of citizens of Catalonia, like health and education."

'No easy answer'

Pro-independence politicians have been accused by Rajoy, and other political opponents, of irresponsibility at best and sedition at worst, with high-profile secessionists Puigdemont in self-imposed exile in Belgium and Junqueras in prison.

Still, despite the accusations of treachery and potentially long prison sentences if found guilty, pro-independence sentiment is still strong. Puigdemont called on his supporters to show the same courage Thursday as they had done when voting in an unofficial referendum on independence in October, which precipitated the current political crisis in the region.

Garicano said prior to Thursday's vote that there is a risk that pro-independence parties were "not willing to accept the rules of the game" and the election result, however.

Politicians recognize that Catalan society is deeply divided by the question of independence and that the issue is not easy to resolve in a way that can placate both camps. Some kind of constitutional reform could be a starting point for dialogue between Spain and Catalonia, however, with discussions potentially focusing on public investment in the region and an overhaul of its financial system.

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Fernando Sanchez Costa, the Catalan parliament deputy of Rajoy's Partido Popular, told CNBC that there was "no easy answer" to the Catalonia question, but that the winner had to be "inclusive."

"After a problem that has been a very complex problem there is no easy answer and there will be no easy answer," he said, although he saw the election as a "historic chance for change."

"It's very important that whoever wins has to be inclusive — that they know that half of the population is scared that the other half has won. And we have to be prudent, rational and very empathic with other people to start again and to rebuild Catalonia with consent and dialogue," he said.