Catalonia's secessionist parties won enough votes Thursday to regain a slim majority in the regional parliament and give new momentum to their political struggle for independence from Spain.
It was hardly an emphatic victory, however, as the separatists lost support compared to the previous vote in 2015, and a pro-unity party for the first time became Catalonia's biggest single force in parliament.
The anti-independence, pro-business Ciutadans (Citizens) party garnered 37 seats in the 135-seat regional assembly with nearly 99 percent of the votes counted.
Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia), the party of fugitive Catalan president Carles Puigdemont garnered 34 seats, left-republican ERC came third with 32 and the anti-capitalist CUP won four seats. The three pro-independence forces together make up 70 seats, two above a majority but two less than in the previous 2015 election.
"The election has resolved very little," said Andrew Dowling, a specialist in Catalan history at Cardiff University in Wales. "Independence has won but in a way similar to 2015. Majority of seats but not in votes."
Puigdemont, who was dismissed by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government, campaigned from Belgium, where he is evading a Spanish arrest warrant in a rebellion and sedition probe. He greeted the result with delight, but rebuked Spain's central government.
"The Spanish state has been defeated," Puigdemont said, without saying if he would return to Spain. "Mariano Rajoy has received a slap in the face from Catalonia."
The result leaves more questions than answers about what*s next for Catalonia, where a long-standing push for independence escalated to a full-on clash with the Spanish government two months ago.
The result is a blow to Rajoy, who ousted the Catalan Cabinet and called the early election hoping to keep the separatists out of power. His ruling Popular Party had a poor showing in the Catalan election, left with only three seats in the regional assembly from 11 held in the previous parliament.
Rajoy has said that taking over control of the region again would be something he would consider if independence, which is against Spain's constitution, is sought by a new Catalan government.
Catalan voters turned up in force for the election seen as a crucial test of strength for the powerful movement that wants Catalonia to split from Spain.
The vote was called by the Spanish government in an attempt to end the political crisis that erupted in October over a banned referendum on independence.
Opinion polls before the vote had predicted a close race between the separatist and unionist parties. Voters chose between parties who want Catalonia to remain part of Spain and those who want to continue the push for turning the northeastern region into an independent republic.
The election was held under highly unusual circumstances, with several pro-independence leaders either jailed or in exile for their roles in staging the Oct. 1 independence vote that was declared illegal by Spain's highest court.
Weeks of campaigning involved little debate about regional policy on issues such as public education, widening inequality and unemployment. At the heart of the battle instead was the recent independence push that led to Spain's worst political crisis in decades.
Tensions have been high in Catalonia since the referendum, when Spanish police used rubber bullets and batons against voters who tried to block them from removing ballots from polling stations. Separatist regional lawmakers made a unilateral declaration of independence on Oct. 27, prompting Spain's national government to take the dramatic step of firing the regional government and dissolving the Catalan parliament. Courts later ordered the arrest of the former Catalan leaders.
No incidents were reported during the election Thursday.
Ines Arrimadas, leader of the pro-Spanish unity party Ciutadans that won the most votes, promised her party will continue to fight the region's separatists.
"The pro-secession forces can never again claim they speak for all for Catalonia," she said. "We are going to keep fighting for a peaceful co-existence, common sense and for a Catalonia for all Catalans."
A new Catalan attempt to secede would be an unwelcome development for the European Union, which is already wrestling with legal complications from Britain's planned exit from the bloc. Senior EU officials have backed Rajoy, and no EU country has offered support for the separatists.
Catalonia's independence ambitions also have scant support in the rest of Spain.
The outcome of the political battle is crucial for a region that accounts for 19 percent of Spain's gross domestic product.
An economic slowdown has been the most immediate consequence of the Catalan independence push. Spain's central bank last week cut its national growth forecasts for next year and 2019 to 2.4 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively, cutting a percentage point off its previous predictions and citing the conflict in Catalonia as the cause.