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Catalan parties that want split from Spain leading election

BARCELONA, Spain — Catalan political parties that support independence from Spain were poised to regain a majority in Catalonia's regional parliament, according to provisional results with more than 90 percent of votes counted Thursday.

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 pro-union 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 following a unilateral declaration of independence by Catalan lawmakers.

Catalan voters turned up in force Thursday for a regional 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.

Catalonia's election board said that 68.3 percent, or 3.75 million of 5.5 million eligible voters, had cast ballots by 6 p.m. (1700 GMT; 12 p.m. EST), more than 5 percentage points higher than in the last regional election in 2015. Surveys in recent weeks had predicted record turnout numbers, but a final figure wasn't immediately given so it's not clear if that milestone had been reached.

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. Former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont campaigned from Belgium, where he is evading a Spanish arrest warrant in a rebellion and sedition probe.

"It's not normal, an election that takes place with candidates in prison and candidates in exile," Puigdemont said in the Belgian capital. In a tweet, he thanked an 18-year-old woman who cast a vote on his behalf in a town near Barcelona.

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.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called the early election, which he is hoping will keep the separatists out of power. The strategy could backfire, however, if the election delivers a pro-independence majority of lawmakers in the Catalan parliament. Even so, Rajoy says Catalan independence would go against the Spanish Constitution and he refuses to accept the possibility.

Ines Arrimadas, leader of the pro-Spanish unity party Ciutadans, said she wanted to end the bitter disputes over independence that have divided Catalans and caused upheaval.

"We are going to fight very hard for Catalonia to return to normalcy," Arrimadas told reporters after casting her vote in Barcelona.

Across the Catalan capital, citizens lined up to cast their votes.

Manuel Abella, a 64-year-old retiree, said he voted for Ciutadans, which has fared well in polls. Abella said he didn't like how the split between separatists and pro-unity Catalans has become so unpleasant.

"The problem we have is that now people are divided, you are either with us or against us," he said. "I have experienced this in my own family. We have arrived at the point that we can't talk politics now."

Sergi Balateu, a 37-year-old marketing director, voted 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 the independence referendum.

Balateu said he voted for Puigdemont's ticket, Together for Catalonia. "It is a strange feeling to vote here today," he said, because of the memories of the October clash, when he and other separatists held hands and tried to protect the referendum ballot boxes.

"For me it is a question of identity. I feel more Catalan than Spanish," he said.

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.

The parties of Puigdemont and his former deputy, Oriol Junqueras, held a slim majority in the previous parliament together with a smaller anti-capitalist group, enabling them to push ahead with the independence drive.

Ciaran Giles reported from Madrid. Joseph Wilson and Karl Ritter in Barcelona, and Barry Hatton, in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this report.