The prime minister of a north-eastern Spanish region of Catalonia pledged to forge ahead with his plans to seek independence from Spain in spite of suffering a large defeat in regional elections.
Artur Mas' Catalan nationalist party CiU took 50 seats in the 135-member regional parliament in Sunday's voting, down from 62 seats, in one of the worst election results in its decades-long history.
The result left Mas well short of the absolute majority he was seeking to back up his plan to stage a referendum on independence.
Spain's main opposition Socialist Party fell from second to third place with 20 seats while Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's anti-independence People's Party (PP) increased its representation by one seat to 19 mandates.
The smaller anti-independence party Ciutadans tripled its support to nine seats in what was seen as an increasingly polarized and fragmented parliament.
Catalan PP leader Alicia Sanchez-Camacho urged Mas to admit his "failure" and to "abandon the separatist position."
But the premier pledged to seek a parliamentary majority for the planned referendum. "The situation is not easy, but we will move forward," Mas vowed.
Mas was expected to try to join forces with the ERC, which has sharply criticized his spending cuts in health and education.
Voter turnout was nearly 70 per cent, the highest-ever participation rate in a Catalan regional poll.
Mas called elections two years ahead of schedule to muster support for a referendum on whether the 7.6 million Catalans, who live in a territory about the size of Belgium, should have "a state of their own."
Mas would like to hold the referendum in four years, but the central government has vowed to block his plans through the Constitutional Court.
Critics said the premier had mounted an independence campaign to distract citizens from his unpopular cuts in social spending.
Once regarded as Spain's economic powerhouse, Catalonia has been hit hard by the country's economic crisis. The regional government is being crushed by debt and has been forced to seek a fiscal rescue from Madrid.
Unemployment stands at 22.5 per cent, still below the national average of 25 per cent.
Ahead of the vote, the government in Madrid asked the judiciary to investigate allegations that Mas had been involved in a corruption scandal at a Barcelona concert hall. The premier dismissed the allegations as a politically motivated attempt to tarnish the Catalan independence movement.
Catalonia already enjoys wide powers over health and education. It has its own police force and "embassies" abroad and has made Catalan an official language alongside Spanish.
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