Separatist parties have won enough seats in Catalonia's regional parliament to strengthen their majority, although a strong showing for the local branch of Spain's ruling Socialists pointed to a dialogue, rather than break-up, with Madrid.
With more than 99 per cent of ballots counted, separatists won 50.9 per cent of Sunday's vote, surpassing the 50 per cent threshold for the first time. The most likely scenario is for the two main separatist parties to extend their coalition government.
The final outcome is unlikely, however, to lead to any repeat of the chaotic, short-lived declaration of independence from Spain that took place in 2017. Tensions have ebbed and most voters were more concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic than independence.
Low turnout of 53 per cent amid the pandemic, down from 79 per cent in the 2017 election, may have favoured separatist parties, whose supporters were more mobilised.
Leftist separatist party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) said it would lead the regional government and seek the support of other parties for a referendum on independence.
"The country starts a new era with (separatists) surpassing 50 per cent of the vote for the first time ... We have an immense strength to achieve a referendum and the Catalan republic," said acting regional chief Pere Aragones, who led his party's slate of candidates.
He urged Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to enter into talks to agree on a referendum.
But the fragmented vote, which saw the Socialists win the highest percentage of votes, 23 per cent, and the same number of seats as ERC - 33 in the in the 135-seat assembly - means they will also try to form a government.
Socialist candidate Salvador Illa, who until recently led Spain's coronavirus response as health minister, argued there was a broad call in Catalonia for reconciliation after years of separatism and said he would try to seek a majority in parliament.
That would require an unlikely alliance, however, with other parties.
The centre-right pro-independence Junts won an estimated 32 seats, while far-left separatist party CUP got nine. Both parties are considered key to achieving another separatist coalition government.
Spanish nationalist far-right party Vox won 11 seats in Catalonia's parliament for the first time, ahead of the People's Party, the main Spanish conservative party, and the centre-right Ciudadanos. Vox is the third-largest party in Spain's national parliament.