Catalans appeared to have set their region on the road to independence last night as early analysis of the region's parliamentary elections suggested they had handed their separatist leader a mandate to push for a break with Spain.
As ballot boxes closed, the first exit polls showed that voters had chosen to return the centre-right Convergence and Union party (CIU) to power, giving them between 54 and 57 seats in the 135-seat regional assembly.
Artur Mas, the party's leader and incumbent president, had pledged to call a referendum on Catalan independence if he was returned to office.
The exit polls also showed that the separatist left- wing ERC party appeared to have doubled its share of the vote, securing between 20 and 23 seats. That would make it the second largest party in parliament, according to figures published on Catalan television.
Two smaller parties that also back a referendum secured at least 15 seats between them.
The election results set the stage for a showdown with Madrid, threatening Mariano Rajoy, Spain's conservative prime minister, with the biggest political crisis since the nation's transition to democracy.
Mr Mas called the snap elections two years early, centring his campaign on the promise of a Scottish-style referendum within four years, if his party secured a majority.
Although last night's exit polls appeared to show his CIU party had fallen short of the absolute majority Mr Mas had hoped for – the party secured marginally fewer than the 62 seats it won two years ago – there should be enough parliamentary support to push through a referendum.
Those parties in favour of the referendum are now likely to negotiate some form of coalition. After casting his vote earlier in the day, Mr Mas (56) said: "These are the most decisive elections in the history of Catalonia, in which we all play a role as a country, as a people."
Polls show as many as 57pc of Catalans would vote Yes to independence, a figure that has nearly doubled since the start of Spain's economic crisis in 2008.
Many voters believe that the region, which boasts a strong cultural identity and contributes 20pc of Spain's economic output, would fare better economically as an individual state within the EU.
Mr Mas was forced to ask Madrid earlier this year for a €5bn lifeline to help meet operating costs in a region with a debt of €48bn.
He has blamed tax transfers to Madrid as the root of the region's woes and tried to negotiate a new fiscal treaty, a move that was rejected by Mr Rajoy.
The central Government has warned that it will fight any moves that could lead to the break-up of the eurozone's fourth-largest economy.
Mr Rajoy, already battling to avoid an international bail-out for Spain and growing social unrest in a nation with 25pc unemployment, faces a looming constitutional crisis. (© Daily Telegraph, London)