By Joan Faus and Luis Felipe Castilleja
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Separatist parties won enough seats on Sunday 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 breakup, with Madrid.
With over 99% of ballots counted, separatists won 50.9% of the vote, surpassing the 50% threshold for the first time. The most likely scenario was 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% amid the pandemic, down from 79% in the previous election in 2017, may have favoured separatist parties, whose supporters were more mobilised.
Election monitors swapped face masks for full-body protective suits during the final hour of voting, "the zombie hour", which was reserved for people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. Other precautions during the day included temperatures taken on arrival, hand gel and separate entries and exits.
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% 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%, 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 those 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 already the third-largest party in Spain's national parliament.
But with ERC seen getting more lawmakers than Junts this time, that could boost the stability of Spain's central government.
The result could be seen as good news for Sanchez as his Socialist party won almost double the 17 seats it got in 2017.
ERC has provided key votes to the Socialists in the Spanish parliament in exchange for talks on the Catalan political conflict.
(Reporting by Joan Faus and Jessica Jones; Additional reporting by Guillermo Martinez, Jordi Rubio, Nacho Doce and Albert Gea; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Jessica Jones; Editing by Alexander Smith, Andrei Khalip and Peter Cooney)