Podemos victory in Catalonia a blow for struggling separatists

By Sonya Dowsett MADRID (Reuters) - Left-wing newcomer Podemos, which opposes a split of Catalonia from Spain, topped polls in the northeastern region in Sunday's Spanish general election, dealing a blow to Catalan separatists already struggling with divisions in their movement. Podemos, the only national party to back a Catalan referendum on independence from Spain although it has said it would recommend voting against secession, won 12 parliamentary seats in the wealthy region of 7 million. Altogether, parties opposing a Catalan split from Spain, including the Socialists, Ciudadanos and the People's Party (PP), garnered 30 seats. That compared with the 17 seats won by the pro-independence camp - nine for leftist party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya and eight for center-right Democracia I Llibertat, the party of acting regional government head Artur Mas. Podemos' strong showing in Catalonia echoed its robust results across the country where it surged to register third in number of parliamentary seats, beating fellow newcomer Ciudadanos into fourth place. Catalans hope a new coalition government in Madrid will soften the hardline stance of the centre-right PP administration toward the region, leading to greater autonomy if falling short of full-blown independence. But it is still unclear whether that outcome would be an incentive for Catalan separatists to park their divisions and take advantage of the lack of a strong government in Madrid to push their cause. They could also choose to seek a renewed dialogue with the central government and capitalize on the fact that their combined 17 seats will likely be needed to secure a majority in an investiture vote in Madrid. "The message in Catalonia is that the pro-independence parties have won less votes than in September's elections," said Lorenzo Navarrete, a professor of sociology at Madrid's Complutense University. "The situation of Catalonia is bad for the nationalists because the vote is split and it's not possible to move towards independence if there is no majority of the people," he added. The separatist movement has become more muddled since the fervor at the height of the economic crisis in 2012 when frustration over taxes, unemployment and recession drove more than one million people onto the streets of Barcelona to clamor for independence. Pro-independence parties in Catalonia voted through a controversial resolution last month calling for secession from Spain and declaring judicial decisions made at a state level not applicable in the region. But they have also failed to agree on a joint regional government. Fringe left-wing party CUP, which did not present at a national level, is due to announce later this month whether it backs Mas, who has led the region since 2010. If the extreme left party, which rejects Catalan membership of NATO and the European Union, opts to support centre-right Mas, the region can form a government. If not, fresh regional elections would have to be held by March. (Additional reporting by Inmaculada Sanz; Editing by Julien Toyer and Mary Milliken)