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[BARCELONA] Separatists pushing to make Catalonia independent from Spain were on track to win an absolute majority of parliamentary seats in a regional election on Sunday, an exit poll showed.
A poll released by Catalan television channel TV3 said two pro-independence groups were together poised to secure between 74 and 79 seats out of a total 135, and gave them 49.8 per cent of the vote.
Jubilant crowds cheered at a rally in Barcelona by "Together For Yes", the main pro-independence alliance, yelling "Independence!" The head of the group's campaign Francesc Homs said the exit poll pointed to a clear victory for the separatist movement.
"The available data give the impression that this pro-sovereignty majority, clearly in favour of independence, is a fact," he told the crowd.
They waved nationalist flags of red and yellow stripes overlaid with a white star on a blue triangle.
The drive to break the rich northeastern region away from Spain and create a new state in Europe has prompted a fierce standoff with the Spanish government.
After voting in central Barcelona, the region's president Artur Mas hailed the election as "a great victory for democracy".
After the Spanish government blocked him from holding a straight referendum, Mr Mas framed Sunday's vote for the regional parliament as an indirect vote on independence.
A separate poll carried out for radio station COPE before the vote and published just after polling closed gave the separatist parties - Mr Mas's alliance and the left-wing independence group CUP - between 71 and 76 overall.
If the results are confirmed, Mr Mas and his "Together For Yes" allies would need to strike an accord with CUP, an anti-capitalist movement.
Mr Mas's separatist alliance has vowed to declare independence by 2017 if it secures a majority in parliament, even without a majority of votes.
Spain's national government brands secession illegal and wants the country to stay united as the eurozone's fourth-biggest economy recovers from recession.
Officials said turnout was 63 per cent by 6.00pm (1600 GMT) - just two hours before polls closed - up nearly seven percent compared to the last regional election in 2012.
Campaigning has been tense and emotional but no incidents were reported.
Personalities such as Barcelona football club's beloved former coach Pep Guardiola back independence. The club is a powerful talisman for the independence movement.
Its defender Gerard Pique said on Facebook on Sunday he had voted "on a historic and important day".
Past polls have indicated Catalans favour a referendum but are evenly split over independence.
"Without independence, nothing will change," said one voter, Alex Donate, 29. "I love Spain, but I think independence will be good for us."
Mr Mas says the region would be better off independent, with greater control over its taxes.
"That guy is a liar," said Francisco Serrano, a 70-year-old former labourer in the Barcelona suburb of Santa Coloma de Gramenet who voted against independence.
"Things would get worse."
FOLLOWING SCOTLAND, QUEBEC
With its own language and cultural traditions, Catalonia has seen numerous bids for greater autonomy over the past century. Secessionist demands have surged in the recent economic crisis.
Nationalists complain they get less back from Madrid than it takes in taxes.
Mr Mas also wants Catalonia to follow Scotland and Quebec in Canada by holding a vote on independence - though in both those cases most voters chose not to break away.
Madrid has garnered support from US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who have defended the unity of Spain.