Voters in the economically powerful region of Catalonia on Sunday punished the leader who made a referendum over breaking away from Spain a central plank of his campaign, seeing his party's majority reduced by a dozen seats.
Regional president Artur Mas called the early election as part of a power struggle with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy regarding the size of Catalonia's contribution to national coffers. But what began as a quarrel over money turned into a test of Spain's territorial integrity.
Mas had asked the electorate to give him an absolute majority to lend weight to his Convergence and Union party's center-right policies, including the call for a referendum. Instead, voters have left him 18 votes short and in need to make a coalition to guarantee staying in power.
His party now has 50 seats in the 135-seat regional legislature.
The second-most voted party is pro-referendum Republican Left, which has been very critical of Mas' austerity drive.
"The vote is fragmented but the message is clear," said Ferran Requejo, political science professor at Barcelona's Pompeu Fabra University. "Two-thirds of the electorate voted for parties that are in favor of calling an independence referendum, but Mas has been hit hard for his austerity policies."
Mas appeared on television to thank his party for its support and to acknowledge that they could no longer rule alone as a minority government. He also said that those who think the referendum plan had been aborted needed to do the math.
"Those who want to abort the process should take into account that they have to know how to add and subtract because the sum of the political parties in favor of the right to choose form a great majority in parliament."
Two pro-unity parties — Rajoy's Popular Party and the Catalan Ciutadans — did make modest advances, boosting their seats by seven to 28.
"For those who want a Catalonia outside Spain, matters have got worse," PP spokeswoman Maria Dolores de Cospedal said.
Catalonia is responsible for around a fifth of Spain's economic output, and many residents feel the central government gives back too little in recognition of the region's contribution.
Catalans have said during growing public protests that their industrialized region is being hit harder than most by austerity measures aimed at avoiding a national bailout like those needed by Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus.
Madrid has traditionally said that simplifying the state's financial model by excluding overall costs such as defense only creates a distorted image of how taxation and spending are distributed.
A rising tide of Catalan separatist sentiment was spurred when Rajoy failed to agree to Mas' proposals to lighten Catalonia's tax load and 1.5 million people turned out in Barcelona on Sept. 11 for the largest nationalist rally in the region since the 1970s.
These growing economic concerns have combined with a longstanding nationalist streak in Catalonia, which has its own cultural traditions that were harshly repressed by the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco from the end of Spain's Civil War in 1939, to Franco's death in 1975.
One of the most potent symbols of the divisions distancing Catalonia and the country's capital city can be seen in the bitter rivalry between the Barcelona and Real Madrid soccer clubs.
In recent years grassroots groups have held unofficial referendums on independence in towns throughout the region, while some small villages have gone to the extreme of declaring themselves "free Catalan territories."
Catalans are viewed by most Spaniards as thrifty, hardworking people, and most — not least many Catalans — have been shocked by how their regional debt has swelled to €42 billion ($54.4 billion) of the staggering €140 billion debt ascribed to all of Spain's regional governments.
The economic crisis has highlighted the high cost of running Spain's 17 semi-autonomous regions alongside a central government. The Catalan government has had to ask for a €5 billion ($6.5 million) bailout from Spain like other indebted regions.
Mas' government counters that each year it contributes €16 billion ($21 billion) more than it gets back from Spain. It also complains that important infrastructure projects needed to revive Spain's sick economy are being left unfunded.
Even so, many people feel they are both Catalan and Spanish, and are wary of the idea of trying to divide the country.
"We are not separatists, we want to remain part of Spain," said retired industrial designer Francisco Palau, 69, who emerged from a polling station alongside his wife. "We defend current plurality," he said, adding that setting up a new state and government "would be very expensive."
Harold Heckle reported from Madrid.