MADRID (AP) â¿¿ Voters in Spain's Catalonia region favored the right to decide on possible independence but split their ballots between fractious parties, making the prospect of secession less likely than ever.
Artur Mas, leader of the northeastern region's ruling center-right coalition, had sought an absolute majority in Sunday's vote to get a mandate for an independence referendum that the central government says would be unconstitutional. But his Convergence and Union party lost seats while another rival, the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia, made big gains.
Mas is expected to take weeks to try to cobble together a coalition majority. Spain's central government in Madrid predicted Monday that the result will mark the end of a secession vote drive that has distracted authorities who are trying to prevent Spain from being forced into a bailout.
While the two Catalonian parties share the goal of holding the referendum, they are far apart on almost everything else and analysts said it would be very difficult for them to form an alliance.
"They agree on the issue of the right to decide the future of the Catalan people, but on economic issues they have opposite positions," said Carlos Berrera, a communications professor at the University of Navarra.
In power for the past two years, Convergence and Union has introduced painful austerity cuts in Catalonia that have been vigorously opposed by Republican Left.
Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people that includes Spain's second-largest city of Barcelona, is one of the areas suffering the most in the country's four-year-old economic crisis, which has left unemployment at 25 percent.
Catalonia is responsible for around a fifth of Spain's economic output and many residents complain that the central government in Madrid takes in more tax money from the region than it gives back. But now Catalonia is the most indebted region in Spain and has had to seek a â¿¬5.4 billion bailout from Madrid.