Having managed to retain their absolute majority in the Catalan parliament, the separatist leaders who fled to Brussels and campaigned from there now feel entitled to return to Spain and hold another referendum on independence.
The result of Thursday's (Dec. 21) snap election sets the stage for a return to power of ousted Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, whom Spanish state prosecutors accuse of sedition for having led a banned independence referendum in October, and who faces arrest if he returns home.
"The Spanish State has been defeated," Puigdemont told a crowd of cheering supporters in Brussels.
"Rajoy and his partners lost and have been slammed by the Catalans. They have lost the plebiscite they hoped would legalise the putch they did with article 155,” he said, referring to the direct rule Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy imposed on Catalonia after its contested referendum.
Separatist parties won 70 seats out of 135, with Puigdemont's Junts Per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) party retaining its position as the largest separatist force. Unionist party Ciudadanos (Citizens) won the most votes, but other unionist forces - Rajoy's People's Party and the Socialist Party - registered a dismal performance.
Clara Ponsatí, a sacked Catalan education minister and member of Junts per Catalunya, told Euronews: "We fought in unequal conditions but we still have won, so I think that the democratic mandate is clear. And of course we need to talk and to negotiate, but the Spanish government needs to listen to the people of Catalonia."
Rajoy's bet backfires
Puigdemont and his former ministers now hope they will soon be able to return safely to Spain.
"We would like to return tomorrow, but of course we will have to wait to see if there's any reaction from the Spanish government and also if Spanish justice system decides to change its opinion on our case," said Meritxell Serret, a former minister in Puigdemont's government, but who belongs to a different pro-independence party, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya.
Puigdemont and his allies also want a meeting with EU representatives, in the hope that Europe will now listen to their independence movement.
Prime Minister Rajoy, who called the elections after sacking Puigdemont's secessionist government, had hoped Catalonia's "silent majority" would deal separatism a decisive blow, but his hard line backfired.
"Either Rajoy changes his recipe or we change the country," Puigdemont said.
There was no immediate comment from Rajoy after the election results.