BARCELONA — After an almost surreal parliamentary election finished with a record-smashing turnout, the Spanish government in Madrid and the Catalan secessionists in Barcelona awoke Friday to find themselves right back where they started — stuck with each other and hating it.
The three pro-independence parties won a paper-thin majority of seats in the Catalan Parliament, an electoral sprint made more impressive because one of their leaders was in prison and five others were in exile.
But the secessionists did not win the future — not with this election, anyway.
Despite a turnout of more than 80 percent of 5.5 million eligible voters, the pro-independence parties captured less than half the vote, 48 percent.
Their opponents argue that this is hardly a mandate to declare independence and secede from Spain.
Catalonia’s former president, Carles Puigdemont, told reporters in Brussels on Friday that the situation back home was a mess.
Puigdemont called for sit-down talks with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy — “anywhere but Spain,” he said, “for obvious reasons.”
The main reason is that in Spain, Puigdemont faces arrest on charges of sedition and rebellion, crimes that carry a 30-year prison sentence.
“Now is the time for dialogue,” Puigdemont said.
Rajoy was dismissive, saying Friday that he would talk with whomever became the new head of the regional government — but that they would have to do so in Catalonia.
The prime minister added that he would prefer to negotiate with Inés Arrimadas, the leader of the Citizens party, which was the top vote-getter in the Catalan elections and ran on a platform of opposing secession. Her party did the best of any anti-independence party in Catalonia’s recent history, although it fell short of getting enough votes to form a new government.
But there is not much time. The law requires that a new government be in place by late January.
What happens now? The pro-independence parties, already squabbling, will struggle to see whether they can form a governing coalition.
“It’s not going to be as easy because the pro-independence parties no longer share a joint road map of how to proceed,” said sociologist Lluis Orriols, a professor at Carlos III University of Madrid.
“The big question now is if they insist on having Puigdemont as the president of the government, because that won’t happen. Because then he will come, and he will have to go to jail,” said Fernando Fernández, a political scientist at IE University in Madrid.
Fernández said the separatist parties could decide to form a government that seeks something short of independence, without Puigdemont at the helm.
Short of that, the impasse between the separatist bloc and central government in Madrid is likely to continue.
“No Spanish president will ever negotiate with any Catalan president outside of Spain,” Fernández said. “That will not happen, period.”
Puigdemont’s supporters say they might appeal directly to the European Union or even the international community to help resolve the impasse.
But Europe has shown no sign of wanting to get involved. European leaders have described the Catalonia crisis as an internal matter for Spain and said Rajoy acted in accordance with Spain’s constitution when he dissolved the rebellious regional government and called for snap elections.
Spanish courts do not appear ready to drop charges against Puigdemont, either.
In fact, just the opposite.
A Supreme Court justice named additional targets Friday in an ongoing investigation into rebellion and misuse of public funds. That probe will now taken in not only Puigdemont and his former vice president but also the former pro-independence Catalan premier and other prominent secessionists — including a leader of one of the parties, Republican Left of Catalonia, that probably would be a part of any pro-independence governing coalition.
“This election couldn’t resolve the Catalan problem, but the process as we know it is dead,” wrote Ricardo de Querol in business daily Cinco Días. “It was a road map that passed through stages that have expired: demanding self-determination, insubordination to Spanish justice, referendum and unilateral declaration.”
But Puigdemont remained defiant. He said that his side won the elections and that Rajoy was humiliated.
“Catalonia wants to be an independent state,” Puigdemont insisted immediately after the election. “This is the wish of the Catalan people.”
The prime minister, however, cautioned secessionists not to rewrite election results to suit their needs.
“No one can speak in the name of Catalonia without taking into account all of Catalonia,” Rajoy said. “It’s very clear there is a serious break in Catalan society that will take time to heal.”
Rolfe reported from Madrid.