Catalans cast their votes in a regional parliamentary election in Barcelona on Thursday. Their choice is between pro-separatist parties or those that want to keep the region firmly part of Spain. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The three pro-independence parties in Catalonia won a majority of seats in a parliamentary election in the restive region Thursday, setting the stage for another fraught showdown with the central government in Madrid.

With a record-breaking turnout of more than 80 percent, Catalans dealt Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, a major setback as the secessionist leaders stood poised to return to power in Barcelona, among them former regional president Carles Puigdemont, now in exile in Brussels.

"Rajoy and his allies have been defeated," Puigdemont said. "They received a big slap-down."

Voters packed polling stations to pick a new legislature and to answer an old and bitterly divisive question: Did they back leaders who wanted to remain a part of Spain or seek independence?

With 99 percent of the ballots counted, the three pro-independence parties had taken 48 percent of the vote, while the unionist parties and a few smaller parties had garnered 52 percent.

But the pro-independence parties were set to claim 70 seats in the regional parliament with those numbers, giving them a majority in the 135-seat chamber. The unionists and other parties would likely take 65 seats.

The secessionists won that many seats thanks to an electoral-college-style system that gives added weight to votes cast in less populated areas — the traditional strongholds of Catalan nationalist identity. The system is intended to balance out the populated urban areas with rural communities, thus affording parliamentary representation to regional groups even though they might lack a popular majority.

The pro-unity Citizens Party was poised to come in first in terms of votes but is expected to be unable to form a government.

"The law is unfair that gives a majority to the Parliament that they don't have on the streets," said Citizens party leader Inés ­Arrimadas, speaking against the way votes are weighted — rural vs. urban — in Catalonia.

Still, she was ebullient, saying that her party's victory was made possible by more than a million "brave people" who rejected separation from Spain.

"For the first time ever, a constitutionalist party won the election in Catalonia," Arrimadas said.

The pro-independent bloc's majority means it will most likely form the new government after negotiations among its members.

Marta Rovira, the leader of the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left, said the secessionist bloc's showing demonstrated that "the citizens of Catalonia, the majority, voted for the republic."

She asked the prime minister: "Mr. Mariano Rajoy, are you going to sit at a table as we always asked you and begin to negotiate? Are you going to abolish the 155?"

Article 155 of the 1978 Spanish constitution was the tool Rajoy deployed, for the first time ever, to dissolve the rebellious regional legislature, take over the Catalan government and call snap elections. 

Puigdemont warned: "Europe has to take note. Rajoy's remedies are not working. If he doesn't change, we are going to change the country faster than even we thought possible."

On Thursday, the balloting proceeded calmly across the region, unlike the chaotic referendum that was conducted in October despite being declared illegal by the country's constitutional court. There were no reports of significant irregularities. Turnout was confirmed at a record 81 percent.

The election came less than two months after 2 million Catalans chose to secede from Spain and their leaders unilaterally declared independence, prompting the drastic moves by Rajoy

The prime minister's hope was for a legal and orderly vote in which the region's secessionists would be swept aside. He failed. His Popular Party also lost seven seats in the election.

Miquel Iceta, the Catalan Socialists' candidate, celebrated the huge turnout. "The greater the participation, the more the joy for all democrats," he said.

At one polling place in an upscale neighborhood in Barcelona, voters on both sides of the independence issue confessed they felt more fatigue than excitement. Many said they were disturbed by the deep rift that has emerged in Catalan society.

"It feels like Catalonia is totally broken," said Ines Corrales, 19, a student who had plastered a Spanish flag sticker on her motorbike helmet. She said she voted for the Cuidadanos, or Citizens, party, which opposes independence.

Corrales said that even her childhood friends had ribbed her for not supporting the separatists, calling her a fascist.

"I was never for independence, though I love Catalonia," said Javier Sedo, 81, a pensioner with a cane. "I believe the power of Spain is the union of its many nations." 

Sedo, who joked that he wished his country were more like the United States of Spain, said he had voted for the socialists.

A father and son, Ramiro and Guillermo Salina, ages 59 and 21, came out to vote together. They supported two different pro-independence parties.

"I want to see a negotiation toward independence," the father said. His son volunteered, "I just want independence." 

Did they think they would see a sovereign Catalonia? 

They didn't, not anytime soon. 

"I think we will have to vote on this issue again and maybe again," Ramiro Salina said.

It was not only the Spanish government that sought to stop the secessionists. Most of Spain and its powerful business groups oppose an independent Catalonia. European leaders, too, have made clear they would not recognize an independent Catalonia and want the matter settled and the situation returned to "constitutional normalcy," as Rajoy put it.

Yet there was little normal about this election. 

Puigdemont fled into self-exile in Belgium in late October. Spanish prosecutors have dropped their request for his extradition, but the separatist leader still faces arrest on charges of rebellion if he returns to Spain.

Spanish news media reported that the national police were keeping a close eye on the border with France to see whether Puigdemont attempts to return.

Meanwhile, former vice president Oriol Junqueras sits behind bars in the national prison outside Madrid, as prosecutors decide whether to charge him with sedition, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years. His party, the Catalan Republican Left, came in third on Thursday.

The ousted secessionist and former president Puigdemont said, "The prisoners have to be freed, and Mr. Rajoy needs to start to make political process to find a solution."

Rolfe reported from Madrid. Raul Gallego Abellan in Barcelona contributed to this report.