Polls have closed in Catalonia in a snap election that could pave the way for Spain's largest region to seek statehood.
Artur Mas, the Catalan president, has promised 5.4 million voters he will hold a referendum on self-determination if he wins a renewed mandate.
Four hours after voting began, Catalan government figures showed voter participation at a 24-year high for this point in the election: 29.35 per cent, compared with 24.79 percent in 2010.
|Exit polls suggest CiU loses some seats in regional vote
Mas' alliance could take 60 to 64 of the 135 seats in parliament, not far from the 62 it now holds, the latest opinion polls showed.
Initial exit polls suggested that Mas' centre-right Catalan Nationalist Coalition (CiU) will emerge from the vote as the largest party, but without the absolute parliamentary majority it had sought.
However, those leftist groups in favour of an independence referendum also appear to have performed well, suggesting such a vote will remain on the cards in the future.
As votes are being counted, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's Popular Party and the opposition Socialists are fighting for second place.
Al Jazeera's Tim Friend, reporting from Barcelona, said Sunday's vote "could be a step into the unknown" and that the crisis in Spain's economy was pushing the Catalans to seek self-determination.
He said a huge march was held in September to mark Catalonia's national day and that Catalans signalled they were ready to secede from Spain.
Mas called the poll two years early after failing to negotiate a new financial deal with Madrid, which would have given officials greater autonomy over taxation.
"This decision [is] for our self determination, our freedom and, I hope, our own state within the free nations of Europe and the rest of the world," Mas said.
"This decision, and this is the great compromise, will be taken by the Catalan people during the next four years."
With 135 parliamentary seats available in Sunday's regional elections, Mas' centre-right Catalan Nationalist Coalition (CiU) was ahead in pre-election polls.
Some in Catalonia feel that the weak national economy is having a negative effect on the northeastern region's financial stability.
The CiU has made independence from Spain a central issue and Mas' rallies have bristled with European Union flags, with the 56-year-old politician expressing optimism that an independent Catalonia would be swiftly embraced by the 27-nation bloc.
"It will be convenient for the European Union, because from day one of membership Catalonia would be a net contributor," said journalist and political consultant Antoni Maria Pique.
"It is a good deal for the European Union. I think that in Brussels they would try to persuade Spain it should not block the development of the European Union over issues of pride and nationalism."
Some of Catalonia's 7.5 million people already see it as a separate nation, with its own language and culture.
|Economics drive Catalans to polls
"We sold on September 11 (Catalonia's national day) more than we had sold during the previous eight years," said textile shop owner Margarita Bascompte.
"We sold a lot. An awful lot. We sold to order. And our fabric supplier collapsed because of so many orders. He had to manufacture a lot more to cope with the demand."
But not everyone in the region, which already holds a degree of autonomy under Spain's federal system of governance, agrees with the move for further independence.
Albert Rivera, a candidate representing Ciutadan, a Spanish nationalist party opposed to Catalan independence, said "co-existence" should be defended.
"People from the pro-independence side say that those of us who defend the union with Spain within the European Union give a speech of fear," he said.
"And of course we do, because we feel fear. [Fear about] a president that has said he will ignore the constitution and any legal ruling and that nobody will stop him. All this in a democratic country obviously will cause you fear. We want to defend co-existence and we will try to avoid the Catalan citizenship being divided in two classes. We don't want Catalonia to slip away from the rest of Spain. We want to build bridges, not raise fences."
Catalonians say they contribute $21bn more to the Spanish exchequer than they get back, yet infrastructure spending from Madrid goes to poorer regions, while projects such as the Mediterranean rail corridor are left unfunded.
Opponents say that prosperity will fade if - as is possible - Spain were to veto any EU membership application by an independent Catalonia and the uncertainty will drive out many businesses.
A survey published by El Pais newspaper this month showed that nearly half of Catalans support independence, but the number falls to 37 per cent if it means dropping out of the EU.
Sunday's poll comes as Spain's armed Basque separatist group ETA said it was ready to discuss disbanding with the French and Spanish authorities if certain conditions were met.
The group, which last year said it had abandoned violence after a four-decade campaign for an independent homeland in southern France and northern Spain resulted in the deaths of more than 800 lives, said one outstanding issue was the transfer of Basque prisoners to jails closer to home.