Madrid (CNN) -- Before Sunday's elections in Catalonia, Artur Mas, president of the region's parliament, promised a referendum on independence for one of Spain's most important regions if he won re-election.
But after the election, Mas has a more difficult task because his center-right Convergence and Union coalition lost 12 of its 62 seats, a strong setback for a party that was hoping to gain a simple majority in the 135-seat legislative body.
The Catalan Republican Left party was the big winner in the elections, winning 21 seats, according to the Catalonia elections web site, which reported 98% of the votes had been counted.
The Catalan Republican Left party also backs independence, and the two parties could form a majority in parliament on the independence issue.
They, however, differ on most other issues, especially economic policy.
Voters in Catalonia, the most powerful economically of Spain's 17 regions, heeded the call that these would be historic elections, even if independence wasn't on the ballot Sunday. They voted during a deep economic crisis in the eurozone countries, especially in Spain and in Catalonia. Voter turnout was the highest in 24 years for Catalan elections, officials said.
The Spanish government in Madrid vows to block any self-determination referendum, arguing that the constitution does not permit a region alone to decide its independence.
Last September 11, an estimated 1.5 million people -- 20% of Catalonia's population -- filled the streets of Barcelona, the Catalan capital and Spain's second-largest city, demanding independence.
Soon after, Mas called snap regional elections, two years early. His government already has enacted deep spending cuts trying to balance the regional books and has asked Madrid for $6 billion in emergency credit to pay its bills.
"The crisis has made many people in Catalonia desperate," said Gonzalo Bernardos, a University of Barcelona economist. "They see a dark future. Then hope springs, that with Catalan independence, things will be better."
Catalonia has its own flag and language -- Catalan -- and various analysts say the economic crisis has brought long-simmering nationalist sentiment to the forefront.
Catalans complain of cultural repression and economic sleights by Madrid dating back centuries.
With just 16% of Spain's population, Catalonia produces 19% of the nation's wealth.
Catalonia argues that it sends far more in taxes to Madrid than it gets back in central government spending, and that Catalan taxes help support poorer Spanish regions.
The regions administer key public services such as health and education, and in Catalonia's case, also the police and prisons.
In addition to Mas' party, three other major parties will be closely watched as potential power brokers in the new parliament.
The Catalan Republican Left doubled its bloc, as it held just 10 seats before the election.
The Catalan branches of Spain's ruling conservative Popular Party -- which opposes independence -- gained one seat, for a total 19 in the new parliament.
The main opposition Spanish Socialist Party, which urges a federalist system for the regions, will be the biggest loser, dropping eight seats to 20 representatives.
A survey earlier this month by the Catalan government's polling center showed 57% of Catalans would vote for independence, a 6% increase from last June and a 14% increase from a year and a half ago.