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The Latest: 50 percent of vote counted in Catalonia…

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – The Latest on the regional election in Catalonia (all times local):

10:25 p.m.

Catalan authorities say that pro- and anti-independence parties are in a tight race with 50 percent of the vote counted in the regional election, but that the pro-secession bloc is heading toward regaining a majority.

Polling station workers chat by a ballot box for the Catalan regional election at the Bonavista school in Tarragona, Spain, on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain’s northeastern region. (AP Photo/Gonzalo Arroyo)

The regional electoral board said the anti-independence Ciutadans (Citizens), led by 36-year-old lawyer Ines Arrimadas, is likely to win the highest number of votes for a single party, and 35 seats in the 135-member chamber.

But it said the pro-independence ticket led by fugitive former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont would garner 34 seats for the Together for Catalonia group. In third place would be the pro-secession leftist republican ERC party with 32 seats.

With the help of the radical pro-independence radical CUP party, which could get four seats, the pro-secession bloc could regain a majority in parliament.

The regional election is being closely watched in and outside Catalonia as a crucial test of strength for the region’s powerful secession movement.

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8 p.m.

Voting has finished in a crucial election in Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region, as polling stations closed at 8 p.m. (1900 GMT).

The regional election is being closely watched in and outside Catalonia to see if support for a separatist push will grow, subside or remain for the time being, fueling much political tension with Spain.

Catalan authorities said voting turnout was up by more than 5 percentage points at 6 p.m., with 68.3 percent of Catalan voters having cast ballots, compared to 63.12 percent in the last election in 2015.

Surveys in recent weeks had predicted record turnout numbers.

The day passed off without any major incident beyond lengthy lines at polling stations at peak times of the day.

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6:25 p.m.

Catalan authorities say voting turnout is up by more than 5 percentage points with two hours of balloting to go in a crucial Spanish regional election.

Regional election board said 68.3 percent of Catalan voters had cast ballots by 6 p.m. (1700 GMT; 12 p.m. EST) Thursday, compared to 63.12 percent in the last election in 2015.

Surveys in recent weeks had predicted record turnout numbers.

The regional election is being closely watched in and outside Catalonia to see if support for a separatist push will grow, subside or remain for the time being feeding political tension with Spain.

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1:40 p.m.

Catalan authorities say that more than a third of eligible Catalans cast their ballots in the first four hours of voting Thursday.

Figures released by the official electoral board show a turnout of 34.7 percent at 1 p.m. (1200GMT), slightly lower than the 35.1 percent figure registered at midday in the 2015 election.

Surveys in recent weeks had predicted record turnout numbers.

The key regional election is being closely watched in and outside Catalonia to see if support for a separatist push will grow, subside or remain for the time being feeding political tension with Spain.

Elections traditionally take place on a Sunday, but a working day was chosen this time by central authorities to avoid voting on Christmas Eve.

More than 5.5 million Catalans are eligible to vote in the election. Results are expected later on Thursday after polling stations close.

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1:10 p.m.

The pro-Spanish unity candidate leading some of the polls in Thursday’s Catalan election has vowed to end the social division that she blames on separatists in the northeastern region.

“We are going to fight very hard for Catalonia to return to normalcy,” Ines Arrimadas, who heads the ticket for the Ciutadans (Citizens) party, told reporters after casting her vote in Barcelona.

The candidate of the socialist PSC party, Miquel Iceta, also voted on Thursday in the regional capital calling for a “change of direction” in Catalan politics and vowing “to work to make progress possible.”

Left-republican ERC’s Marta Rovira noted in remarks to reporters after voting in the northern town of Vic that her party’s candidate is in jail.

Former vice president Oriol Junqueras faces rebellion and sedition charges as part of a wider probe of efforts to make Catalonia independent.

“We vote today with the hope that democracy will be able to impose itself,” Rovira said.

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1 p.m.

Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont says that an election back home is “extraordinarily important” for the region’s return to normalcy after Spanish authorities seized control this fall.

Speaking to Catalan reporters in Brussels, where he is evading a Spanish arrest warrant, Puigdemont said that “from the results will come the formula to recover democracy” in Catalonia.

Puigdemont fled to Belgium after central authorities sacked him for pushing ahead with unilateral independence for the region. Other members of his former cabinet, including his no. 2, were jailed under preliminary sedition charges.

“It’s not normal, an election that takes place with candidates in prison and candidates in exile,” Puigdemont said, referring to his own situation as an imposed absence.

The separatist politician, who can’t vote from Belgium, thanked in a tweet an 18 year-old woman who on Thursday cast a ballot paper on his behalf in a town near Barcelona.

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12:50 p.m.

Some voters in Catalonia’s regional election are hoping the ballot will open a door to eventual independence from Spain.

Emelia Pierra, a 65-year-old retired secretary, voted for Together for Catalonia, which seeks secession, though she doesn’t expect Spain’s current conservative government to allow the region to break away.

Even so, she says, “we have to keep pushing because eventually it will come one way or another. But it will take a long time.”

Maria Antonio Galeano, a 51-year-old teacher, also voted for former regional president Carles Puigdemont’s party. She said after voting Thursday that “it is a complete uncertainty what will happen now” and hoped separatists and unionists would negotiate a solution for the northeastern Spanish region’s future.

She added, “I think there needs to be a change and that it is starting here.”

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11:05 a.m.

Catalan politicians are casting their ballots in the regional snap election, but that’s easier for some than for others, who are in jail or keeping out of the country to avoid arrest.

Carles Riera, the candidate of the anti-establishment CUP party, a key driver in the regional independence push, cast his ballot Thursday, noting that the election was extraordinary because it had been ordered by Madrid.

He also recalled that members of the ousted Catalan separatist government are in jail or in self-imposed exile in Brussels.

Former Catalan vice president and leading candidate Oriol Junqueras mailed his ballot from a jail near Madrid, his left-republican ERC party said earlier this week.

An 18-year-old woman who has remained anonymous is expected to cast a symbolic vote on behalf of former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who can’t vote in the Belgian capital. His wife, Marcela Topor, voted in a northern town near the family residence.

Puigdemont wants to be re-elected as the region’s president despite facing immediate arrest if he enters Spain.

Many of the separatist politicians displayed on their lapels a yellow ribbon that has become a symbol to call for the release and return of the ousted politicians.

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10:45 a.m.

Sergi Balateu, a 37-year-old marketing director, voted in Catalonia’s regional election at Barcelona’s Ramon Llull school, where less than three months ago police in riot gear used force to stop him and others voting in an independence referendum.

The Spanish government said the referendum called by pro-independence parties was illegal and sent police to stop it. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy fired the regional government and dissolved the Catalan parliament, calling the snap regional election that is taking place Thursday.

Balateu said he voted for Together For Catalonia, which wants the region to secede. He says “it is a strange feeling to vote here today” because of the memories of the Oct. 1 clash, when he and other separatists held hands and tried to protect the referendum ballot boxes.

He says that “for me it is a question of identity. I feel more Catalan than Spanish.”

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10:30 a.m.

Voters are queuing at polling stations across Catalonia to choose lawmakers who will be tasked with electing a new regional government.

Manuel Abella, a 64-year-old retiree, says he’s voting for Ciutadans (Citizens) because he sees in the upstart pro-business party a fresh alternative to both the Catalan conservatives that have embraced independence and the old guard of unionist parties.

“I want unity,” Abella said after voting in a school turned into polling station in central Barcelona. “People are divided. We are at the point that we can’t talk politics. A nation’s flag should be a symbol of pride, but here it is the opposite. Here people jeer the flag. We have a war of flags.”

Also voting in downtown Barcelona, the city’s mayor Ada Colau called for a high turnout to mark “a historic day to recover institutional normality in Catalonia.”

Colau’s left-wing party, which favors more autonomy for Catalonia but not independence, is likely to hold the key to building a majority for a new government.

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9 a.m.

Polls have opened across Catalonia in a hotly contested election aimed at breaking a bitter deadlock over the region’s independence drive.

Voting began at 9 a.m. Thursday and the nearly 2,700 polling stations will remain open until 8 p.m. (1900 GMT).

The vote was called by Spain’s central authorities after they seized control of the northeastern region in late October. It will be closely watched beyond the country’s borders.

Opinion polls have shown fugitive and jailed separatist candidates neck-and-neck in opinion polls with unionists, who claim to be in the best position to return Catalonia to stability and growth.

With a record turnout expected, the more than one-fifth who are undecided among the 5.5 million eligible voters could shift the election outcome.

Ciutadans (Citizens) party leader Ines Arrimadas displays her ballot envelope before voting for the Catalan regional election in Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain's northeastern region. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Ciutadans (Citizens) party leader Ines Arrimadas displays her ballot envelope before voting for the Catalan regional election in Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain’s northeastern region. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

A woman has her child casting the ballot for her for the Catalan regional elections at a polling station in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain's northeastern region.(AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

A woman has her child casting the ballot for her for the Catalan regional elections at a polling station in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain’s northeastern region.(AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

A voter casts her ballot for the Catalan regional election in Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain's northeastern region. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

A voter casts her ballot for the Catalan regional election in Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain’s northeastern region. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

People line up outside a polling station to cast their vote for the Catalan regional election at a polling station in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain's northeastern region.(AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

People line up outside a polling station to cast their vote for the Catalan regional election at a polling station in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain’s northeastern region.(AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

People line up outside a polling station to cast their vote for the Catalan regional election in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain's northeastern region. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

People line up outside a polling station to cast their vote for the Catalan regional election in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain’s northeastern region. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

A woman at a polling station casts her ballot for the Catalan regional election in Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain's northeastern region. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

A woman at a polling station casts her ballot for the Catalan regional election in Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain’s northeastern region. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Ballot papers are placed at a polling station for the Catalan regional election in Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain's northeastern region. (AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

Ballot papers are placed at a polling station for the Catalan regional election in Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain’s northeastern region. (AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

A nun at a polling station casts her ballot for the Catalan regional election in Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain's northeastern region. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

A nun at a polling station casts her ballot for the Catalan regional election in Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalans are choosing new political leaders in a highly contested election called by central authorities to quell a separatist bid in Spain’s northeastern region. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

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