Separatist parties saw their share of the vote in Catalonia increase to 39 percent from 32 percent in the last general election in 2016, giving them five more lawmakers nationally.
But the less radical parties were the biggest winners, taking votes away from the more die-hard proponents of self-rule.
Among the separatists, the moderate pro-independence ERC party, whose jailed leader Oriol Junqueras was its list-topper, won 15 seats in Spain's 350-member parliament, up from nine — overtaking the more hardline Together for Catalonia movement of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont which lost one seat from 2016 to arrive at seven.
Charts show the the number of seats won by Catalan parties and the number of votes. Data: El Pais
On the other side of the Catalan political spectrum, the Socialists, which supports Spanish unity, came second with 12 seats in the national parliament, five fewer than in 2016, while the far-left Podemos, which supports Catalan self-determination though not full independence, took seven — down from 12.
The Socialists and Podemos want to appease the secession crisis in Catalonia which reached a climax in October 2017 when the region pressed ahead with a banned referendum and followed it with a short-lived declaration of independence.
“This is the common factor: the predominance of moderation… there is clearly in Catalonia a desire to pacify the debate,” Autonomous University of Barcelona politics professor Joan Botella said of the election outcome.
The vote followed a tense campaign which saw right-wing parties repeatedly attack Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialist government for trying to negotiate with the separatists.
The election campaign was held at the same time as the trial in Madrid of Junqueras and 11 others for their role in Catalonia's separatist push.
Four of the accused were elected to the lower house of parliament, while a fifth won a seat in the Senate, the upper house.
The courts will now have to decide if they can be sworn in.
Camapaign poster for Junts per Catalunya showing jailed leader Jordi Sanchez. Photo: AFP
The Socialists presented themselves as the voice of moderation during the campaign, and appear to have succeeded by garnering most votes.
The ERC, for its part, adopted a more long-term strategy to achieve independence but without defying Spanish law and in negotiation with the central government in Madrid.
The strategy appears to have paid off as the party won over a million votes for the first time in its history.
Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after the independence declaration, did not do as well this time round.
During the last regional elections in Catalonia in December 2017, his party scored a surprise win over the ERC. But that changed on Sunday.
“The fight between Together for Catalonia and the ERC is being resolved in favour of the ERC, which is now the moderate party,” said Botella.
'Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue'
.@gabrielrufian: “Moltes vegades he donat massa excuses perquè es parli més de les meves formes que del fons. Aquesta és la meva autocrítica. Però seguirem plantant cara i dient les coses clares. Això, que ningú ho dubti” pic.twitter.com/69vYexDK4B
— Esquerra Republicana (@Esquerra_ERC) April 29, 2019
ERC senior lawmaker Gabriel Rufian on Monday urged Sanchez to join his side at the bargaining table without mentioning the party's long-standing demand for a legally binding independence referendum, which the Socialists oppose.
“Now is time to talk, for dialogue, dialogue, dialogue,” he said.
Catalan separatist parties “are no longer as critical for Sanchez's government,” said political analyst Berta Barbet.
Sanchez would prefer not to have to count on their support. He was forced to call Sunday's snap polls after Catalan separatist parties refused to approve his minority government's draft 2019 budget.
With a total of 123 seats in parliament, up from 85 previously, Sanchez could form an alliance with far-left party Podemos and a string of regional parties to form a minority government.
No agreements are expected before regional, local and European parliament elections in Spain on May 26, however.
Those polls will once again pit the two Catalan separatist camps against each other in “a second round,” said Botella.
If the ERC comes out on top again it could move to “force new elections” in Catalonia to try to govern the region for the first time since the 1930's, he added.