By Inmaculada Sanz
BARCELONA, Nov 9 (Reuters) - Close to two million Catalans voted on Sunday in favor of seceding from Spain, the regional government said, in a symbolic referendum that supporters hope will fuel the independence debate despite opposition from Madrid.
The "consultation of citizens" plebiscite in the wealthy northeastern region followed a legal block by the central government against a more formal, albeit still non-binding ballot which regional leaders had originally pushed for.
Because of the legal restrictions set on it, the ballot was set up and manned by grassroots pro-independence organizations, and Spanish unionist parties argue that, even for that reason alone, it could not legitimately reflect the wishes of anyone.
Turnout was also relatively low, at around 2.23 million out of 5.4 million potential voters.
Catalans were asked two questions: whether they wanted Catalonia to be a state and whether this state should become independent from Spain.
While the vote will formally remain open for another two weeks, the regional government said on Monday 80.7 percent had until now answered 'yes' to the two questions, with 10.1 percent voting 'yes' and 'no' and 4.5 percent voting a double 'no'.
"We have earned the right to a referendum," the regional government head Artur Mas told cheering supporters. He deemed the vote a historic success, setting the stage for a full referendum.
"Once again Catalonia has shown that it wants to rule itself."
Rafael Catala, Spain's Justice Minister, accused Mas of organizing "an act of pure political propaganda with no democratic validity. A sterile and useless event." He said the government might take further legal measures against the vote.
The ballot comes after two years of escalating tension between the central and regional government. Authorities in Madrid argue that Catalonia, which makes up about 16 percent of Spain's population, cannot decide on constitutional grounds something that affects Spain as a whole.
Opinion polls show that as many as 80 percent of Catalans back voting on the issue of Catalonia's status, with about 50 percent in favor of full independence.
"If they don't understand us, they should respect us and each of us go on their separate way," said Angels Costa, a 52-year-old shopkeeper who voted in Barcelona.
"We would have liked to have been a federal state but that is no longer possible. They've trampled on us too much."
Pro-independence organizations campaigned vigorously for a big turnout from the wealthy region's 7.5 million population, and more than 40,000 volunteers helped set up informal voting stations.
Pro-secession politicians hoped a high turnout would prompt central government to sit down with them and negotiate more autonomy on political and fiscal issues, or even convince Madrid to accept a full-blown independence referendum in the future.
"Banning democracy is always a big mistake," the head of Catalan independence party ERC, Oriol Junqueras told Reuters at a polling station.
ERC is currently ahead in opinion polls in the region.
"We hope this becomes ... the decisive step to obtain a pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament that allows us to proclaim Catalan independence," he said.
Officials from Catalonia's two main parties, including Mas' center-right Convergencia i Union (CiU), had suggested that backing from more than 1.5 million citizens would help build momentum for their cause.
The vote has raised hackles in a country in which the memory of Francisco Franco's 1939 to 1975 dictatorship and the suppression of the Catalan and Basque cultures underpins sensitivities.
Those not in favor of separation were not expected to have taken part in Sunday's informal poll.
One such was Roberto Ruiz, a 30-year-old out jogging.
"No, I'm not voting. This will not make any difference and I'm against (independence) anyway. I'm Catalan but I'm Spanish too," he said.
A long-standing breakaway movement in Catalonia, which accounts for one-fifth of Spain's economic output and has its own distinct culture and language, grew in strength during the recent years of deep recession.
In early September, buoyed by a Scottish independence campaign which ultimately lost out in a referendum, hundreds of thousands of Catalans dressed in the yellow and red of their regional flag packed the streets of Barcelona, forming a huge "V" to demand the right to vote.
Officially suspended by Spain's Constitutional Court after the Spanish government sought to stop it, Sunday's informal vote nonetheless passed off peacefully.
Analysts say the poll results should be viewed cautiously.
"While we expect the vote to have a symbolic impact (more than one million people will likely participate) it will not carry significant political implications," Antonio Roldan, Europe analyst at the Eurasia Group consultancy said in a note. (Writing by Sarah White and Elisabeth O'Leary; Editing by Anna Willard and John Stonestreet)