Dec. 21 (UPI) -- Catalonia voters began casting ballots Thursday in a bitterly contested snap election that will determine the next phase of the Spanish region's independence crisis.
More than 80 percent of the region's five million voters are expected to turn out Thursday -- with 17,000 national police and 55,000 polling monitors deployed to avoid voter fraud or intimidation.
Thursday's election was set after Catalonia's attempt to declare independence from Spain in October, following a landslide referendum vote. Madrid sacked Catalan leaders, in accordance with the Spanish Constitution, and scheduled the new vote.
Results are expected to be extremely close, with polls suggesting the two most-voted parties are to be the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left and the anti-independence Ciudadanos. Neither party is expected to form a parliamentary majority, though -- potentially leading to political chaos due to a hung parliament after the election.
Authorities feared confrontations at polling stations with pro-independence groups already planning their own recount and banned observers from displaying political symbols, like the yellow ribbons used to protest the pre-trial custody of Catalonia's ousted politicians.
The atmosphere for Thursday's election, however, was described as peaceful by Artur Mas, the predecessor to dismissed Catalan President Carles Puigdemont.
"Always when the people want to vote it should be done without repression, in a peaceful way," Mas said, adding that Catalonians deserve "a climate of democratic normality."
Puigdemont, who is still taking refuge in Belgium with several former council members, said he would return to Catalonia to take office if his party won and Madrid honored the results.
"If I am a candidate to come back to be ratified president by the Catalan Parliament, and the Parliament wants [it], this must prevail -- in a democracy -- above handcuffs or bars," Puigdemont said.
"Today is a very important day, not for the Catalonia of today but for the Catalonia of the future," Puigdemont tweeted Thursday.
Rajoy said he will respect the results of the election and a secessionst government as long as it remains within the law.
"On Thursday, democracy will win and we will maintain the will for dialogue, but we will not accept any imposition," the prime minister said.