The Basque Nationalist Party and its coalition partner Eusko Alkartasuna which both favor independence for this region in northeastern Spain, but not by violent means won from 31 to 33 seats, up from 27 in the outgoing 75-seat legislature, said Javier Balza, interior minister of the Basque regional government.
Balza said the projected result was based on 40 percent of votes cast in 100 polling stations believed to be representative of the region as a whole. There are about 2,400 polling stations in the Basque area, which is located in the foothills of the Pyrenees on the border with France.
The Popular Party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, vehemently opposed to Basque independence, won 18 or 19 seats and the Socialist Party, which is also against secession, took 13 to 15, Balza said. In the last Parliament, these two parties had 30 seats between them.
Euskal Herritarrok, considered the political wing of the armed separatist group ETA, saw its support drop sharply, going from 14 seats to seven, Balsa said.
Turnout was a record 78 percent, Spanish television said.
Thirty-eight seats are needed for a majority, so if the results hold, the nationalists will have to seek support from another party, either the Socialists or a pro-independence party linked to ETA.
"We have to wait to see how the night evolves but the results so far give a sufficient reason to celebrate," said Joseba Egibar, spokesman for the Basque Nationalist Party. "Our target was 30 seats and we appear to have won 31."
Rudolfo Ares, a leading Socialist candidate, tried to put a positive spin on the anti-independence party's apparent loss. "The voters have punished ETA and Euskal Herritarrok with their ballots and we want to celebrate this as one of the most important outcomes of this election."
Pre-election polls had suggested that for the first time in two decades, parties that oppose independence from Spain had a good chance of winning control of the local government in the semiautonomous Basque region.
But intensive campaigning by anti-independence parties appeared not to have done the trick.
Topping the electoral campaign was the issue of how to handle ETA, which has killed more than 800 people since 1968. Also up for debate was whether the wealthy region on the Atlantic coast should separate itself further from the central government in Madrid, 250 miles (400 kilometers) to the south.
The elections proceeded peacefully despite a bitter election campaign marred by the shooting of a Spanish ruling party senator and a car bombing in downtown Madrid.
By midafternoon only minor incidents had been reported: Pro-independence activists jostled the center-right Popular Party candidate for Basque regional pesident, Jaime Mayor Oreja and his party colleagues suffered a similar fate in Bilbao. But the 1.8 million voters largely cast their ballots without problems.
"Around here things are absolutely tranquil," said Maite Bilbao, 31, from Gatika, a farming village in the verdant rolling hills outside Bilbao. "People shouldn't be shot just for having different ideas."
But that's precisely what has been happening in recent years in the bloody conflict wracking this stunningly pretty mountain and coastal region.
On Friday night, a car bomb blast injured 14 people in Madrid. A week earlier, a senator from the ruling Popular Party was shot on his way to a soccer game with his teen-age son. Authorities blamed ETA, one of western Europe's last remaining armed separatist groups.
The election for the regional parliament was seen as one of the most important since this tiny region achieved partial autonomy in 1979 following the end of Spain's dictatorship.
Mayor Oreja's center-right Popular Party, in a partnership with its Socialist foes, was hoping to gain an overall majority and end 21 years of dominance by the current regional government, which wants Madrid to allow a referendum on self-determination.
Both parties have been frequently targeted by ETA gunmen, and hundreds of party members and relatives employ bodyguards and vary their daily routines to avoid being easy targets. ETA is accused of killing 14 Popular Party members since 1995, as well as several Socialist party representatives.
ETA, the Basque acronym for Basque Homeland and Freedom, was founded in 1959 during Spanish dictator Francisco Franco's campaign of repression against regional nationalism. It took up arms in 1968.
Most Basque nationalists abhor ETA's actions but want negotiations and a referendum to decide the future of the region. Basques have their own parliament, police force and health system, but the federal government in Madrid controls the security forces, foreign policy, border crossings and air and sea ports.
Madrid fears a breakaway could encourage nationalists in other regions such as Catalonia and Galicia.
Basque secession also would deprive Spain of a region that accounts for 9 percent of its gross domestic product. Its banks are major investors throughout Latin America while its chemical and metallurgical industries have rebounded from recession in the 1980s.
By Ciaran Giles
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