Spain’s socialist prime minister was ahead in last-minute opinion polls Sunday in a tense snap general election likely to see the far-right make a dramatic entrance in parliament after decades on the margins of politics.
Polls conducted in recent days and published as voting stations closed at 8.00 pm (1800 GMT) gave Pedro Sanchez a win but without the parliamentary majority required to govern alone.
This means he will have to seek alliances with hostile rivals in a political environment that has soured and fragmented since Catalonia’s failed secession bid.
The most significant new development of these elections is the emergence of far-right party Vox, which burst onto the scene in December regional polls in southern Andalusia and looks set to make its first-ever entrance into the national parliament.
Polls predicted it would take more than 11 percent of votes cast in a country that has had no far-right party to speak of since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, likely causing further concern about the rising right in Europe.
Pollsters also suggested the conservative Popular Party will score one of its worst results in history as the centre-right Ciudadanos party and Vox nibble away at its voter base.
Whatever happens, no party is expected to get anywhere near an absolute majority in Spain’s third elections in three-and-a-half years.
If the predictions prove correct, Sanchez and his Socialist Party will have to forge alliances with far-left Podemos and possibly smaller groupings like Catalan separatist parties, as he had done over the past 10 months.
– High turnout –
After a tense campaign, voter turnout was high — about 60.75 percent with two hours of voting left — up from 51.21 percent at the same time in 2016, election authorities said.
Turnout was notably higher in Catalonia than two years ago, rising nearly 18 percentage points to over 64 percent.
Retired construction worker Carlos Gonzalez said he had cast his ballot for the Socialists because they were the “moderate option”.
Vox “is going backwards, to the past. It’s not the future because the future is a united Europe,” he told AFP at a Madrid polling station.
With its ultra-nationalist rhetoric that advocates the “defence of the Spanish nation to the end,” Vox will come in fifth place according to poll predictions.
But some analysts say it may do better, and prop up a right-wing government. There could be many “hidden” Vox supporters, they say, who lie to pollsters about their political leanings.
Vox leader Santiago Abascal predicted the elections would be “historical” as he cast his ballot in Madrid.
– Catalonia shadow –
Founded by Abascal, a former member of the conservative Popular Party (PP), with a strong stance against feminism and illegal immigration, Vox has risen thanks to its hard line against separatists in Catalonia.
The region in northeastern Spain was the scene of a secession attempt in 2017 that sparked the country’s biggest crisis in decades and caused major concern in Europe.
Since then, the crisis has continued to cast a pall over Spanish politics.
Sanchez was forced to call early elections after Catalan pro-independence lawmakers in the national parliament, angered at the trial of their leaders in Madrid, refused to give him the support he needed for his 2019 budget.
Right-wing parties have for their part lambasted Sanchez, at the head of a minority government, for his attempts to negotiate with Catalan separatists who still govern the region, accusing him of being a traitor.
Dolores Palomo, a 48-year-old domestic worker, said she had always voted for the Socialists but cast her ballot for centre-right Ciudadanos this time at a polling station in Hospitalet de Llobregat, near Barcelona, because Sanchez “is a puppet of the separatists”.
– Chronic instability? –
Sanchez would rather not have to rely once again on Catalan separatist lawmakers in the national parliament, given right-wing parties’ accusations that he cosied up with the “enemies of Spain” during his time in government.
But he may have no choice.
A possible alliance with Ciudadanos has not been ruled out, even if the party’s leader Albert Rivera has made “chasing” the socialists from power a “national urgency”.