The governing Socialist party has won Spain’s general election and is on course to win around 125 seats, according to partial results but may need the support of Catalan separatists to form a majority.
With more than half of the votes counted, it also appeared that the ultranationalist Vox party would make a decisive breakthrough winning two-dozen seats. Vox is the first far-right party to have a sizeable parliamentary representation since the death of dictator Francisco Franco. It has surfed a wave of Spanish nationalist sentiment following the illegal independence referendum in Catalonia in 2017.
Sunday’s vote was the third general election in four years with the country’s politics more divided than at any time in its recent democratic history.
The partial results suggest the socialists and its far-left allies Podemos on 42 seats have a substantial lead over the three parties of the right. But they may still need support of Basque or Catalan nationalists to form a majority in the 350-seat chamber.
The centre-right People’s Party (PP) was heading for a disastrous night, possibly losing half of its seats, its worst election result ever. The party has haemorrhaged support to Vox.
Together, the three rightwing parties — the PP, Vox and Ciudadanos — will have around 144 seats between them but they have no other viable coalition allies.
Ciudadanos, a fiercely anti-Catalan independence party, was on course to take 56 seats and could be a possible alternative coalition partner for the socialists, although party leader Albert Rivera repeatedly ruled out a tie-up during the campaign.
High turnout on Sunday — it was about 9 percentage points higher than in 2016 — appeared to favour the centre-left.
As campaigning came to a close on Friday, Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister and socialist party leader, pushed for high turnout as he warned a rally of party faithful that merely being the leading vote-getter would not guarantee they would remain in government. “To win does not mean to govern,” he said. “To govern is to win.”
The new government that emerges from the election will have a profound impact on Spain in the coming years, as the country confronts a number of deep-seated challenges: an economic slowdown, chronic unemployment, precarious public finances and a tense stand-off over Catalonia, whose secessionist leaders are on trial for sedition and rebellion.
With the addition of three new parties that have burst on to the national political landscape in recent years, Spain now has five major parties split into increasingly antagonistic left and right blocs.
Spain is the only country among the largest EU states to have not had a coalition government in the past 40 years.
For the first time in decades, voters are facing two blocs that offer starkly different policy proposals. The right is proposing a steep tax cut while the left is looking to raise taxes on banks and the wealthy. And where the right has pushed an open-ended suspension of regional autonomy in Catalonia, the left has called for dialogue to solve the conflict with the separatist parties who control the regional government.
The elections are a huge success for Vox since Spain was for decades considered a country immune to the far-right that has made inroads across Europe because of its Francoist past.
Vox burst on to the political scene in December, winning its first regional parliamentary seats in the southern territory of Andalucía, helping to oust the Socialists who had run Spain’s most populous region for almost 40 years.
Pollsters underestimated Vox’s support in the region, however, and many say they do not have comparable national data to make accurate predictions. Adding to the unpredictability, Spain’s proportional voting system punishes smaller parties outside of urban areas.
In Madrid’s upscale Salamanca neighbourhood, small business owner Iván Zúmel said he had voted for Vox after choosing Ciudadanos in 2016 because of the increasing threats facing Spain. “The situation is much more severe — economically, the independence movement — and it’s getting worse,” said Mr Zúmel, wearing a Spanish flag as a scarf. “You have to stop these things.”
María Fernández, an executive coach accompanying her niece Clara Herberg to her first time voting in Spain, has switched her support from the PP to the more centrist Ciudadanos. “Spain is becoming too polarised, moving to the extremes, and extremes aren’t positive,” Ms Fernández said. “The future of Spain is in play. Our economy is in a very delicate moment, and what happens will determine if we are in the front row of winning countries or those left behind.”
Besides the 350 MPs, Spaniards are also voting for 208 senators.