This Sunday, Spanish voters will head to the polls for the country’s third general election in less than four years amid a splintering political landscape.
With new forces disrupting the dominance of traditional parties and an unresolved secession crisis dominating political debate, the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy is more fragmented and polarized than at any time since transitioning from dictatorship to democracy four decades ago.
If polls hold true, the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is heading for victory, although his ability to form a new government is less certain. Meanwhile, the rise of the relatively new Vox party has ensured that the far right will have a parliamentary presence.
Spain’s increasingly fragmented politics have ushered in an era of minority and coalition governments, with five parties competing for seats on April 28. As no single party is likely to reach the 176-seat threshold for a majority in Congress, the negotiations that follow this election are likely to be crucial.
Voting begins at 9 a.m. and closes at 8 p.m., at which time exit polls are expected. Results will start coming in from 9 p.m., with a clear picture emerging by around 10 p.m.
After a bumpy 10-month spell in government the PSOE is expected to win and substantially increase its share of seats from the 84 it currently holds. If so, it would mark the first general election victory in three attempts for Sánchez, who became prime minister after ousting his conservative predecessor Mariano Rajoyin a no-confidence vote last year.
In his brief tenure, Sánchez’s lack of parliamentary heft forced him to shelve many of his planned reforms in areas such as education, euthanasia regulation, or the labor market. Instead, he has made headline-grabbing gestures that appeal to his leftist base: raising the minimum wage, welcoming the Aquarius migrant rescue boat to Spanish shores and even taking legal steps toward exhuming the remainsof dictator Francisco Franco.
The Popular Party (PP), which looks set to be runner-up, could lose substantial ground under its young leader Pablo Casado. The conservatives hope to keep their share of seats, currently 134, from dropping below 100. The liberal Ciudadanos and far-left Podemos have been polling virtually neck-and-neck in third place — but with up to a quarter of voters still undecided in the closing days of the campaign, upsets could be on the cards.
The far-right Vox, meanwhile, is hoping its rural support and a last-minute swing could see it outstrip poll projections, which place it fifth.
The PSOE would prefer to govern with just the support of Podemos, the Socialists’ key partner in the last government. If their left-leaning alliance falls short of a majority, Sánchez would look to the Catalan and Basque nationalists, who backed his no-confidence motion against Rajoy.
On the right, a crowded landscape has hurt the PP as it competes with both Ciudadanos and Vox. Casado has buried the passive, equivocal style of his predecessor Rajoy, offering a more proactive, uncompromising image while shifting his party to the right.
An alternative to a new leftist administration could be a three-pronged government alliance of the right, with the PP, Ciudadanos and Vox repeating a formula they implemented in Andalusiain December.
However, polls suggest the numbers are unlikely to add up. Moreover, the far right’s involvement in national government would cause unease among many conservative moderates in Spain and beyond.
All three parties on the right have placed the Catalan crisis at the center of their campaigns, offering variations on a tough-talking, unionist stance. Each promises to reintroduce direct rule in the region to counter what they see as continued attempts by the pro-independence Catalan government to defy the Spanish state and pursue a secessionist agenda.
The ongoing supreme court trial of 12 pro-independence leaders for their role in 2017’s failed secession bid — on charges that include violent rebellion — has lent an edge to this election. Vox, which is one of the plaintiffs in that case, has taken the toughest line of all on the Catalan issue, calling for the region’s public broadcaster to be shut down and the local police force to be dissolved.
The PP, Ciudadanos and Vox have all attacked Sánchez’s policy of engaging with the Catalan government, claiming he has made backroom deals with nationalists in order to keep his administration alive.
Sánchez says no such deals exist, noting that his refusal to discuss a Scotland-style binding independence referendum was one reason why Catalan parties withdrew support for his 2019 budget, triggering this election. But he would rather not be forced to rely on the support of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and Together for Catalonia (JxCat) again. A preferable nationalist partner for Sánchez would be the less stridently pro-independence Basque Nationalist Party (PNV).
The economy, which grew by 2.6 percent last year, has been a marginal issue in the campaign, although the PP’s Casado has tried to warn of “flashing lights” over the deficit and unemployment rate, while promising an array of tax cuts.
The PSOE and Podemos, meanwhile, sought to focus attention on gender equality and other social issues, contrasting their progressive positions in particular with those of Vox, which has drawn accusations of misogyny and xenophobia.
“The parliament that emerges from these elections will probably be the most fragmented since the return of Spain’s democratic freedoms,” wrote the newspaper El País, noting that an inconclusive result is likely.
Few Spaniards will want a repeat of the aftermath of 2015’s general election — when months of paralysis and fruitless negotiation were followed by an electoral rerun — especially given that European and local elections are scheduled for May 26.
But forming a ruling majority could take some time if parties take an obstructionist stance.
Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera has vowed not to help the Socialists remain in government. However, he drew a similar red line against the PP’s Rajoy four years ago before performing a U-turn. If his party held the key to unblocking a post-electoral impasse this time, the pressure on him to relent would be substantial.