Socialists lead Spanish election despite far-right gains

MADRID — Spain’s governing Socialists held a clear lead but will need support from smaller parties to stay in power after a national election in which a far-right party made strong gains, according to partial results released Sunday.

After having two main political parties for decades, Spain’s political landscape has fragmented into five parties. Voters have been disillusioned as the country struggled with a recession, austerity cuts, corruption scandals, the divisive Catalan independence demands and a rise in far-right Spanish nationalism.

With two-thirds of the ballots counted, the Socialists led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez won nearly 30% of the vote Sunday. The far-right nationalist Vox party was poised to enter the lower house of Parliament for the first time with about 10% of the vote.

The tally means the Socialists won 126 seats in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies, while the far-left United We Can party captured 35 seats. That is still 15 seats short of the 176-seat majority needed to govern.

To remain in office, Sánchez will have to form a governing alliance with smaller parties. He would likely turn to United We Can, but will have to decide whether he wants to make pacts with Catalan and other separatist parties — a move that would anger many Spaniards.

Turnout in Sunday’s vote was around 75%, up more than 8 points since the previous election in 2016, the provisional results showed.

Polls a week ago showed that about one-third of Spain’s nearly 37 million voters hadn’t decided yet who to choose.

On the splintered right, three parties had competed for leadership: the once-dominant conservative Popular Party, the centre-right Citizens, and the nationalist, anti-migrant Vox party.

The arrival of Vox in Madrid’s national parliament marks a big shift in Spain, where the far right has not played a significant role since the country’s transition to democracy following the death of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975.

Pablo Casado, who has steered the Popular Party further to the right to stop it from losing votes to Vox, called the ballot the country’s “most decisive” in years.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal, who drew the largest crowds during campaigning, told reporters in Madrid that “millions of Spaniards are going to vote with hope, they are going to do it without fear for anything or anybody.”

The surge in turnout included a huge boost in the northeastern Catalonia region, which has been embroiled in a political quagmire since its failed secession bid in 2017 put several separatist leaders in jail while they undergo trial.

Speaking Sunday after voting, Sánchez said he wanted the ballot to yield a parliamentary majority that can undertake the key social and political reforms that Spain needs.

The prime minister said he wanted “a stable government that with calmness, serenity and resolution looks to the future and achieves the progress that our country needs in social justice, national harmony” and in fighting corruption.

The Popular Party and the Citizens party focused their campaigns on unseating Sánchez, hinting they could create a conservative coalition government — with the backing of Vox — like the one that recently ousted the Socialists from the southern Andalusia region.

Citizens leader Albert Rivera said a high turnout was needed Sunday to “usher in a new era” while United We Can party leader Pablo Iglesias also stressed the importance of voting.

“My feeling is that in Spain there is an ample progressive majority, and when there is high participation that becomes very clear,” Iglesias said.

At the Palacio Valdes school in Madrid, voter Alicia Sánchez, a 38-year-old administrator, worried that the nationalist Vox could influence policy-making if they gain significant support on Sunday.

“I’ve always come to vote, but this time it feels special. I’m worried about how Vox can influence policies on women and other issues. They are clearly homophobic. Reading their program is like something from 50 years ago,” she said.

Having voted in all elections since Spain returned to democratic rule four decades ago, Amelia Gómez, 86, and Antonio Román, 90, said they had little faith in any candidate.

“All I want is for whoever wins to take care of the old people,” Gómez said, complaining that the two of them together receive less than 1,000 euros ($1,100) a month in state pensions.

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