Socialists lead Spain election but need Catalan support

The governing Socialist party has won Spain’s general election with 28.1 per cent of the vote, according to a poll for the state broadcaster but may need the support of Catalan separatists to form a majority.

The GAD3 survey for RTVE also indicates a stunning breakthrough for the ultranationalist Vox party on 12 per cent of the vote and up to 38 seats. It is the first far-right party to have a sizeable parliamentary representation since the death of dictator Francisco Franco. Vox 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. Polling booths closed at 8pm local time and full results should be known by 10.30pm.

The GAD3 findings suggest the socialists and its far-left allies Podemos have won only a narrow victory over the three parties of the right and that it could prove very difficult to assemble a stable coalition government.

The GAD3 poll predicted that the socialists would be able to muster up to 121 seats and the far-left Podemos up to 45, leaving the two allies short of the 176 needed for a majority in the 350-seat assembly. To reach that number it would require backing from Basque nationalists and probably ERC, the biggest Catalan separatist party which was forecast to win up to 14 seats.

The poll suggests that the centre-right People’s Party (PP) may win only 20 per cent of the vote and could lose half of its seats, its worst election result ever, after haemorrhaging support to Vox.

Together, the three rightwing parties — the PP, Vox and Ciudadanos — may have up to 160 seats between them but they have no other viable coalition allies. Ciudadanos, a fiercely anti-Catalan independence party, would obtain 14.4 per cent of the vote and up to 49 seats, according to GAD3.

The GAD3 study was a week-long survey not an exit poll — none were conducted for this election — but two other surveys published on Sunday evening made similar predictions. High turnout on Sunday — it was 9.5 percentage points higher at 6pm local time than at the same point three years ago — may yet 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’s socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez with his wife Begoña Gómez on Saturday © AP

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.

Vox’s leader Santiago Abascal at a rally on Friday © Getty

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.




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