Madrid, Spain – Spain is holding its fourth general election on Sunday in as many years to try and break a deadlock.
At the last vote, in April this year, acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), won the most seats. But after failing to rally enough support to form a government, he announced a fresh vote in September.
His predecessor Mariano Rajoy, of the conservative, Christian democratic People’s Party (PP), won the December 2015 election but stepped down in June 2018 after a vote of no confidence, amid a corruption scandal.
Voting on Sunday opened at 9am (08:00 GMT) and polls close at 8pm local time.
Exit polls, which are banned until voting ends, are expected within minutes of polls closing.
By 9pm, results will start to come in.
Spanish citizens do not directly choose a prime minister. Instead, the elections will distribute the 350 seats in the Spanish lower chamber (Congress) and 265 in the higher chamber (Senate).
A candidate needs a majority of 176 supporting seats in the Congress to be sworn in as PM. If that does not happen, a second-round vote is held, which is determined by a simple majority.
Incumbent PM Sanchez’s PSOE and Pablo Casado’s PP are the two main parties poised to take the two first positions as in every election since 1982.
Contending for the three next spots are Vox, a far-right party, led by Santiago Abascal; Unidas Podemos (UP), a left-wing anti-austerity outfit headed by Pablo Iglesias; and the liberal Ciudadanos (Cs), with Albert Rivera at the helm.
At the bottom of the pool, UP’s splinter group Mas Pais, a green politics party, is led by Inigo Errejon.
In addition to those nationwide parties, Catalan and Basque nationalist parties, as well as other regional groups, are also traditionally represented in parliament, often becoming crucial to conform majorities.
Some of these groups are left-wing Catalan nationalists Republican Left of Catalonia, the liberal Catalan separatists Junts Per Catalunya and the Basque Nationalist Party, which is conservative. A far-left group of Catalan separatists, CUP, will run for national elections for the first time.
When the April 28 election results came in, Spanish left-wingers sighed with relief.
Even though far-right Vox gained representation (24 seats), the path to government seemed clear for PSOE (123 seats), with the support of Unidas Podemos (42 seats) and at least one or more of the less radical Catalan or Basque nationalist parties.
Magda Bandera, journalist and director of La Marea magazine, said: “After the last election, a left-wing coalition government seemed very close. The lack of negotiating capacity by the parties has been a terrible show for their voters.“
After five months of negotiations between the two progressive leaders, no deal was reached, kicking off snap elections.
“People are disappointed. This may translate into lower turnout, but voters could also mobilise after unique events, such as the Catalan issue,” said Antonio Barroso, head of political research firm Teneo Intelligence.
Pablo Simon, political science professor and editor at Politikon, said this time around, voters are increasingly concerned about the economy compared with previous elections.
“Volatility has been really high since 2015, so it’s very difficult to predict an accurate result,” said Barroso.
He expects a “highly fragmented” Parliament that will make forming a government challenging.
According to most polls, PSOE has a lead to get the first position, with PP closing in on second place.
However, winning most seats may not read as a victory for socialist Sanchez.
An absolute majority of 176 or more seats is unlikely.
“Only improving the party’s current position (123 seats) will improve Sanchez’s negotiating position,” said Simon.
The deadlock has become one of the main talking points during the campaign period.
Politicians must be seen trying to break it to avoid further rounds of elections, that could ignite an already jaded population.
“I really don’t know how they can break the deadlock, but they will have to do it. Voting for a third time would be unthinkable,” Bandera said.
Simon said there are two possible ways to break the deadlock. “Sanchez either deals with Unidas Podemos, Mas Pais and some nationalist or regional parties, or PP accepts some kind of compromise and abstains. Both are very unlikely.”
On October 14, Spain’s Supreme Court announced the verdict on the Catalan pro-independence political leaders on trial for the 2017 independence referendum.
Most defendants were served harsh prison sentences, which sparked demonstrations in Barcelona, Catalonia’s regional capital. Peaceful rallies gave way to clashes, with claims of police brutality.
While right-wing parties are vehemently against the separatist bid, some leftists – including those who also do not support Catalan independence – have criticised the prison sentences as an assault on democracy.
PM Sanchez welcomed the Supreme Court ruling as his PP opponent Casado called on him to break all ties with separatists.
“The territorial issue is very polarising, and has squeezed out other important debate topics, such as the economy, the education system or climate change,” said Barroso, who thinks the Catalan issue has encouraged the far right.
Simon said: “It has had an undeniable political effect: most parties have based their campaign on this, and PSOE has changed it the most.”
Bandera added: “The Catalan issue has completely altered PSOE’s narrative, bringing it closer to the right wing.”
Disappointment has also grown among separatist voters.
Unfulfilled promises of independence and a lack of leadership could take a toll on traditional nationalist parties, and the far-left CUP may use this to gain representation in Madrid for the first time.
“Pro-independence voters want to destabilise Spain, and groups such as CUP could thrive in that atmosphere,” said Bandera.
Until recently, Spain was viewed as an oasis in Europe, free of the far-right momentum that threatened the status quo in countries such as France, Italy and Germany.
That changed in April, when, for the first time since democracy was restored in 1978, Vox, an ultraconservative group, accessed the Spanish Parliament.
Born from a PP splinter group, Vox seems poised to ride the Catalan wave to improve on their current 24 seats.
Some surveys even see the neo-Francoist group snatching third place.
“It seems clear that Vox will gain seats, but how many?” said Bandera. “If there’s a very significant improvement, their importance will be compounded.”
Simon noted the lack of a cross-party alliance to isolate Vox.
“Since April, Vox has been normalised as a legitimate part of Spanish political life. It has now become one more in the options.”