Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Socialists emerged the winner in elections in Spain on Sunday, but with large gains by the far-right Vox party the political stalemate in the European Union’s fifth-largest economy appeared certain to deepen.
Sanchez had gambled that a repeat parliamentary election would strengthen his hand, but ended with fewer seats than in the previous ballot in April and further away from the 176 majority needed to form a government outright.
“One way or another we’ll form a progressive government and unblock the political stalemate … We call upon all the political parties, except for those that work against coexistence and foster hatred,” Sanchez said.
With 99.9 percent of the votes counted, the Socialists had 120 seats, down three seats from the last election. It also lost its majority in the Senate.
The big breakthrough came from Vox, as right-wing voters flocked to the party led by 43-year-old Santiago Abascal, who speaks of “reconquering” Spain in terms that echo the medieval wars between Christian and Moorish forces. Vox won 52 seats, compared with 24 in the last election making it the third-biggest party in the Congress of Deputies.
The election outcome means there will be no end to the stalemate between forces on the right and the left in Spain, suggesting the country could go many more weeks or even months without a new government.
Abascal called his party’s success “the greatest political feat seen in Spain”.
“Just 11 months ago, we weren’t even in any regional legislature in Spain. Today, we are the third-largest party in Spain and the party that has grown the most in votes and seats,” he said promising to battle the “progressive dictatorship”.
The mainstream conservative Popular Party rebounded with 88 seats compared with the 66 it won in April.
The far-left United We Can, which had rejected an offer to help the Socialists form a left-wing government over the summer, lost some ground and ended with 35 seats.
The night’s undisputed loser was the centre-right Citizens party, which collapsed to 10 seats from 57 in April after its leader Albert Rivera refused to help the Socialists form a government and tried to copy some of Vox’s hardline positions.
Sanchez’s chances of staying in power still hinge on winning over the United We Can party and several regional parties, a complicated manoeuvre that he has failed to pull off in recent months.
United We Can leader Pablo Iglesias extended an offer of support to Sanchez.
“These elections have only served for the right to grow stronger and for Spain to have one of the strongest far-right parties in Europe,” Iglesias said. “The only way to stop the far-right in Spain is to have a stable government.”
Pablo Casado, the leader of the Popular Party, also pledged to work to end months of political instability. He said “the ball was in the court” of Sanchez, though. In recent months, his party and Citizens have struck deals with Vox to take over some cities and regional governments.
Bonnie Field, a professor on Global Studies at Bentley University in California, called the political situation a “mess government-wise”.
“Spanish politics are now increasingly complicated and any governing formula is going to require lots of negotiations, and people being open to criticism,” she said.
Higher abstention rates on Sunday showed that voters were tired of being called repeatedly to the ballot box. Spain has had four elections in as many years, two of them this year.
“Now, they’ll have to negotiate, people don’t want a third election,” said Isabel Romero, 65-year-old pensioner who voted for the Socialists, complaining that abstention was already high.
Julia Giobelina, a 34-year-old web designer from Madrid, was angry at having to vote for the second time this year. But she said she cast her ballot in hopes of stopping Vox.
“They are the new fascism,” Giobelina said. “We citizens need to stand against privatisation of healthcare and other public services.”
The new parliament, which will hold its inaugural session in early December, will include 16 parties, including several more regional ones and the anti-capitalist, pro-Catalan independence CUP party.
Spain returned to democracy in the late 1970s after a near four-decade right-wing dictatorship under the late Francisco Franco.
The country used to take pride in claiming that no far-right group had seats in the national Parliament, unlike the rest of Europe. That changed in the spring, but the Socialists’ April victory was still seen by many as a respite for Europe, where right-wing parties had gained much ground.
Vox relied on its anti-migrant message and attacks on laws that protect women from domestic abuse as well as what it considers leftist ideology disguised as political correctness. Still, it does not advocate a break from the EU in the very pro-EU Spain.
It has nevertheless flourished after recent riots in Catalonia by separatists, exploiting Spanish nationalist sentiment stirred up by the country’s worst political conflict in decades.
The three Catalan separatist parties won a combined 23 seats on Sunday.
Many Catalans have been angered by the decision last month by Spain’s Supreme Court, which sentenced to prison nine Catalan politicians and activists who led a 2017 drive for the region’s independence.