Socialists win Spain election, far-right emerges as player

2019-04-29 12:46
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro and Socialist Party (PSOE) candidate for prime minister Pedro Sanchez (C) attends an election night rally in Madrid after Spain held general elections. (Javier Soriano, AFP)

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro and Socialist Party (PSOE) candidate for prime minister Pedro Sanchez (C) attends an election night rally in Madrid after Spain held general elections. (Javier Soriano, AFP)

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Spain's governing centre-left Socialists won the country's election on Sunday but must seek backing from smaller parties to maintain power, while a far-right party rode an unprecedented surge of support to enter the lower house of parliament for the first time in four decades.

Voters in Spain had become disillusioned as the country struggled with a recession, austerity cuts, corruption scandals, divisive demands for independence from the restive Catalonia region and a rise in far-right nationalism not seen since Spain's dictatorship ended in the 1970s.

With 99% of ballots counted, the Socialists led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez won 29% of the vote, capturing 123 seats in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies. The new far-right Vox party made its national breakthrough by capturing 10% of the vote, which would give it 24 seats.

Vox's success came at the expense of the once-dominant conservative Popular Party, which fell to 66 seats, losing more than half of its representation since the last election in 2016. The conservatives also lost votes to the centre-right Citizens party, which will increase its number of seats from 32 to 57.

"We told you that we were going to begin a reconquering of Spain and that's what we have done," Vox leader Santiago Abascal said, in reference to the 15th-century campaign by the Spanish Catholic Kings to end Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula.  

Vox, which was formed five years ago, has promised to defend Spain from its "enemies", citing feminists, liberal elites and Muslims among others. Its emergence on the national stage gives Spain five political parties, furthering political fragmentation in a country that was alternately ruled for decades by the Socialists and the Popular Party.

To stay in office, the Socialists and Sánchez must form a governing alliance with smaller parties, including the far-left United We Can led by Pablo Iglesias.

Iglesias said after the vote the he "would have liked a better result, but it's been enough to stop the right-wing and build a left-wing coalition government", adding that he's already offered support to Sánchez.

But Sánchez will still need 15 more seats to reach a majority in the 350-seat lower house of parliament, meaning he may be forced to make pacts with Catalan and other separatist parties – moves that would anger many Spaniards, especially the nationalist Vox supporters.

Pablo Casado, who had steered the Popular Party further to the right to try to stop it from losing votes to Vox, called the ballot the country's "most decisive" in years. Polls only a week ago showed that about one-third of Spain's nearly 37 million voters were still undecided.

Turnout in Sunday's vote was around 75%, up more than 8 points since the previous election in 2016. The vote surge 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 separatist leaders in jail while they are tried.

The arrival of Vox in Madrid's national parliament marks a big shift for 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.

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

Speaking on Sunday after voting, Sánchez said he wanted a mandate to undertake key social and political reforms.

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.

At the Palacio Valdes school in Madrid, voter Alicia Sánchez, a 38-year-old administrator, worried about the influence of Vox.

"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 of the candidates.

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

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