Spain’s ruling socialists are set to win the most votes but fall short of a majority in a snap general election marked by the breakthrough of the far-right Vox party and a disastrous performance by the country’s traditional conservative party.
With almost 90% of the vote counted, Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) is expected to take 123 seats, the conservative People’s party (PP) 65, the centre-right Citizens party 57, the anti-austerity coalition Unidas Podemos 35 and Vox 24.
The results suggest that the PSOE will need to seek the support of others to reach the 176 seats necessary to form a government in Spain’s 350-seat congress of deputies.
They also mean that Vox has become the first far-right grouping to win more than a single seat in congress since Spain returned to democracy after the death of General Franco in 1975.
The PP, by contrast, saw its support collapse and its seat-count slashed in half from the last election in June 2016, when it won 137.
There was a surge in voter turnout in Sunday’s election – the country’s third in under four years – with participation rising to 75.8%, well up on the 66.5% two years ago.
Speaking shortly after casting his ballot on Sunday, Sánchez said he wanted the election to yield a parliamentary majority to undertake the necessary social and political reforms.
The prime minister said he wanted the lower house to support “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 political cleansing”.
Albert Rivera, the leader of the Citizens party, said a high turnout was needed on Sunday to “usher in a new era”.
The PP’s Pablo Casado, who has dragged the party to the right since becoming leader last July, called the election the country’s most decisive in recent years.
Although Casado has ruled out resigning in the event of a poor showing, the pressure on him will be mounting as the party conducts its own post-mortem on his failed strategy.
Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, said: “My feeling is that in Spain there is an ample progressive majority, and when there is high participation that becomes very clear.”
Santiago Abasca, whose Vox party is gaining momentum and further splitting an already divided right, said millions of Spaniards were turning out to vote “with hope … without fear of anything or anyone”.
Sánchez called the election in February, after Catalan separatists joined rightwing parties in rejecting his 2019 budget.
The PSOE has governed Spain since last June, when it used a no-confidence vote to oust the corruption-ridden PP from office.
But Sánchez’s minority government had struggled to advance its legislative agenda as it held only 84 of the 350 seats in the congress of deputies.
The prime minister’s opponents accuse him of being weak and too beholden to the Catalan independence parties that supported his successful no-confidence motion. They argue he should take a far tougher line on the independence issue, which has dominated Spanish politics since the regional government’s secession attempt in autumn 2017.
The territorial crisis has also fuelled the emergence of Vox, which until last year was a fringe party without the support to win seats in congress. That changed last December when it exceeded expectations, picking up 12 seats in the Andalucían regional election.
Vox then demonstrated its abilities as kingmaker by agreeing to support an Andalucían regional government between the PP and Citizens, which ended decades of PSOE control in the southern Spanish region.
Vox’s uncompromising stance on Catalonia, which includes proposals to ban pro-independence parties, has helped it build momentum, as have its attacks on feminism and what it describes as political correctness.
The party has succeeded in shaping the political agenda in recent months as the Spanish right continues to fragment. Both Casado and Rivera have steered their parties away from the centre in an attempt to stop voters deserting them for Abascal’s grouping.
Sánchez has warned the party could then try to repeat its Andalucían strategy to build a three-party rightwing coalition government with the PP and Citizens.
“No one thought that Trump would be president in the US, nor Bolsonaro in Brazil,” Sánchez tweeted on Friday. “And people reckoned Brexit wouldn’t happen either. A vote for the PSOE is the difference between a Spain that looks towards the future and a Spain that slides back 40 years. No one should stay home on Sunday!”
The PSOE could turn once again to Podemos for support, but the anti-austerity party has been weakened by internal rivalries and is not the electoral force it was three years ago. Even with Podemos’s help, Sánchez may once again need to enlist the help of Basque and Catalan nationalist parties.
The socialists could also seek to make a deal with Citizens – although Rivera has firmly ruled out such a pact.