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Far-right expected to gain as Spaniards turn out in force

Spanish voters turned out in force Sunday for a general election in which a far-right party could become a significant player in parliament for the first time since democracy was restored four decades ago.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialists look poised to win the most votes but seem far from scoring a majority in parliament that would allow it to form a government on its own. Sánchez called the vote after his budget was defeated by the right-wing opposition and Catalan separatists.

Spain’s political landscape has fragmented from having two main parties for decades into five now, a result of austerity programs that followed a recession, disenchantment with bipartisan politics and the rise of far-right populism.

Polls a week ago showed that about one-third of Spain‘s nearly 37 million voters hadn’t decided yet who to choose to fill 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies and 208 in the Upper House.

An opinion poll published Sunday night by Spanish public broadcaster RTVE as voting ended on the mainland showed that Sánchez could hold on to power but only with support of the left-wing United We Can party and small regional parties, including separatists in Catalonia. Pollster GAD3 interviewed 12,900 people by phone on April 12-27. It said the error margin was 0.95%.

On the splintered right, three parties are competing for leadership: the once-dominant conservative Popular Party, the center-right Citizens, and the nationalist, anti-migrant Vox party, which looks set to enter the lower house of the Parliament for the first time.

The arrival of Vox in Madrid’s national parliament would mark a big shift in 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.

Pablo Casado, who has steered the Popular Party further to the right to stop it from losing votes to Vox, called the ballot the country’s “most decisive” in years.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal, who drew the largest crowds during campaigning, told reporters in Madrid that “millions of Spaniards are going to vote with hope, they are going to do it without fear for anything or anybody.”

Two hours before the polls closed, turnout was more than 9% higher than in the previous election in 2016, Spain’s Interior Ministry said. That increase included a huge boost of more than 17% in the northeastern Catalonia region, which has been embroiled in a political quagmire since its failed secession bid in 2017 put several separatist leaders in jail while they undergo trial.

Voting stations on the mainland closed but were open an hour later in the Canary Islands.

Speaking Sunday after voting, Sánchez said he wanted the ballot to yield a parliamentary majority that can undertake the key social and political reforms that Spain needs.

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.

The Popular Party and the Citizens party focused their campaigns on unseating Sánchez, hinting they could create a conservative coalition government that — with the backing of Vox — could be similar to the one that recently ousted the Socialists from more than three decades in power in the southern Andalusia region.

Citizens leader Albert Rivera said a high turnout was needed Sunday to “usher in a new era” while United We Can party leader Pablo Iglesias also stressed the importance of voting.

“My feeling is that in Spain there is an ample progressive majority, and when there is high participation that becomes very clear,” Iglesias said.

At the Palacio Valdes school in Madrid, voter Alicia Sánchez, a 38-year-old administrator, worried that the nationalist Vox could influence policy-making if they gain significant support on Sunday.

“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 candidate.

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

And for the first time since Spain transitioned to democracy, more than 100,000 people with mental disabilities are being allowed to vote in the general election.

———

Wilson reported from Barcelona.

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