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Spain’s Socialists dominate vote but new government uncertain

Madrid, SpainThe Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) announced on Monday it will attempt to govern following a resounding victory in national polls.

“We believe that we have more than enough support to be the rudder of this ship,” Carmen Calvo, the vice president in the previous government, told Spanish radio service Cadena SER.

Pedro Sanchez and his Centre-left PSOE were the clear winners of Spain’s general elections on Sunday by garnering 123 seats.

The anti-austerity, left-wing Unidas Podemos (UP) gained 42 seats and has signaled its openness to work with PSOE.

However, their combined 165 seats still fall short of the 176 required for an absolute majority in Spain’s 350-seat Congress of Deputies.

Sanchez will need to navigate difficult waters as a single-party government, including issues such as former dictator Francisco Franco’s legacy, the rise of the far-right, and the Catalan independence crisis.

‘Variable geometry’

The remaining seats needed for a majority could conceivably come from regional nationalist parties in the Basque Country and Catalonia.

However, a 176-seat majority isn’t necessary for Sanchez to govern, Josep Costa, vice president of the Catalan parliament from the pro-independence Together for Catalonia (JxCat) party, told Al Jazeera.

“Sanchez has got many options on the table,” Costa, who is also a professor of political science, said. 

He explained that in a second-round vote, Sanchez will only need more “yes” votes than “no” to become president.

Costa said Sanchez is likely to employ “variable geometry” – a term used in Spanish politics meaning he will rely on different parties for votes on different issues.

“He may be able to join with the left when it comes to social issues. He might be able to join with more nationalist parties when it comes to institutional design of the state,” he said.

Still, Catalan nationalist parties are a force to be reckoned with in the current parliament.

Costa said the number of pro-independence Catalan seats 22 – 15 from the centre-left Catalan Republican Left and seven from JxCat – are the “largest number of pro-independence parties in Madrid, ever”, said Costa.

Sanchez has taken a firm anti-independence stance, saying in Barcelona last week there would be “no referendum” and “no independence” in Catalonia.

When asked what role pro-independence parties will play in the current government, Costa replied: “It definitely depends on what he wants to do. What are his priorities? I mean, the best scenario for us would to be not involved with Spanish politics… We want to be self-sufficient and independent.”

Far-right rise

The right-wing bloc of the centre-right People’s Party (PP), Citizens, and far-right Vox won a total of 147 seats.

PP suffered the greatest defeat of the evening, going from 137 seats in the previous congress to 66 seats.

Citizens, which considers itself centrist-liberal but has faced accusations of ties to the far-right in its home region of Catalonia, was the clear winner from the right-wing bloc, increasing its seats from 32 to 57.

Citizen’s leader Albert Rivera declared in a tweet on Monday his party “will lead the opposition”, signaling PSOE won’t receive its support.

Observers were alarmed by the rise of the far-right Vox party in Spanish politics ahead of the national vote. While Vox may not be in government, its 24 seats still signal a shift in Spain.

It was the first time in Spain’s transition to democracy, following the death of Franco in 1975, that a far-right party will be in the national congress.

Franco’s legacy still weighs on Spain with thousands of mass graves – a result of abuses by his feared security forces – holding the remains of an estimated 100,000 people across the country.

But Franco’s legacy is also seen in social classes, which is helping Vox, according to Heather Graham, a historian who specialises in the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. She’s also a history professor at Royal Holloway, University of London.

The voters who have propelled Vox into the forefront are mainly urban and sub-urban, white-collar middling sectors which are currently becoming downwardly economically mobile – just the same as they are across the West generally,” Graham told Al Jazeera.

“But the particularity of Spain is that these particular sectors were the child of Francoism,” and “created by the dictatorship’s accelerated urban and industrial development during the late 1950s and 1960s”.

They typically voted for PP but have “decamped” to Vox in the wake of the global recession and Spain’s downward economic slope, Graham added.

An open question

Ignacio Jurado, a senior lecturer of politics at York University, told Al Jazeera the far-right’s rise was aided by Catalonia’s independence push.

The Catalan crisis has “catalyzed the rise of the far-right”, he said, even as other parties took tough stances against the region’s independence.

Jurado said the Catalan issue also helped Citizens, which “had its best results in the polls just after the crisis”, and strongly campaigned on “the national issue compared to 2016 where economic reforms were its main banner”.

It appears much of Spain has rejected the far-right’s rise, but how Sanchez handles his mandate is an open question.

Franco’s legacy, the economy, and Catalan independence are still major challenges for Spain’s new government, which could lead to an unstable one, Costa said.

“I think it remains to be seen what his priorities will be. Will he try to seek a solution to Catalan demands, which help him stabilise his government into the future? Or if he just wants to survive.”

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