MADRID (AP) — Spain may face weeks or even months of political stalemate and possibly a new election, but a nationwide poll produced a result that will be greeted with relief in continental capitals that, like Madrid, are strong supporters of the European Union.
Spain’s Vox party, with its ultra-nationalist bent, lost voter support in Sunday’s election, dashing its hopes of being a kingmaker and entering a coalition government that would have given the far-right its first slice of power in Spain since Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in the 20th century.
The dominant conservative People’s Party won the election, but fared well behind poll data that predicted it could oust Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez if it formed a government with Vox as its junior partner.
Even though Sánchez’s Socialists finished second, they and their allied parties celebrated the result as a victory as their combined forces won slightly more seats than the People’s Party and Vox. The bloc that would likely back Sánchez had 172 seats, while the right had 170.
“It was a Pyrrhic victory for the People’s Party, which is unable to form a government,” political analyst Verónica Fumanal said, adding, “I see a deadlock scenario in parliament.”
The closer-than-expected outcome was likely to produce weeks of political jockeying and uncertainty over Spain’s future leadership.
Socialist voter Delphine Fernández said she hoped Sánchez could stay in power. She’s keeping her fingers crossed that she and the 37 million Spaniards called to vote don’t have to start all over again like in 2019, when Sánchez had to win back-to-back electoral victories before she could forge a coalition government.
“It was always going to be difficult. Now we are (practically) tied, but let’s see if we can still govern,” said Fernández, a lawyer. “I don’t want to vote anymore in a few weeks. It’s now or never.”
But the chances of Sánchez securing the backing of the 176 lawmakers needed to secure an outright majority in the Madrid-based Lower House of Parliament are not great.
The divided results made the Catalan separatist Junts (Together) party the key to Sánchez forming a government. But if Junts demanded a referendum on the independence of northeastern Catalonia, it would probably be far too high a price for Sánchez to pay.
“We will not make Pedro Sánchez prime minister in exchange for nothing,” said Míriam Nogueras de Junts.
With 98% of votes counted, the People’s Party was on course for 136 seats. Even with the 33 seats the far-right Vox was poised to win and the only seat going to an allied party, the PP would still be seven seats short of a majority.
The Socialists were to win 122 seats, two more than before. Sánchez could probably call on the 31 seats of his junior coalition partner Sumar (Joining Forces) and several smaller parties to at least tally more than the sum of the right-wing parties, but he would also be missing four majority seats unless Junts joins them.
“Spain and all citizens who voted were clear. The backward bloc that wanted to undo everything we have done has failed,” Sánchez told a jubilant crowd gathered at the socialists’ headquarters in Madrid.
After his party was defeated in regional and local elections in May, Sánchez could have waited until December to face a national vote. Instead, he stunned his rivals by upping the vote in hopes of getting a bigger boost from his supporters.
Sánchez can add this election night to another career comeback that has been built to beat the odds. The 51-year-old had to stage a mutiny among grassroots socialists to regain leadership of his party before winning Spain’s only vote of no confidence to oust his People’s Party predecessor in 2018.
PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo has claimed the right to try to form a government as the most voted party in the elections, although he looks even more unlikely to muster a majority.
“We won the elections, it suits us to form a government as has always happened in Spanish democracy,” he said.
Feijóo focused the PP’s campaign on what he called Sánchez’s unreliability. Socialists and other left-wing parties, meanwhile, drummed up fears of having Vox in power as a junior partner in a PP-led coalition.
A PP-Vox government would have meant another EU member would have moved firmly to the right, a trend seen recently in Sweden, Finland and Italy. Countries like Germany and France are worried about what such a change could portend for European immigration and climate policies.
Vox, however, lost 19 seats four years earlier.
Its chief, Santiago Abascal, described the results as “bad news for the Spaniards”.
“Pedro Sánchez, despite losing the elections, can block the nomination (of Feijóo) and, even worse, Pedro Sánchez could even form a government,” he said.
Feijóo sought to distance the PP from Vox during the campaign. But Sánchez, by advancing the elections, made the campaign coincide with the agreements reached by the PP and Vox to govern together in town halls and regional governments after the May polls.
Vox campaigned to roll back laws on gender-based violence. And both the PP and Vox have agreed to want to repeal a new law on transgender rights and a law on democratic memory that aims to help families wishing to dig up the thousands of victims of the Franco regime still missing in mass graves.
“The PP was a victim of its expectations, and the Socialists were able to capitalize on the fear of the arrival of Vox. Bringing the elections forward turned out to be the right move for Pedro Sánchez,” said Manuel Mostaza, director of public policy at Spanish consultancy Atrevia.
The new Spanish Parliament will meet in a month. King Felipe VI then appoints one of the party leaders to submit to a parliamentary vote to form a new government. Legislators have a maximum of three months to reach an agreement. Otherwise, new elections would be called.
Wilson reported from Barcelona. AP journalists Aritz Parra, Renata Brito, David Brunat, Iain Sullivan, María Gestoso, Alicia Léon and José María García contributed to this report.