Socialists top Spanish vote but fall short of majority as far-right advances

Spain's governing centre-left Socialists won the country's election 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.

PM and Socialist Leader Pedro Sanchez will have to form alliance with smaller parties

Election officials empty a ballot box to start counting votes at a polling station in Pamplona for Spain's general election on Sunday. (Alvaro Barrientos/Associated Press)

Spain's governing centre-left Socialists won the country's election 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, the divisive Catalan independence demands and a rise in far-right Spanish nationalism not seen since Spain's dictatorship ended in the 1970s.

With 99 per cent of ballots counted, the Socialists led by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez won nearly 29 per cent 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 about 10 per cent of the vote, which would give it 24 seats.

Vox's success apparently came at the expense of the once-dominant conservative Popular Party, which fell to 66 seats, losing half of its support 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 re-conquering 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.

Santiago Abascal, leader of far-right party Vox, is seen at a polling station in Madrid. (Andrea Comas/Associated Press)

To remain in office, Sanchez will have to 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 Sanchez.

But Sanchez 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 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. 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 per cent, up more than eight points since the previous election in 2016. The surge in turnout 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 several separatist leaders in jail while they undergo trial.

People line up to cast their votes at a polling station in Barcelona. Turnout in Sunday's vote was around 75 per cent. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

The arrival of Vox in Madrid's national parliament marks 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.

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

Speaking Sunday after voting, Sanchez 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.

Spanish Prime Minister and Socialist Party candidate Pedro Sanchez casts his vote inside a polling station in Pozuelo de Alarcon, near Madrid. (Bernat Armangue/Associated Press)

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

"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 Gomez, 86, and Antonio Roman, 90, said they had little faith in any candidate.

"All I want is for whoever wins to take care of the old people," Gomez said, complaining that the two of them together receive less than 1,000 euros ($1,500 Cdn) a month in state pensions.