World

Socialists win Spanish election, but deadlock likely as far-right party surges

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialists won Spain's national election on Sunday, but large gains by the upstart far-right Vox party appear certain to widen the political deadlock in the European Union's fifth-largest economy.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal promises to battle 'progressive dictatorship'

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez still faces an uphill battle to form a government despite his Socialists' win in the Spanish national election. (Sergio Perez/Reuters)

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialists won Spain's national election on Sunday, but large gains by the upstart far-right Vox party appear certain to widen the political deadlock in the European Union's fifth-largest economy.

After a fourth national ballot in as many years and the second in less than seven months, the left-wing Socialists held on as the leading power in the National Parliament. With 99 per cent of the votes counted, the Socialists won 120 seats, down three seats from the last election in April and still far from the absolute majority of 176 needed to form a government alone.

The big political shift came as right-wing voters flocked to Vox, which only had broken into Parliament in the spring for the first time.

The far-right party led by 43-year-old Santiago Abascal, who speaks of "reconquering" Spain in terms that echo the medieval wars between Christian and Muslim forces, rocketed from 24 to 52 seats. That will make Vox the third leading party in the Congress of Deputies and give it much more leverage in forming a government and crafting legislation.

'Today we are the third-largest party in Spain,' far-right Vox party leader Santiago Abascal said after Sunday's election. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

The party has vowed to be much tougher on both Catalan separatists and migrants.

Abascal called his party's success "the greatest political feat seen in Spain."

"Just 11 months ago, we weren't even in any regional legislature in Spain. Today we are the third-largest party in Spain and the party that has grown the most in votes and seats," said Abascal, who promised to battle the "progressive dictatorship."

Right-wing populist and anti-migrant leaders across Europe celebrated Vox's strong showing.

Sunday's results means there will be no end to the stalemate between forces on the right and the left in Spain, suggesting the country could go many more weeks or even months without a new government.

The mainstream conservative Popular Party rebounded from their previous debacle in the April vote to 87 seats from 66, a historic low. The far-left United We Can, which had a chance to help the Socialists form a left-wing government over the summer but rejected the offer, lost some ground to get 35 seats.

A woman casts her vote for the general election in Madrid, Spain, Sunday. Spain holds its second national election this year after Socialist Leader Pedro Sanchez failed to win support for his government in a fractured Parliament. (Andrea Comas/The Associated Press)

The undisputed loser of the night was the centre-right Citizens party, which collapsed to 10 seats from 57 in April after its leader Albert Rivera refused to help the Socialists form a government and tried to copy some of Vox's hard-line positions.

Sanchez's chances of staying in power will still hinge on finally winning over the United We Can party and several regional parties, a complicated manoeuvre that he has failed to pull off over the past few months.

"These elections have only served for the right to grow stronger and for Spain to have one of the strongest far-right parties in Europe," said United We Can leader Pablo Iglesias. "The only way to stop the far-right in Spain is to have a stable government. We again extend our hand to Pedro Sanchez."

Vox has already joined forces with the Popular Party and Citizens to take over many city and regional governments in the past year. Those three groups would readily band together to oust Sanchez, who is seen by the right-wing opposition as too soft on the Catalan secessionist movement.

Julia Giobelina, 34-year-old web designer from Madrid, was angry at having to vote for the second time in less than seven months but said she cast her ballot in hopes of stopping the rise of Vox.

They are the new fascism. We citizens need to stand against privatization of health care and other public services.- Julia Giobelina, 34-year-old voter from Madrid

"They are the new fascism," Giobelina said. "We citizens need to stand against privatization of health care and other public services. Also, because I don't know if my daughter will be transsexual or lesbian and because of our friends the immigrants, we need to vote against the far-right for them."

Spain returned to democracy in the late 1970s after a near four-decade right-wing dictatorship under the late Gen. Francisco Franco. The country used to take pride in claiming no far-right group had seats in the National Parliament, unlike the rest of Europe.

United We Can Party Leader Pablo Iglesias raises his fist during an electoral meeting on Wednesday. (Emilio Morenatti/The Associated Press)

The rise of right-wing Vox party

But that changed in the last election, when Vox erupted onto the political scene by winning 24 seats on promises of taking a hard line on Catalonia and immigration.

Many right-wingers were also not pleased by the caretaker Socialist government's exhumation of Franco's remains last month from his gargantuan mausoleum so he could no longer be exalted by supporters in a public place.

Dozens of people cheered and shouted "President! President!" as Abascal voted in Madrid.

A young girl casts the vote of a relative during the general election in Pamplona, northern Spain. (Alvaro Barrientos/The Associated Press)

Alfonso Pedro Monestilla hoped his vote could help Vox. The 59-year-old public servant said Vox had many good proposals and some unfortunate ones, but he welcomed the possibility the far-right party could become Spain's third-largest political party.

"Only by getting rid of Sanchez we can preserve Spain as it is, not by reaching agreements with the [Catalan] separatists," said Monestilla.

Last month, Spain's Supreme Court sentenced to prison nine Catalan politicians and activists who led a 2017 drive for the region's independence. The ruling triggered massive daily protests in Catalonia that left more than 500 people injured, roughly half of them police officers, and dozens arrested. More protests by radicals have been called for this week.