(CN) — Weary Spanish voters went to the polls Sunday for the fourth time in four years and delivered an even more fractured Parliament than they did in April elections, with neither left- nor right-wing parties winning enough votes to form a government.
Spaniards call the gridlock that’s seized the country el bloqueo — the blockade.
In the coming weeks and possibly months, the big question will be what kind of coalition incumbent Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez might be able to cobble together — if he can at all — after his party won the most parliamentary seats but not a majority on Sunday.
Spain’s political volatility is a relatively new phenomenon for a country that until recently was ruled by one of its two main parties, the left-leaning Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party or the conservative Popular Party.
Corruption scandals in the Popular Party, Spain’s suffering from the Great Recession, unpopular belt-tightening policies and the explosive issue of Catalonia’s independence drive have upended Spain’s formerly stable two-party system.
But the big story line from the election was a surge in popularity for Spain’s nascent far-right party Vox. It more than doubled its number of seats in Parliament, to become the third-largest party in Spain. Its success was seen as a stark message for Europe, where nationalism is on the rise.
“The outlook for the country is worse not just because of the blockade is bad but something even worse has happened: Spain is radicalized,” said Iñaki Gabilondo, a veteran Spanish journalist and news anchor, in a televised commentary.
Spain had been considered one of Europe’s only countries immune to far-right sentiment, but Vox has shattered that notion and brought a far-right political force into Parliament for the first time since the end of the Fascist regime of Gen. Francisco Franco in the late 1970s.
Sánchez called the elections in the hope that he could win a majority in Parliament. After winning elections but not a majority in April, Sánchez was unable to form a coalition government with the far-left Podemos party or the center-right Ciudadanos party. He then called a snap election.
But it’s not gone his way. Although the Socialists picked up 28% of the vote and won the most seats, 120, they lost three seats in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies, Spain’s lower chamber and its most important. Podemos lost seven seats in the Congress.
The left may have been hurt by voter frustration: Turnout was low for Spanish elections, with about 70% of its 37 million eligible voters casting ballots. Low turnout typically hurts left-wing parties, experts say.
“We’ve won the election and we’re going to work for a progressive government as of tomorrow,” Sánchez told supporters Sunday night.
He did not say with whom he would prefer to govern, but called on his rivals to act “responsibly” and with “generosity” to end the paralysis.
On the political right, the Popular Party regained some momentum after a poor showing in April. It picked up about 21% of the vote and 88 seats in the Congress, a gain of 22 seats.
“Sánchez has lost his referendum; Sánchez has failed,” said Pablo Casado, the leader of the conservatives, after the results came in.
But it was Vox — with its message of Spanish nationalism and ultraconservative social positions — that was the big winner, as it won 15% of the vote and more than doubled its seats, from 24 to 52.
The rise of Vox is attributed in large part to its tough stance on Catalonia’s independence drive, which it sees as an existential threat to Spain, and the loss of trust in the Popular Party after years of corruption scandals.
“A patriotic alternative has consolidated in Spain today,” Vox’s leader, Santiago Abascal, told supporters.
There was also a big loser: The Ciudadanos, or Citizens, party. It saw its vote share drop from 16% to about 7% and its seats in Congress shrink from 57 to 10. Its leader, Albert Rivera, resigned Monday. The party has been described as waffling and doing a tango with both the left and the right.
Analysts expect it to be very difficult for Sánchez to form a new government, and say legislation will be hard to pass while the paralysis continues. Spain has not drafted a new budget in two years.
El Mundo, a major Spanish newspaper, called on the Socialists and conservatives to enter into a “grand coalition” to bring stability to Spain.
“It is an unprecedented formula in our country, but absolutely necessary to face the present challenges,” the newspaper said in an editorial.
A so-called grand coalition would be new to Spain but it’s an old device in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and Social Democrats have governed together in large part since 2005.
But the odds of Spain’s major political parties joining forces appear faint. The Popular Party will not want to boost Sánchez because now it faces a real threat from Vox and may be tempted to veer even more to the right to fend off the new nationalist party.
And Germany may not be the best model to follow during these turbulent political times in Europe: Its grand coalition is coming under immense strain and may burst soon. The German grand coalition is facing many of the same forces fracturing Spain’s politics: Voter dissatisfaction with centrist parties and policies, a rise in identity politics and growing nationalism.
On Monday, hundreds of pro-independence Catalan protesters embodied the state of el bloqueo in Spanish politics by blocking a major highway between Spain and France. They demanded that Spain’s politicians find a political solution to Catalonia’s demands for independence, but that seems highly unlikely to happen anytime soon.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)