(CN) – In an election fought largely over questions of national identity and Catalonia’s secessionist drive, Spain’s Socialist party claimed victory on Sunday as the conservative electorate was split by the rise of a new far-right political force.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party came in first with about 29% of the vote in an election with high turnout at about 76%. But his victory was not large enough to claim an absolute majority in parliament and makes it necessary for him to cobble together a coalition government.
Sanchez is expected to seek to form a government with a far-left anti-austerity party, the Unidas Podemos (United We Can), and a collection of smaller Catalan and Basque nationalist parties. But this arrangement could complicate his chances of forming a government and if coalition talks break down there is a chance new elections could be needed.
The election leaves Spain with a fragmented parliament and the country facing its first coalition government since its return to democracy after the fall of the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco in the late 1970s.
The results confirmed the splintering of Spanish politics as the traditional center-left Socialists and center-right Popular Party face new political forces capable of luring voters away. This fragmentation reflects a wider trend across Europe as mainstream parties lose support to an array of upstart parties of a more populist mold and representing more radical views.
Sanchez presented himself as a bulwark against the rise of the far-right and ultra-nationalist party Vox and his message resonated among Spanish voters.
“The future has won and the past has lost,” Sanchez told supporters outside his party headquarters in Madrid.
“We’ve sent the world a message,” he added. “We can beat the reactionaries and the authoritarians.”
In the campaign, Sanchez used the rise of Vox as a reason to vote for him.
“This is a very threatening reality we need to avoid,” the prime minister said in a television debate last week about Vox. “I thought [Donald] Trump wouldn’t win, and he won, I thought Brexit wouldn’t happen, and it happened.”
Still, Vox too can claim victory as it picked up about 10% of the vote and forced other right-wing parties, in particular the Popular Party, to tack to the right. In the last general election in 2016, it picked up few votes and no seats in Spain’s 350-seat Congress of Deputies.
On Sunday, Vox’s results will give it 24 seats in the Congress of Deputies, making it the first time since 1982 that a far-right party will be seated in Spain’s parliament. The party’s electoral success has pierced the notion that Spain was immune to a rise in far-right forces rocking European politics.
“This is just the beginning,” Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox, told supporters, many of whom waved Spanish flags. “We told you we were initiating a reconquest and that is exactly what we have done.”
Abascal’s rhetoric about reconquering Spain is viewed as referring to medieval wars to recapture the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors. His party now talks about pushing Muslim immigrants out of Spain.
The big loser was the Popular Party. Its reputation has been battered by corruption scandals which allowed Sanchez to win a no-confidence vote last June against the Popular Party’s former leader and ex-Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and seize power.
With its integrity bruised and under assault by both Vox and another newcomer to Spanish politics, the liberal Ciudadanos (Citizens) party, the Popular Party suffered a historic defeat. It won only 16.7% of the vote, which gives it 66 seats in parliament. It won 137 seats in 2016.
Besides Vox, another election winner on the right was Ciudadanos, a party with a neoliberal platform. It won 15.9% of the vote, giving it hope to surpass the Popular Party as the choice for moderates and center-right conservatives. In 2016, it won about 13% of the vote.
The party’s leader, Albert Rivera, has rejected forming a government with the Socialists, but there was speculation that Sanchez and Rivera could seek to set their differences aside and join forces.
In an analysis for El País, a major Spanish newspaper, Elena Garcia Guereta, a political science professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, said the right lost the election because its vote was divided “into three national parties” and because it left the center ground. In seeking to stave off Vox and Ciudadanos, she said the Popular Party alienated moderate voters, who in the past were central to the party’s success.
Catalonia’s drive for independence was a pivotal issue during the campaign. Vox led charges that Sanchez was a “traitor” for opening talks with Catalan leaders about its independence and Ciudadanos and the Popular Party also spoke out against Catalan independence.
Catalonia declared itself an independent nation after an illegal referendum in 2017. The secessionist drive was squashed by Rajoy’s government and its leaders are on trial in Madrid for rebellion and sedition.
Another loser in the election was Podemos, a party that has positioned itself as the voice of the left. It has broadened its grassroots support through the use of digital technology that allows members to actively participate in its policies. It is touted as a model for other left-wing parties in Europe.
Podemos grew into a political force in the wake of the financial collapse in 2008 that led to severe cuts in public spending across debt-ridden Europe, measures known as austerity.
In the 2016 elections, Podemos took in 21% of the votes and claimed 71 seats in parliament. But the party’s strength was sapped by infighting, moves by Sanchez to adopt Podemos positions and an improving economy. It picked up about 14% of the vote on Sunday, a loss of 29 seats in parliament. Nonetheless, it remains Sanchez’s best bet for forming a government.
“We are an indispensable force for there to be a left government in Spain,” Pablo Iglesias, the Podemos leader, said after the election.
Upcoming local, regional and European elections between now and the end of May could make it less likely that a winning coalition will emerge before June, according to experts.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)