Spaniards Head to Polls in Hotly Contested Election

A poster with a portrait of Spanish Prime Minister and Socialist Party candidate Pedro Sanchez is seen during an election campaign event in Barcelona on Thursday. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

(CN) – For the first time since Spain returned to democracy after the fall of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s, the country faces the likelihood of being run by a coalition government.

On Sunday, Spanish voters head to the polls in a fragmented election that reflects the political landscape across Europe: Traditional parties are in retreat as new parties emerge and the far-right advances.

“All signs point to there being a coalition government for the first time under Spain’s democratic constitution,” said Paul Costello, an analyst at the George Marshall Fund think tank, in a briefing paper.

Polls ahead of the election showed the two traditional rival political forces – the center-left Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party and the center-right Popular Party – ahead of three smaller parties, but without the votes needed to form a government on their own.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist party was leading in the polls with about 29% of the vote while the Popular Party picked up about 20%. However, about 40% of the electorate remained undecided.

Sunday’s vote, then, will be decisive in determining what kind of coalition government can be formed and how it may tackle the country’s pressing issues. Spain is grappling with deep divisions between liberals and conservatives over issues such as women’s rights, Catalonia’s drive for independence, ballooning public debt, immigration and rural depopulation.

The other parties in the running are relative newcomers. They are the center-right liberal Ciudadanos (Citizens) party, the far-left anti-austerity Podemos (We Can) and the far-right, ultra-nationalist Vox. Polls show these parties picking up, respectively, about 15.5%, 13.6% and 10.7% of the votes.

Support for the far-right Vox party is being closely watched. The party advocates banning abortion and same-sex marriage and expelling immigrants. It was formed by hard-line breakaway members of the Popular Party.

Unlike other far-right parties that rely heavily on working-class voters, Vox has found support among well-to-do Spaniards. Many supporters voice admiration for former dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939 until his death in 1975.

Polls suggest Vox could send 29 representatives to the 350-seat Congress of Deputies, Spain’s legislative chamber. It could even become part of a coalition government if the right-wing parties do better than expected and have the numbers to form a government. This formula played out in Andalusia earlier this year when Ciudadanos, the Popular Party and Vox joined forces and now rule the regional government.

“As in every election with a radical right newcomer, there seems to be a concern that pollsters might be underestimating support for Vox because of potential ‘shy voters’ who do not reveal their true preference for the party,” said Antonio Barroso, an analyst at the political risk firm Teneo Intelligence, in a briefing note.

He said it was also possible that Vox supporters could shift their support to the Popular Party or Ciudadanos “at the last minute because they fear the division of the right might lead to another [Socialist-led] government.”

Based on polling data, though, it looked likely that Sanchez may be able to form a government by joining forces with Podemos and, if necessary, smaller Catalan parties.

Sanchez called the snap elections after he was unable to get a budget passed in January. Sanchez’s government came into power in June 2018 after a corruption-mired Popular Party government was toppled in a no-confidence vote. Sanchez was able to cobble together a government with the support of Podemos and secessionist Catalan parties.

It’s been a confrontational campaign between the five male leaders of the main parties, all of them born after 1972.

The question of Catalonia and its push to become an independent nation have loomed over the election campaign.

The right-wing parties, including Ciudadanos, are opposed to the Catalan drive for independence. Vox goes further and advocates abolishing the regional government in Barcelona and imposing direct rule by the Spanish government.

Sanchez is opposed to independence but he has talked about giving Catalonia more autonomy. Podemos, meanwhile, has said it is open to allowing Catalans to vote in an independence referendum.

In 2017, Catalan politicians held an illegal independence referendum and then declared Catalonia independent. The movement was crushed and its leaders charged with sedition and rebellion. A trial of 12 secessionists is taking place before the Supreme Court.

Besides Catalonia, the election has been fought over women’s rights and abuse against women. Women’s rights have taken center stage in the wake of a trial against five men accused of gang raping an 18-year-old woman in 2016 during the annual running of the bulls festivities in Pamplona. The men called themselves la manada, or wolf pack, and media reports based on leaked evidence appeared to convincingly show that the men raped the woman.

But in 2018, a court cleared the five men of sexual assault and sentenced them instead to nine years for sexual abuse. The lighter sentences and a recent decision to grant the men bail while they appeal have sparked outrage.

A feminist movement sprang up challenging Spain’s culture of misogyny and demanding a rewriting of Spain’s sexual assault laws.

For their part, the main election candidates have sought to score political points against their rivals on the issue. In turn, they have been chided for representing a male-dominated political system.

At a recent debate, for example, Sanchez sought to link the Popular Party’s leader, Pablo Casado, to Vox’s extreme views on women. The Vox party leader, pistol-carrying Santiago Abascal, rails against “feminazis” and has advocated changing domestic violence laws, arguing they treat men unfairly.

Notably missing from the campaign has been much discussion of Spain’s economy and fiscal health. The country is still recovering from the crippling 2008 financial collapse and it faces a debt crisis as pension costs outpace revenues.

Regardless of the election results, it’s expected that it may take months before a new government can be seated and there’s even the chance another general election will be needed.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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