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Far-right could enter government as Spain goes to the polls

<i>Oscar del Pozo/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Sumer's leader
Oscar del Pozo/AFP/Getty Images
Sumer's leader

By Al Goodman and Jack Guy, CNN

Madrid (CNN) — Spaniards are voting in Sunday’s snap general election that could see a far-right party enter government for the first time in decades.

Most polls predict the center-right opposition Popular Party will win but fall short of an absolute majority in Parliament, meaning they would likely have to form a coalition with the far-right Vox party.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, in power since 2018, gambled on holding a snap vote after his party suffered major setbacks in regional and local elections in May while the PP made huge gains.

His Socialist party (PSOE) currently runs the country in a minority government with a junior coalition partner, the leftist Podemos party, and gets parliamentary support from other leftist forces.

Podemos also suffered in the May elections and has signed a deal to run under the new leftist Sumar alliance. The convergence aims to prevent another split in the leftist vote, like in May.

On the other side, the PP, led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo, has promised tax cuts, strong support for the European Union and a strategy of boosting economic growth by attracting foreign investment.

Both leaders have voted, with TV footage showing Sanchez being heckled and applauded as he cast his ballot. He said he had “good feelings” about the vote, while Feijóo said whatever happens he would continue working for the country.

Andres Villena, a professor at Madrid’s Complutense University, told CNN that in calling the elections Sanchez made “a complex chess move,” and may be hoping to outmaneuver Feijóo, a longtime regional president in northwest Spain who has only been in charge of the national party since April 2022 and is untested in a national election.

During his time in government Sanchez has pushed a progressive agenda, including policies on women’s rights and a euthanasia law. These reforms won votes in urban areas, but the pace of change has also led to a backlash in other parts of the country.

The economy seems relatively healthy, with employment up and inflation down, but even some Socialists admit the benefits haven’t been felt across the board among Spaniards.

Separatist questions

Territorial questions have also been high on the agenda since 2017, when Catalonian authorities triggered a standoff with the government after attempting to secede from Spain.

Experts say that the idea of the country breaking up sparked a resurgence in Spanish nationalism, and has been key to the growth of support for Vox.

While Sanchez criticizes the conservatives for their governing deals with Vox in regional governments following the May elections, Feijóo has blasted Sanchez for getting support from Catalan pro-independence parties and from a Basque pro-independence party linked to the now disbanded ETA terrorist group.

Sanchez counters that he got votes from them to pass progressive laws, but they weren’t members of his government.

So voters seem to have a clear choice – a new government coalition of the right or repeat one on the left.

Spain emerged from the decades-long right-wing dictatorship of General Francisco Franco upon his death in 1975, and while analysts warn against making easy links between Franco and Vox, the party manifesto includes policies that would constitute a significant rollback in women’s rights, access to abortion and LGBTQ protections. The party also is anti-immigrant and has many skeptics of climate change.

The Socialists and the new Sumar grouping are hoping that such a prospect will mobilize liberal-minded voters and give them a fresh chance at the helm.

One of those voting, civil servant Antonio Lopez, told CNN he would back the Socialists, as a conservative win would mean a “sad future.” Cab driver Carlos Expositio said he favoured Sumar as they “are with the people, not the rich.”

Feijóo under fire

Sanchez was widely seen to have lost the only televised debate with Feijóo early in the election campaign. But last week, it was Feijóo who was criticized, when he incorrectly claimed, in an interview on state television, that his party had always raised pensions to keep up with inflation. He walked that back later that day.

Later in the week, Feijóo told a rally that the employment data, which is part of Sumar leader Diaz’s portfolio as minister of labor, has been “touched up” as if with makeup, to make it appear better. “As for makeup, she knows a lot about that. No doubt about it,” Feijóo said of the only woman among the principal candidates in the election.

“It’s pure machoism,” former Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, shot back in a radio interview.

Spain’s political fragmentation away from the two dominant parties, the Socialists and the Popular Party conservatives, has been ongoing for a decade.

The winner on Sunday needs 176 seats in the 350-seat Legislature for an absolute majority, but polls say that’s unlikely.

If the largest party cannot agree a coalition deal that reaches 176 seats, the result would be a hung Parliament and a repeat election. This is what happened in 2019, which saw the PSOE win two elections in six months but only manage to form a government in November.

On Sunday, 37 million Spaniards will decide at the polls. That includes 1.6 million first-time voters who turned 18 since 2019. And a record 2.6 million ballots have been requested, 94% of which have been submitted.

It’s the first time a national election has been held at the peak of the summer vacation season, with extreme heat expected in eastern, central and southern Spain.

Voting begins at 9 a.m. local time (3 a.m. ET) and finishes at 8 p.m. (2 p.m. ET).

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