Spain’s Socialists win general election amid far-right surge

Pedro Sánchez’s party falls short of majority as Popular Party suffers historic losses

Spain’s governing Socialists won their first general election since 2008 on Sunday but fell short of a majority as the conservative opposition suffered a disastrous night and the far-right made gains.

The Socialists of prime minister Pedro Sánchez had won 123 seats, a vast improvement on the 85 seats they secured in 2016. However, they are likely to need the support of leftist and possibly nationalist parties in order to secure the 176-seat majority they need to govern.

The conservative Popular Party (PP) had the worst result of its history as it saw its share of seats slashed almost by half to 66. It was almost overtaken by Ciudadanos, a rival party on the right which made ground with 57 seats.

Meanwhile, the far-right Vox will make its debut in parliament with 24 seats.

The leftist Unidas Podemos coalition, the Socialists’ closest ally, secured 42 seats, meaning Mr Sánchez would still need to look to other parties for help if he is to form a new government. However, that support could come in the form of abstentions in an investiture vote.

The strong performance by Ciudadanos meant it could potentially form a majority with the Socialists. However, Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera repeatedly ruled out that possibility ahead of the election, citing the two parties’ differing approach to the Catalan crisis.

Catalan independence

That Catalan territorial issue dominated much of the campaign and had generated much of the deep political division of recent months. The PP, Ciudadanos and Vox have taken a hardline stance against the pro-independence Catalan government, all pledging to introduce direct rule in the region if they entered government. They also accused Mr Sánchez, whose 10-month-old government has needed the support of Basque and Catalan nationalists, of being in cahoots with separatists, a charge he denies.

The result could mean Mr Sánchez avoids needing to enter a governing partnership with Catalan pro-independence parties, a possibility fraught with political risk for him.

In the northeastern region, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) emerged as  the dominant pro-independence party.

Remarkable victory

This was a remarkable victory for Mr Sánchez (47), who had led his party to record defeats in 2015 and 2016, before being forced to resign as Socialist leader. He returned to win the party’s next leadership primary, before launching a successful no-confidence motion against conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy last year. Since replacing Mr Rajoy as Spanish leader, Mr Sánchez had been leading polls and his party’s performance makes it once again the leading force in national politics after eight years of trailing the PP.

This is not the first time a fragmented political landscape has given Spain an inconclusive election result. The country saw political deadlock following the 2015 election, leading to another vote being held months later. However, the surge in support for Vox in recent months has split the country’s politics further, particularly on the right.

For the PP’s 38-year-old leader, Pablo Casado, the result suggests his decision to lead the party further to the right in a bid to compete with Vox was a serious error. Last night his future was in doubt.