Spaniards went to the polls on Sunday to vote in an early general election that could see the right return to power and, more crucially, the far right enter the national government for the first time since the Franco dictatorship, nearly a half-century ago.
The outcome will determine whether Spain — a nation of about 48 million people and the European Union’s fourth-largest economy — follows a growing trend in Europe, where hard-right parties are surging in popularity and, in some cases, gaining power by entering governments as junior partners.
How did we get here?
Spain has succeeded in stabilizing its economy and politics after years of upheavals marked by a devastating financial crisis, a prolonged secessionist conflict in Catalonia and repeated failures to form a government.
Pedro Sánchez, the current prime minister, has been in power for five years. He leads a fragile coalition government made up of various left-wing parties, including his own, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party.
Still, under Mr. Sánchez’s leadership, Spain has enjoyed a period of strong economic growth and low inflation. He is also popular in the European Union for his progressive and pro-Europe policies.
Spain was not due to elect a new Parliament until November. But after the Socialists and their allies suffered crushing defeats in regional and municipal elections in May, Mr. Sánchez dissolved Parliament and called a snap election for this Sunday. He said that the outcome of the vote conveyed “a message that goes beyond” local resentment, and that he took “personal responsibility for the results.”
The move was seen as an attempt by Mr. Sánchez to remobilize his supporters and halt his coalition government’s steady decline in popularity. But it also opened the way for the conservative Popular Party to return to power earlier than expected — possibly in an alliance with the far right.
What’s at stake?
Spain has long been regarded as a bulwark against the rise of nationalism in Europe. While populist and far-right victories were piling up across the continent, nationalist forces in Spain long failed to gain a foothold, largely because Spaniards remain traumatized by Gen. Francisco Franco’s four-decade dictatorship.
That started to change in recent years, after a secessionist movement in Catalonia, in northeastern Spain, helped revive nationalist sentiments. The main catalyst of that resurgence, Vox — a party with an anti-migrant agenda and a history of opposing L.G.B.T.Q. rights and questioning climate change — is now projected to garner about 13 percent of Sunday’s vote.
This outcome would have no major consequences if the Popular Party, which is leading the polls with about 34 percent of voting intentions, did not need Vox’s support to govern. But most studies suggest that it would, meaning that the far right could enter the Spanish government for the first time since the return of democracy in the 1970s.
The Popular Party has refrained from saying whether it would seek to govern with Vox. But it has already forged several local coalition agreements with the far right after the May elections, in a move that many saw as a harbinger of a broader national alliance.
During the campaign, Mr. Sánchez and his allies have focused on the threat of conservatives bringing Vox into the government, saying the election on Sunday would be a choice between liberal democracy and right-wing populism. The vote, Mr. Sánchez said, “will clarify if Spaniards want a government on the side of Joe Biden or Donald Trump, of Lula da Silva or Jair Bolsonaro.”
If the left retains power, the Socialists, which have polled around 28 percent, could look to form a coalition with Sumar, a platform of left-wing parties.
Whoever wins, the next prime minister will have to juggle concerns over rising energy prices with other long-term issues, including increasingly intense droughts and flows of African migrants risking their lives to reach Spain. The country also assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union this month, and the outcome of the vote may mean that Spain will change its leadership while driving the continent’s political agenda.
What are the issues?
Under Mr. Sánchez’s leadership, the Spanish economy rebounded from a low point in 2020, during the start of the coronavirus pandemic, to growth rates above 5 percent in both 2021 and 2022. The country’s gross domestic product was predicted to expand by 1.9 percent this year, a rate faster than that of most E.U. countries.
The Popular Party and Vox have fiercely criticized these laws, saying they sow societal divisions. In particular, they attacked the law on sexual consent, also known as the “Only Yes Means Yes” law, which changed sentencing requirements and created a loophole that cut jail time for hundreds of convicted sexual offenders.
Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the leader of the Popular Party, has also accused Mr. Sánchez of having promoted separatism by relying on the votes of deeply polarizing Catalan and Basque pro-independence parties in Parliament. He promised to repeal any law that was passed with the support of EH Bildu, a left-wing Basque separatist party headed by Arnaldo Otegi, a convicted member of the disbanded Eta terrorist group.
And despite strong economic growth, Spain still has the highest unemployment rate of all European Union countries, and the purchasing power of many Spaniards remains weak, fueling frustrations — evidence, according to the opposition, that economic recovery is far from complete.
How do the elections work and what comes next?
All 350 seats in Spain’s lower house of Parliament, which designates a prime minister, are up for grabs, along with two-thirds of the Senate, the upper house.
Polling stations, which opened at 9 a.m., closed at 8 p.m. Sunday in most cities. Exit polls were released shortly afterward in the Spanish news media, which showed the opposition Popular Party ahead, but without a clear majority. Official results are expected later tonight.
And even when the results are known, Spain is unlikely to have a new prime minister for several weeks, as Parliament needs to reconvene and the victorious party will probably have to enter into negotiations to form a governing coalition — a process that could take weeks, if not months. (All polls have ruled out the possibility that a single party will secure an absolute majority in Parliament.)
If neither of the projected coalitions — the Popular Party and Vox, or the Socialists and Sumar — meet the threshold required to reach a majority in Parliament, they will have to turn to the smaller, regional parties for support.