MADRID: Spain held its second parliamentary election this year on Sunday, with voters seen likely to deliver no clear winner, an even more fragmented parliament and a sizeable boost to the far right.
Polls have closed amid fierce struggle for power between left-wing and right-wing parties.
Opinion polls ahead of the vote have shown no single party winning a majority. The Socialists are again the front-runners but likely to win slightly fewer seats than in the last ballot in April, while the conservative People’s Party (PP) could gain votes.
The far-right Vox could become the third-largest party just months after winning its first parliamentary seats — its popularity boosted by violent separatist protests in Catalonia that have overshadowed the whole campaign.
Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez called the election — the fourth in four years — betting that a new vote would strengthen his hand after his Socialist Party won in April but then failed to forge the alliances needed to form a government.
Spain has struggled to put stable governments together since new parties emerged from the financial crisis, following decades during which power oscillated between the Socialists and the PP.
Esperanza de Antonio, a 64-year old retired history teacher voting in Madrid for the Socialists, was concerned over the rise of Vox, which she called a danger to democracy.
“I’m saying this because I’ve taught about fascism for 30 years,” she told Reuters. Older Spaniards still remember first-hand the 1939-1975 dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
But Carmen Queral, a 44-year old primary school teacher, said a strong Vox was precisely what Spain needed. “We need change,” she said after voting at a central Madrid polling station.
One thing was certain on Sunday: voters are increasingly fed up of being called to the polls — there were also regional and European Union elections this year. That alone increases the chances that parties will make more of an effort this time to reach a deal over governing and shy away from a repeat ballot.
“Well I’m bored because this is not normal,” voter Elisa Varea said. “It’s not normal that they don’t reach an agreement. If there are no absolute majority, the least they could to is to support each other to lift the country because like this we are not going anywhere.”
Official turnout data at 6 p.m. (1700 GMT), showed a drop in voter numbers from the previous election — around 56.8% compared with 60.7% in April. Polls close at 8 p.m. and the vast majority of results should be known by midnight.
A minority government led by the Socialists appears the most likely outcome, opinion polls showed, but a bigger question is who the Socialists may ally with and how long any government can last with a very fragmented parliament.
Pablo Iglesias, leader of the far-left Unidas Podemos, which had tried and failed to hammer out a coalition government deal with Sanchez, made a new call for a leftist alliance.
“On our behalf we are going to leave the arguments behind and start working together,” he told reporters after voting.
Sanchez avoided questions on Sunday about a likely political stalemate, only calling on Spaniards to get out and vote.
The fiercely anti-separatist rhetoric of Vox and to a lesser degree the PP has struck a chord with many voters in light of the wave of separatist demonstrations in Catalonia in the country’s extreme northeast.
Polls suggest that support for Vox could as much as double, even if pollsters have found it difficult to estimate the new party’s popularity.
In the Gracia neighborhood of Barcelona, Anna Torres, 72, said she voted for the left-wing, pro-independence ERC.
“We have to protest because we disagree. It’s an injustice,” she said, referring to the long prison sentences handed down to nine separatist leaders in mid-October.
She criticized Catalonia’s three main separatist parties for not running under one platform and said her vote would be useless because Spain would most likely have another election soon because no party would reach a majority.
Madrid sent 2,500 additional national police officers to reinforce Catalonia’s regional police force.
In total more than 92,000 police will be deployed across Spain to safeguard the vote.