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Spain was plunged into political uncertainty on Sunday night as the right and left failed to secure a clear path to form a government despite the opposition People’s Party winning the most seats in parliament.
The deadlock leaves the EU’s fourth-largest economy in limbo and opens the door to weeks or months of messy negotiations over voting alliances – or, as happened in 2015-16 and 2019.
Defying the odds, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez put up enough resistance to prevent Alberto Núnez Feijo’s PP from gaining a conservative parliamentary majority in alliance with the hard-right Vox party.
Although Sánchez’s party did better than polls predicted and won two more seats than in 2019, he fell short of the absolute majority needed to take power even with the support of his current allies.
A jubilant Sánchez nevertheless told supporters outside his party headquarters that “the People’s Party and the reactionary faction of Vox have been defeated”.
Feijo said he had won but, looking stoned in the face, appealed to be allowed to form the government as he was the single largest party in the Congress. “If the party with the most votes in Spain cannot govern, the only option is gridlock, which does not benefit Spain, our international reputation or the security of investments,” Feijo said.
However, in the campaign, Sánchez indicated that he would not enable the PP to form a minority government.
New parliamentary agreements will only emerge from fraught bargaining between two different sets of potential allies between the largest parties and Spain’s divided panoply of smaller regional blocs.
But none of the most likely constellations lead the PP or the Socialists to the 176 seats needed for a majority in the 350-seat Congress.
The result is likely to give a key role to Together for Catalonia, a radical separatist party with seven seats that could drive a hard bargain for Sánchez’s votes.
Feijo’s position is complicated by the fact that his potential partner Vox is fiercely opposed to — and wants to ban — separatist political parties, making it hard to imagine either of them joining a conservative alliance.
If neither Feijo nor Sanchez reaches a majority, Spaniards will have to vote in another general election, their sixth in eight years.
Vox leader Santiago Abascal, whose party won 19 fewer seats than in 2019, accused the PP of disappointing voters by acting as if victory was certain – and criticized Feijo for not showing up for debate in the final week of campaigning.
“Some bear skins are sold before they go hunting and that has a clear consequence in terms of demobilization,” Abascal said.
Vox pledged the coalition government’s denial of human-driven climate change, opposition to Muslim immigration, challenge to the idea of gender-based violence and her desire to repeal laws limiting LGBT+ rights.
With 100 percent of the votes counted, the PP won 136 seats and the Socialists 122; Vox got 33 and Sumar – a new left-wing group that will join Sanchez in a coalition – had 31.
After his party suffered crushing defeats in municipal and regional elections in late May, Sánchez, 51, called a snap general election, gambling that he would do better in July if he waited until the expected election date in December.
Pollsters said he won over some ambivalent voters in the final days of the campaign with his warnings that a potential PP-Vocs coalition would drag the country back to “1973” from 2023.
Others said the PP fell short because the 61-year-old Feijo focused a negative campaign on his criticism of “sanchismo” – which he defined as a cult of “lies, manipulation and atheism” – and did not offer a positive vision for Spain.
Feijo also launched fierce attacks on Sánchez’s controversial political ties to pro-independence parties in Catalonia and the Basque Country, which enabled the prime minister to take office in 2018 and subsequently pass landmark legislative reforms.