Madrid, Spain – Spanish voters will head to the polls next Sunday, deciding whether to keep Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s minority Socialist government in power, or give the mandate to the main right-wing Partido Popular [PP] party.
In almost all public opinion surveys, the PP are currently favourites to win Spain’s first general elections since 2019, brought forward by Sanchez after the Socialists’ stinging defeat in early May’s regional and local polls.
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But to garner an overall majority in the Spanish 350-seat parliament, the PP will almost certainly need to rely on votes from the far-right Vox party, which would likely demand a share of power in exchange.
The elections thus also form part of a continuing European-wide narrative of the rise of authoritarian nationalist and other far-right movements, from Italy through to Finland and Hungary, and whether the continent’s more left-leaning parties are capable of stopping them.
Sanchez’s decision to call early elections has been attacked by the PP’s leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo, alleging that Spain’s scorching heat in July and voters’ holiday travel plans could lead to greater abstentionism.
“The conservative parties had all but taken it for granted that they were going to win the elections comfortably,” Manuel Lopez, professor of history at Spain’s Open University, told Al Jazeera.
“But this kind of criticism suggests that they are facing more of an uphill battle to secure a majority than they’d expected. As a result, they are getting nervous,” he said.
Here’s what you need to know about Sunday’s elections:
Who are the main contenders?
Allied with the far-left Unidas Podemos coalition, Sanchez and his Socialist Party have formed a minority government since January 2020. Sanchez, 51, brought forward the elections to July partly in the hope that the Socialists’ poor result in the regional vote in May would galvanise progressive-leaning voters.
His calling of snap elections did succeed in another of his unspoken aims: Sanchez’s divided far-left allies have abruptly ended their infighting and the vast majority have opted to form part of the new left-wing Sumar bloc for the elections.
Sanchez’s government has overseen a period of relative stability in the Spanish economy despite the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s all-out war in Ukraine. The Socialists have also passed key new laws governing labour reform, minimum wages, abortion and euthanasia rights as well as the country’s first law to protect LGBTQ+ rights.
Sanchez remains bullish about his party’s chances of prevailing despite unfavourable polls, arguing: “Nothing is set in stone. Of course, the Socialists are going to fight back and get a better result. We are in a position to become the largest party in parliament.”
Sanchez’s main rival, Nunez Feijoo and the PP, are currently favourites in the polls. The PP’s national leader since April 2022, and given to labelling himself “a safe pair of hands”, Nunez Feijoo has succeeded in overseeing a bounce-back for the party after their disastrous results in the 2019 elections.
However, according to polls, the PP will need to find an ally, almost certainly the far-right Vox party, to form government and the PP’s recent agreements with Vox in key regions like the Balearics, Valencia and Extremadura have eroded Nunez Feijoo’s image as a moderate.
Given Sanchez’s success in areas that traditionally favour right-wing parties, like the economy, Nunez Feijoo has centred many of his attacks on Sanchez’s style of government. The PP also claims Sanchez is overly dependent on Catalan and Basque separatists.
“It can’t be that the minorities govern in Spain,” Nunez Feijoo recently told reporters. “If the Socialists are so worried about our pacts with Vox, they should abstain if I win the elections.”
Sanchez knows he can count on the backing of the leftist Sumar bloc, led by Minister for Labour Yolanda Diaz.
Diaz has notably succeeded in uniting the previously severely fragmented far-left Spanish political scene, despite the reservations of Podemos, the country’s largest anti-austerity party and is regularly voted the country’s most valued politician.
“We are going to govern again with the Socialists, only this time we’ll do it better,” Diaz claimed recently.
The leader of the far-right Vox party, Santiago Abascal, has never made a secret of his party’s enthusiasm for a dramatic reduction in regional governmental power and its ultra-tough anti-migrant stance.
Early in the campaign, too, when Vox hung a giant poster from a building in Madrid showing a hand dropping the symbols representing feminism, communism, the LGBTQ+ community and Catalan independence into a rubbish bin, they also made their hardline attitude towards these minorities clear.
Abascal sees his party’s policies as offering a radical break with previous lukewarm political strategies, saying “in these elections, the only way to change direction in this country is by voting for Vox”.
One previously significant player missing from the 2023 general elections will be the business-friendly Ciudadanos party, abandoned en masse by its voters for the PP since 2019. Ciudadanos having opted not to run in the general elections, the PP is expected to hoover up all its 10 parliamentary seats.
How do the elections work?
Polls open at 9am (07:00 GMT) on Sunday for the 37.4 million Spaniards who are eligible to vote, and close at 8pm (18:00 GMT) in mainland Spain.
All 350 seats in the lower house of Spain’s main parliament are up for grabs along with 208 of the 265 senators’ seats in the upper house.
Given the holiday period, 2.3 million have opted to vote by post, double the number of postal voters in the last elections. There are 1.6 million first-time voters.
In the lower house poll, voters choose a party, rather than a specific candidate. In the upper house, they can choose a maximum of three regional senators.
When will the results be known?
Forecasts for media outlets based on exit polls are published a few minutes after voting stations close, but a near-definitive total of seats only becomes clear by midnight (22:00 GMT).
How are the prime minister and government chosen?
By law, the Spanish parliament is allowed a maximum of three weeks to be formally constituted. The ruling monarch, in this case King Felipe VI, then starts to meet party leaders, who nominate a candidate for prime minister.
In the first parliamentary vote, only an absolute majority allows a candidate to form government, and failing that, in a second vote held a maximum of 48 hours later, a simple majority is sufficient.
New elections are called if, after a maximum of two months after the initial parliamentary vote, no candidate has managed to garner a majority of support.
What are the possible outcomes?
To judge by current polls, no party will secure an outright majority and in a fragmented parliament three scenarios are currently the most likely.
“The Socialist minority government could continue, with external support from the Catalan and Basque Nationalists,” said Lopez. “But they will have the same limitations which we saw in the previous legislature, where there was a notable conflict between more conservative elements of the Spanish establishment and the message voters sent from the polls.”
The second option, currently favoured by most polls, is for the PP to take the most seats of any party, but needing Vox to get anywhere near an overall majority.
“The right were convinced that was a definitive outcome, but in the last week, polls now make it look less likely they’ll have an absolute majority,” Lopez said.
A third possibility is that parliamentary forces are so evenly divided that repeat elections are needed. Therefore, the Socialists would continue as a caretaker government at least until the next vote.
Beyond these three scenarios, the prospect of a cross-party alliance between the Socialists and PP, ideologically centred on each formation’s most moderate policies, is dismissed by Lopez as “a fantasy”.
“You only have to look at how Europe is developing politically, with an increasingly clear fragmentation between different political parties and rising levels of confrontation between left and right to be sure that won’t happen,” he said.