MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 28: Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sanchez addresses supporters outside of the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workerss Party) headquarters on April 28, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. Spaniards go to the polls to elect 350 members of the parliament and 208 senators this Sunday. This will be the 13th General Election since the transition to democracy resulting in the Constitution of 1978. There are five main parties: the two traditional parties are the right-wing Partido Popular (People's Party) and the centre-left Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol or PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workerss Party), along with right-wing parties Ciudadanos (Citizens) and VOX and the left wing party, Podemos (We Can). (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
Pedro Sánchez addresses supporters in Madrid on Sunday night © Getty

The governing Socialist party (PSOE) has won Spain’s general election, taking 123 seats and giving prime minister Pedro Sánchez options to assemble a majority potentially without the support of Catalan separatists.

The Socialists won 29 per cent of the vote and gained 37 seats on the previous election in 2016 in a decisive victory over a weakened rightwing opposition which split into three with the breakthrough of the ultranationalist Vox, which took 24 seats.

Mr Sánchez told supporters in Madrid on Sunday night: “The Socialist party has won the general elections, and with them the future has won and the past has lost.”

Together with the far-left Podemos, whose support held up better than expected, Mr Sánchez has 166 seats in the 350-seat Congress. He could try to form a government with the support of Basque nationalist and moderate regional parties.

“Pedro Sánchez comes out of this very reinforced and has several options in reach,” said Astrid Barrio, professor of politics at the University of Valencia.

Although it expected to do even better, Vox is the first far-right party to have a sizeable parliamentary representation since the death of dictator Francisco Franco. It has surfed a wave of Spanish nationalist sentiment following the illegal independence referendum in Catalonia in 2017.

Its success came at the expense of the centre-right People’s party (PP), which lost half of its seats, down from 137 to 66, in its worst election result ever. The party veered sharply to the right under its new leader, Pablo Casado, but it haemorrhaged support to Vox while also losing votes to the liberal Ciudadanos, which did better than anticipated, winning an estimated 57 seats. 

Together, the three rightwing parties — the PP, Vox and Ciudadanos — will have about 147 seats between them but they have no other viable coalition allies. 

Supporters of Spanish Prime Minister and Socialist Party candidate Pedro Sanchez react as they gather at the party headquarters waiting for results of the general election in Madrid, Sunday, April 28, 2019. A divided Spain voted Sunday in its third general election in four years, with all eyes on whether a far-right party will enter Parliament for the first time in decades and potentially help unseat the Socialist government. (AP Photo/Andrea Comas)
Socialist party supporters celebrate in Madrid on Sunday night © AP

Mr Sánchez may try to eke out a majority with Basque nationalists and other regional parties, avoiding what would be highly contentious negotiations with Catalan secessionists, who won 22 seats and are still demanding a right to self-determination.

An alternative would be a centrist coalition with Ciudadanos that would give the two parties a clear majority.

“Sánchez can choose from two coalitions. That’s ideal for any politician,” said Nacho Torreblanca, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Madrid.

But the Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera repeatedly ruled out a tie-up with the Socialists during the campaign and his relationship with Mr Sánchez is strained. Furthermore, the implosion of the PP may reinforce Mr Rivera’s ambitions to supplant it as the biggest party on the right, which would dissuade him from entering government with the Socialists.

There was jubilation outside the Socialist party headquarters in Madrid on Sunday night. 

“I think that, with more than 120 seats, PSOE almost has the ability to govern alone, with occasional outside help,” said Santiago Mendioroz, a retired economist. “And if not it can choose its partners. I think that’s magnificent news for everyone, and magnificent news for the stability of our country. Now, starting tomorrow, we have to begin building bridges, because the division to which the right has subjected Spain in the last weeks is a catastrophe for everyone.”

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Juan Carlos Hidalgo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (10220523ax) Santiago Abascal (C), leader of right-wing party Vox, addresses the supporters after the polls closed for the general elections, in Madrid, Spain, 28 April 2019. Right-wing populist party Vox is projected to enter the Spanish parliament. Nearly 36.9 million people were called to vote in the third general elections in four years. General elections in Spain, Madrid - 28 Apr 2019
Santiago Abascal's Vox party won 24 seats

Sunday’s vote was the third general election in four years, with Spain’s politics more fractured and polarised than at any time in its recent democratic history. 

Turnout of almost 76 per cent was the highest at a Spanish election since 1982.

“The centre-right block is being punished by its fragmentation, as expected,” said Manuel Arias Maldonado, professor of political science at the University of Málaga. “And the PSOE has succeeded in displacing the election from a dispute about Catalonia to the classical, ideological one — the fear of ‘fascism’.”

Opinion polls had suggested that Vox could win about 35 seats, but entering parliament is still a big achievement, given that Spain was for decades considered a country immune to the far-right because of its Francoist past.

Vox only burst on to the political scene in December, winning its first elected positions in the parliament of Andalucía, helping to oust the Socialists who had run Spain’s most populous region for almost 40 years. 

“This is just the start,” Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox, told cheering supporters in the Plaza Margaret Thatcher in the capital. “We told you at the start that we were beginning a Reconquest and that’s what we’ve done”

Spain now has five main parties split into increasingly antagonistic left and right blocs but it has no tradition of cross-party coalition building at national level. It is the only country among the largest EU states to have not had a coalition government in the past 40 years.

The new government that emerges from the election will confront a number of deep-seated challenges: an economic slowdown, chronic unemployment, precarious public finances and a tense stand-off over Catalonia, whose secessionist leaders are on trial for sedition and rebellion.

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