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ELECTION

Big turnout for Spain’s early election marked by far-right emergence

Spaniards flocked to vote on Sunday in a tense snap general election that could see the far-right make a dramatic entrance in parliament after more than four decades on the outer margins of politics.

Big turnout for Spain's early election marked by far-right emergence
Photos: AFP

Opinion polls give outgoing socialist premier Pedro Sanchez a win but without the necessary majority to govern alone, meaning he will have to seek alliances in a political environment that has soured since Catalonia's failed secession bid.

The most significant new development of these elections is the emergence of far-right party Vox, which burst onto the scene in December regional polls in southern Andalusia and looks set to make its first-ever entrance into the national parliament.

Polls predict it could take more than 10 percent of the votes in a country that had no far-right party to speak of since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, in what is likely to cause further concern in Europe.

After a tense campaign, voter turnout as of 6 pm (1600 GMT) stood at 60.75 percent, up from 51.21 percent at the same time in the preceding polls in 2016, election authorities said. Turnout was notably higher in Catalonia, rising nearly 18 percentage points.

Retired construction worker Carlos Gonzalez said he had cast his ballot for the Socialists because they were a “moderate option”.

Vox “is going backwards, to the past. It's not the future because the future is a united Europe,” he told AFP at a Madrid polling station.

Sanchez, who took power in June after ousting conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy in a no-confidence vote, has warned against Spain replicating what happened in Finland's elections two weeks ago.

There, the far-right Finns Party came second, closely tailing the leftist Social Democrats, after polls initially predicted it would end up in fifth position.

In Spain, polls also forecast that Vox, with its ultra-nationalist rhetoric that advocates the “defence of the Spanish nation to the end,” will come in fifth place.

But analysts believe it could do better, saying there may be many “hidden” Vox supporters who lie when asked by pollsters who they will be voting for, and it could prop up a right-wing government.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal predicted these elections would be “historical” for Spain as he cast his ballot in Madrid.

IN PICS AND VIDEO: Spain goes to the polls

'Restore order'

Founded by Abascal, a former member of the conservative Popular Party (PP), with a strong stance against feminism and illegal immigration, Vox has risen thanks to its hard line against separatists in Catalonia.

The region in northeastern Spain was the scene of a secession attempt in 2017 that sparked the country's biggest crisis in decades and caused major concern in Europe.

Since then, the crisis has continued to cast a pall over Spanish politics.

Sanchez was forced to call Sunday's early elections after Catalan pro-independence lawmakers in the national parliament, angered at the trial of their leaders in Madrid, refused to give him the support he needed for his 2019 budget.

Right-wing parties have for their part lambasted Sanchez, at the head of a minority government, for his attempts to negotiate with Catalan separatists who still govern the region, accusing him of being a traitor.

Dolores Palomo, a 48-year-old domestic worker, said she has always voted for the Socialists but had cast her ballot for centre-right Ciudadanos this time at a polling station in Hospitalet de Llobregat, near Barcelona, because Sanchez “is a puppet of the separatists”.

Chronic instability?


Polls predicted that no single party could win a majority. 

Polling stations will close at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT), with results announced later Sunday.

With no party expected to get anywhere near an absolute majority in what will be the third elections in three-and-a-half years, Spain's political landscape looks set to continue to be fragmented.

If, as opinion polls predict, Sanchez wins without a majority, he will have to forge alliances with far-left Podemos — as he did over the past 10 months — but also possibly smaller groupings like Catalan separatist parties.

He would rather not have to do that, given right-wing parties' accusations that he cosied up with the “enemies of Spain” during his time in government.

A possible alliance with Ciudadanos has not been ruled out, even if the party's leader Albert Rivera has made “chasing” the socialists from power a “national urgency”.

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ELECTION

Madrid puts off separatist talks over Catalan snap election

Spain's central government on Thursday said the announcement of snap elections in Catalonia would delay planned talks between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and the region's separatist leadership.

Madrid puts off separatist talks over Catalan snap election
Catalan regional president Quim Torra (R) meets with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez at the Palacio de Pedralbes in Barcelona on December 20, 2018.Photo: AFP

News that the regional election would be brought forward was announced by regional president Quim Torra on Wednesday but he did not give a date, suggesting some time after mid-March.

The date was brought forward following a major dispute between Catalonia's two ruling separatist parties, Together for Catalonia (JxC) and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC).

The announcement came ahead of a key February 6 meeting in Barcelona between Torra and Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to lay the ground for talks on resolving the separatist conflict.

In response, Sanchez's office said the meeting would go ahead but that the negotiations would not begin until a new regional government was in place.   

“The government is hoping to be able to begin the dialogue after the Catalan people have spoken… as soon as the elections are over and there is a new (regional) government, then we will begin talking,” said a statement.

“The government remains willing to start the process of dialogue with the Catalan institutions to resolve the political conflict.”

The talks had been agreed as part of a deal with ERC in exchange for its support in getting Sanchez through a key investiture vote earlier this month.   

But the delay was swiftly denounced by the ERC as a “flagrant breach of the agreement which was completely irresponsible,” its party spokesman Sergi Sabria said.

Sanchez, who himself is in a fragile position at the head of a minority coalition government, still needs ERC's support to pass Spain's own much delayed national budget.

In a radio interview Thursday, Torra said he would bring up the right to self-determination and amnesty for the nine jailed Catalan separatist leaders when he meets Sanchez — both of which have already been rejected out of hand by the Socialist leader.

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