Spain's General Election: What you need to know ahead of the vote

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The Local Spain/AFP - [email protected]
Spain's General Election: What you need to know ahead of the vote
Nuns voting in the last general election in Spain. Photos: AFP

Spain will hold another general election on Sunday, its fourth in four years. But how did we get here? What are the key issues? What's at stake? And who's tipped to win?


Here's everything you need to know ahead of the vote on Sunday.

How did we get here?

Spain will vote for the 350-seat national parliament as well as the Senate. Photo: AFP

Spain is currently suffering chronic political instability and a stalemate that has left the country without an effective government since the Socialists failed to pass the budget back in February.

End of two-party politics

Leaders of the five largest political parties line up ahead of the televised debate on Monday. Photo: AFP

Since the early 1980s, power in Spain had alternated between the Socialists and the conservative Popular Party (PP).   

But the general election in December 2015 put an end to that when two new parties, centre-right Ciudadanos and far-left Podemos, entered parliament for the first time.

The fracturing of the left and right meant that no one party has since been able to win an absolute majority in Spain's 350-seat parliament.

Fresh elections were held in June 2016 and by the end of October Mariano Rajoy was finally sworn in for a second term as prime minister thanks to support from Ciudadanos and abstentions by the PSOE, ending a 10-month spell without a government.   

But in June 2018, Pedro Sanchez became prime minister after ousting Rajoy in a no-confidence motion in parliament, in the wake of a ruling that found the PP guilty of benefiting from illegal funds in a massive graft trial.


Pedro Sanchez during a PSOE campaign rally this week. Photo: AFP 

Sanchez won the subsequent vote with the support of a hodgepodge of different formations, including Podemos, two Catalan separatist parties and a Basque nationalist party.

Sanchez's minority government submitted a left-leaning budget with Podemos which boosted social spending, in the hopes of governing until the end of the current legislature in mid-2020.   

But talks with Catalan separatist parties, whose demand for a legally binding independence referendum is unacceptable to Sanchez, broke down.    

Without their much-needed votes, the budget was rejected in parliament on February 13th and Sanchez later called early elections for April 28th.

Sanchez won the vote but with only 123 deputies out of 350, he was forced to form alliances to govern.   

However, his negotiations with Podemos, the Socialist party's bitter rival, collapsed after four months and the PP and Ciudadanos refused to help him to form a minority government by abstaining in a confidence vote, prompting fresh elections called for November 9th.

The fragmentation has continued with now three parties on the right: the PP, Ciudadanos and Vox, and three parties on the left: the Socialists (PSOE), Podemos and upstart Mas Pais, which was launched in September by former top Podemos member Inigo Errejon.

Key issues

The election comes following weeks of rising tensions in Catalonia and in the wake of the nation watching the long-awaited and debated exhumation of Franco's remains.

Catalonia and the rise of the far right

Huge demonstrations were held in the wake of the sentencing of Catalan separatist leaders. Photo: AFP

After years of peaceful mass demonstrations, Catalonia's separatist movement took a violent turn on October 14th when Spain's Supreme Court sentenced nine of its leaders to heavy prison terms of up to 13 years over the failed independence bid of 2017.

The ruling triggered days of mass protests in Barcelona and other Catalan cities, which by night descended into chaos, with demonstrators torching barricades and hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails at police.   

The issue has become the central theme of the campaign with the right pressuring Sanchez to suspend Catalonia's regional autonomy or remove Catalonia's regional president from office.

While Sanchez has resisted taking these measures, he has hardened his tone towards the separatists.

Polls show the Catalan crisis has given a big boost to Vox, which made its parliamentary debut after winning 24 seats in the April election, becoming the first sizeable far-right party to enter the 350-seat assembly since Spain's return to democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.   

Santiago Abascal, leader of the far-right Vox party during a campaign rally. Photo: AFP

The party wants all separatist parties and associations banned and for Catalonia's regional autonomy to be suspended until the separatist movement is "unequivocally defeated".

Franco exhumation

The remains of the late dictator were dug and moved to a more discreet place. Photo: AFP

Since coming to power in June 2018, Sanchez had prioritized efforts to move Franco's remains from an opulent mausoleum where he was buried in 1975 to a more discreet family grave.   

Accused by his rivals of electioneering, the Socialists argue the operation, which took place on October 24th following a lengthy legal battle with Franco's family, strengthened Spain's democratic credentials.   

Many analysts believe the Socialists are seeking to mobilize leftist voters with the exhumation, but Fernando Vallespin, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Madrid, said the move would "not have the effect that the government, optimistically, thought it would".

What do the polls say?

The PSOE is ahead in the polls and tipped to be the largest party in the 350-seat chamber, but it will almost certainly fall short of a majority and could even lose a few of the 123 seats it won last time.

The PP is predicted to improve its position from the last vote in April when it suffered its worst result in history. 

Ciudadanos, which was the third party in the last election winning 57 seats, looks likely to be the big loser, with a poll in El Pais predicting it could garner just 14 seats.

Unidas Podemos is expected to dip too, possibly losing a third of the 42 seats it won at the last election.

The far-right Vox, led by Santiago Abascal is set to surge ahead, possibly even doubling the 24 seats it won in April to becoming the third biggest party in congress. 

More protests

Masked protesters on the streets of Barcelona. Photo: AFP

Authorities have boosted police presence in Catalonia ahead of election day on Sunday as Catalan separatists vowed to take to the streets on Saturday, the legally designated "day of reflection" that precedes election day.

Democratic Tsunami – already under investigation by the Spanish courts for its alleged role in the street disturbances – has urged sympathizers to participate in activities aimed at "disobeying the Electoral Board". These include a demonstration in downtown Barcelona at 4pm on Saturday.

What next?

Polls suggest neither the left nor the right bloc will win enough seats for a majority.

Even by joining forces, neither the left – the Socialists, Podemos and newcomer Mas Pais – nor the right – PP, Ciudadanos and Vox – are expected to win enough seats to secure a majority, polls predict.   

Last time, the Socialists and Podemos spent months locked in talks but were unable to bridge their differences, sparking bitter recriminations that would be tough to overcome.

To be sworn in as premier, Sanchez would need the support of 176 lawmakers, a good 50 more than his Socialists are predicted to win in Sunday's ballot.   

That would leave only one other apparent option: for the PP to abstain in any investiture vote, allowing Sanchez to form a minority government with outside support from Podemos.

The fear of yet more elections will "force the parties at the last minute to negotiate an abstention", said Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.   

But Teneo analyst Antonio Barroso said such a minority government "would never complete its (four-year) term".

"And with such instability, no reforms could be undertaken that would prepare us for the next recession," he warned, referring to the slowdown of Spain's economy and its recent negative employment figures.

A grand coalition between the Socialists and the Conservatives could surpass the 176 seats needed for an overall majority, but Sanchez has categorically ruled out any such scenario.   

When do the results come in? 

Exit polls are published at 8pm on election night, as soon as polling stations close.

The real results are published online as the count progresses and come through quickly, with a definitive result usually by about 10pm. The Local will have all the results as they come in, so check in and find out the latest

But if you want to know who will be governing in Spain, we predict that it will be a bit of wait to find out. 

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