Spain in stalemate as far-right flop leaves no clear election winner

Prime Minister's Socialist Party beats expectations but has no easy path to power

Supporters of Alberto Nunez Feijoo, leader of the People's Party, during an election night rally at party headquarters in Madrid.  Bloomberg
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Spain awoke to a political stalemate on Monday after the right failed to clinch an expected decisive victory and no clear winner emerged in the country's general election.

The result of Sunday's vote left neither the left nor right with an easy path to form a government, casting a cloud of uncertainty over Spain's six-month presidency of the EU.

Defying predictions of a historic far-right return to power, voters handed a beating to the nationalist Vox party which lost about a third of its seats.

It means a right-wing coalition led by the conservative People's Party with Vox's support would have only 169 seats, short of the 176 needed for a majority.

A jubilant Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez addressed a crowd of activists chanting “they shall not pass”, the anti-fascist slogan of Spain's 1936 to 1939 civil war.

“The backwards-looking bloc that wanted to roll back all the progress we made over the past four years has failed,” he said.

But Mr Sanchez's Socialist Party, whose campaign focused on the danger of a PP-Vox government, has no clear route to another term – leaving the door open to an early second election.

The Socialists were overtaken as the largest party by the PP, whose leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo said it was his duty to form a government.

“Our duty now is to ensure that Spain does not enter a period of uncertainty,” Mr Feijoo said.

Mr Feijoo could seek a minority administration but his willingness to work with Vox leaves him with few other friends in parliament.

If he cannot oust Mr Sanchez, the Socialists – who have 122 seats – could try to stay in power with the help of assorted separatists and smaller parties but may find their demands unattractive.

Hardline separatist party Junts per Catalunya is likely to demand concessions in return for supporting Mr Sanchez. It wants a referendum on Catalan secession and the return from exile of former regional leader Carles Puigdemont, who is still wanted by authorities for his role in a failed breakaway bid in 2017.

Spain held two elections in 2019 and could be forced to do the same in 2023 if no majority emerges.

The surprise result vindicated Mr Sanchez's decision to call an early election after a heavy defeat by voters in regional elections in May.

He campaigned on stopping Vox from obtaining the far right's first slice of power since the end of Spain's 1939 to 1975 dictatorship. The party had promised to repeal a law honouring victims of the Franco era.

A Vox breakthrough would have meant another EU member turning towards the fringe after governments led or backed by the far right took power in Italy, Finland and Sweden and nationalists surged in the polls in Germany.

But Mr Sanchez's campaign appeared to have paid off with turnout reaching almost 70 per cent, some 3.5 percentage points higher than in 2019.

Vox’s leader Santiago Abascal conceded that Mr Sanchez could stay in power.

“Even though he lost the election, Pedro Sanchez could block the swearing in of new prime minister and, what’s worse, Pedro Sanchez could even be sworn in again with the support of the communists, separatist insurrectionists and terrorists,” Mr Abascal said.

Mr Sanchez has ruled with a minority since 2019 and has a reputation as a political survivor. He has led a government with a record number of women in the cabinet and brought in windfall taxes to ease energy costs.

Spain took on the EU's rotating presidency on July 1, taking on the role of brokering agreement between the bloc's 27 countries on issues such as immigration, climate change and the war in Ukraine.

Mr Sanchez has made speeding up the green transition and reform of the energy market a priority of Spain's presidency.

Any change of government could bring a new emphasis to Brussels horse trading. Mr Feijoo, whose lack of English skills raised eyebrows when he referred to Bruce Springsteen as “Bruce Sprinter”, has promised to repeal many of the leftist government's laws.

A former regional leader in Galicia, the mild-mannered Mr Feijoo was billed as having never lost an election in his career.

Updated: July 24, 2023, 9:50 AM