Pedro Sanchez's Socialists win Spain election but must seek coalition as far-right makes breakthrough

Spanish prime minister and Socialist Party candidate Pedro Sanchez speaks to supporters Credit: AP Photo/Andrea Comas

Spain’s governing Socialists won the country’s election on Sunday but must seek backing from smaller parties to maintain power, while a far-right party rode an unprecedented surge of support to enter the lower house of parliament for the first time in four decades.

With 99% of ballots counted, the Socialists led by prime minister Pedro Sanchez won 29% of the vote, capturing 123 seats in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies.

The new far-right Vox party made its national breakthrough by capturing 10% of the votes, which would give it 24 seats.

Mr Sanchez announced that he would soon open talks with other political parties, telling crowds gathered at the gates of his party headquarters in central Madrid that “the future has won and the past has lost”.

He hinted at a preference for a left-wing governing alliance but also sent a warning to Catalan separatists, whose support he may need, that any post-electoral pact must respect the country’s 1978 constitution, which bans regions from seceding.

Vox’s success came at the expense of the once-dominant conservative Popular Party, which fell to 66 seats, losing more than half of its representation since the last election in 2016.

The conservatives also lost votes to the centre-right Citizens party, which will increase its number of seats from 32 to 57.

Voters in Spain had become disillusioned as the country struggled with a recession, austerity cuts, corruption scandals, divisive demands for independence from the restive Catalonia region and a rise in far-right nationalism not seen since Spain’s dictatorship ended in the 1970s.

“We told you that we were going to begin a reconquering of Spain and that’s what we have done,” Vox leader Santiago Abascal said, in reference to the 15th-century campaign by the Spanish Catholic Kings to end Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula.

Supporters of Mr Sanchez gather at the party headquarters Credit: AP Photo/Andrea Comas

Vox, which was formed five years ago, has promised to defend Spain from its “enemies”, citing feminists, liberal elites and Muslims among others. Its emergence on the national stage gives Spain five political parties, furthering political fragmentation in a country that was alternately ruled for decades by the Socialists and the Popular Party.

To stay in office, the Socialists and Sanchez must form a governing alliance with smaller parties, including the far-left United We Can led by Pablo Iglesias.

Mr Iglesias said after the vote that he “would have liked a better result, but it’s been enough to stop the right-wing and build a left-wing coalition government”, adding that he had already offered support to Mr Sanchez.

But Mr Sanchez will still need 11 more seats to get the 176-seat majority he needs in the lower house of parliament, meaning he may be forced to make pacts with Catalan and other separatist parties — moves that would anger many Spaniards on the left and the right.

Pablo Casado, who had steered the Popular Party further to the right to try to stop it from losing votes to Vox, called the worst ballot result ever for his party “very bad”, saying “we’ve been losing our electoral support for several elections”.

Santiago Abascal, leader of far right party Vox, addresses supporters Credit: AP Photo/Manu Fernandez

Turnout was nearly 76%, up more than eight points since the previous election in 2016. The vote surge included a huge boost in the north-eastern Catalonia region, which has been embroiled in a political quagmire since its failed secession bid in 2017 put separatist leaders in jail while they are tried.

Mr Sanchez said he wanted a mandate to undertake key social and political reforms.

The prime minister said he wanted “a stable government that with calmness, serenity and resolution looks to the future and achieves the progress that our country needs in social justice, national harmony” and in fighting corruption.