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Spain Is Going to the Polls for the Third Time in Four Years. Here’s What to Know

10 minute read

Spain goes to the polls Sunday for its third general election in four years, as socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez tries to break the political deadlock that has gripped his country and left him unable to govern.

Over the last five years, the rise of new political forces – including the far-right – and a constitutional crisis over Catalan leaders‘ attempt to secede unilaterally from Spain, have transformed the political landscape, upending the two-party system in which the leftwing Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and rightwing Popular Party (PP) have ruled since the 1980s. With some 30% of voters still undecided, Spain’s political future has rarely been so uncertain.

Here’s what to know about the Spanish elections:

Why is Spain having so many elections?

Since 2014, several newly relevant parties –leftist Podemos (We Can), centre-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) and, most recently, far-right Vox – have surged in support by capitalizing on voter dissatisfaction over slow economic recovery, corruption scandals and the Catalan secessionist movement. Their rise has fragmented the vote, making it increasingly difficult for any one party to win enough seats in congress to govern effectively.

The current Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, got the job partly as a result of this unstable situation. In May 2018, his PSOE filed a no-confidence motion in then-Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, after a court found Rajoy’s party had benefited from an illegal kickbacks-for-contracts scheme. The socialists passed the no-confidence motion – the first in the democratic era – with the help of Podemos and small regional parties, ousting Rajoy and allowing Sanchez to take over.

But Sánchez was forced to call fresh elections in February, when his minority socialist government failed to get enough votes from the other parties to pass a budget for 2019.

“Since the party system broke down, Spain has been in a political deadlock,” Ilke Toygur, an analyst at Spanish think tank the Elcano Royal Institute, tells TIME. “We’re again seeing really fierce battles between parties for ground on the right and on the left. And we might still end up in a deadlock.”

Who are the main candidates and parties?

Pedro Sánchez – Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE)

Polls suggest Sánchez’s PSOE will be the largest party in congress and their support currently stands at around 29%, according to an aggregated poll. Sánchez is avowedly liberal, and has emphasized his commitment to feminism since taking office, when he appointed the world’s most female cabinet, with 10 of 16 positions going to women. He has centered his campaign on economic justice, promising to raise the minimum wage and overhaul the way pensions are allocated. Alluding to his unusual entry into office, he has called on Spaniards to make the election “an enormous no-confidence motion against inequality, corruption and exasperation [with] the current way of doing politics.”

Pablo Casado – People’s Party (PP)

Casado took over leadership of the PP in the wake of Rajoy’s ouster. “He has tried to highlight the PP’s image as a safe pair of hands for the economy”, says Lluís Orriols, a politics professor at Madrid’s Carlos III University. Casado is also veering to the right on social issues such as proposing restrictions on abortion access and increases to border security after a record-breaking number of asylum seekers arrived in Spain last year. The PP is struggling to overcome competition from Ciudadanos and Vox – its new contenders for the right-wing vote – and is currently polling at around 20%.

Alberto Rivera – Ciudadanos

Ciudadanos has leeched votes from the PP since becoming a national party in the 2015 elections (earlier it had only operated in Catalonia as an anti-independence party). At first, the party emphasized itself as progressive and centrist, a Spanish version of French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist La République En Marche movement. But over the last two years it has moved to the right, directly into the PP’s territory. Ciudadanos presents itself as the option for those on the right who are fed up with the PP. This time last year they were ahead in polls, but have now fallen to around 15% of voting intention.

Pablo Iglesias – Unidas Podemos

Unidas Podemos (Together We Can) is a coalition of small leftwing parties and Podemos, a far-left party which formed in 2014 out of a protest movement against inequality. Unidas Podemos’ leader, Pablo Iglesias, has been open about his desire to enter coalitions with the PSOE, highlighting the importance of dialogue during the TV debate, while Casado and Rivera appeared to fight over control of the rightwing, Toygur says. “Iglesias tells says if voters want a left-wing government they should vote Podemos, because it would be a driving progressive force in a coalition,” Toygur says. Unidas Podemos is currently polling at 13% of the vote.

Santiago Abascal – Vox

Spain’s far-right party, Vox, won just 0.2% of the vote in the 2016 elections, but since then has surged to become the country’s fifth party, with 11% of voting intentions according to most recent polls. In December, the party made big gains in local elections in the region of Andalucía, becoming the first far-right party to enter government in Spain since the death of the country’s rightwing dictator, Francisco Franco, in 1975. Abascal, the party’s provocative leader, has made “the unity of Spain Vox’s core issue,” Toygur says. That means he appeals to voters who want the hardest of lines on Catalan independence. Abascal also highlights more typical concerns of the far-right, railing against progressive ideology, including what he describes to be “supremacist feminism and gender totalitarianism” and evoking President Donald Trump’s signature policy with his plan to prevent illegal immigration by building a wall around Spain’s territories in North Africa.

What is the Catalan crisis and how does it affect the elections?

In October 2017, political leaders in Catalonia, a semi-autonomous region of eastern Spain, held what the central government in Madrid called an illegal referendum on independence from Spain. 90% of voters in the referendum called for Catalonia, which has its own language and culture, to become an independent state (though only 43% of Catalans participated). The pro-independence party that controls Catalonia’s regional parliament then declared independence from Spain. The European Commission said the referendum was “not legal” and no U.N.-recognized country recognized Catalonia as independent, which is a prerequisite for becoming a state, according to international legal experts interviewed by the BBC.

Spain’s government and political parties have struggled over how to respond. Rajoy, the PP prime minister who was in power at the time, took a hardline, dissolving Catalonia’s parliament and imposing direct rule from Madrid until June 2018, when nationalists regained control of the Catalan parliament in fresh elections. After Sanchez came to power, he took a slightly more conciliatory approach, opening talks with Catalan leaders and allowing Catalan politicians who were jailed after the referendum to be transferred to prisons in their region. But he stopped short of agreeing to hold a binding independence referendum.

Like political parties, the Spanish public are divided over whether or not to hold a referendum on Catalan independence. According to a YouGov poll published in Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia in October 2018, 38% of Spaniards outside of Catalonia support a referendum, compared to 77% of Catalans.

The Catalan parties’ anger at Sánchez’s lack of support for a referendum was, in part, what forced him to call these elections, as they refused to vote in favor of his budget. The bad blood may hurt his chances of forming a new government, too. Thanks to the fragmented political landscape, the small nationalist parties will likely end up as kingmakers in the congress of deputies, deciding whether or not to approve the largest party’s candidate as president. “What the Catalans want is the big unknown in this election,” Orriols says.

Sánchez’s softer line with the Catalans may also hurt him with voters. Casado, who has suggested it may be time to reimpose direct rule on Catalonia, has labelled him an opportunist for negotiating with Catalan politicians, calling him “the biggest villain in Spain’s democratic history.”

“The territorial issue is the biggest risk for the PSOE,” Orriols says, “Because territorial issues divide the left.”

Why is the far-right surging and will it enter government?

One key impact of the Catalan crisis was to spur the success of Vox, which capitalized on the renewed focus on national identities to create a Spanish nationalist movement. Vox’s Abascal has promised to “suffocate” the secessionist movement and suspend autonomous rule in Catalonia.

Unlike in other European countries, the far-right’s surge appears to have little to do with immigration – according to public pollster CIS, only 8.9% of voters list immigration as a concern, and it’s only a priority issue for 1.6%. Some analysts, though, say Vox could help to stoke anti-immigration sentiment once they enter congress.

Orriols says that, paradoxically, Vox’s rise may be a boon for the PSOE. “The fear of the far-right has reactivated leftwing voters,” he says. “Crucially, it has eclipsed slightly the [Catalan] issue.”

What are the other big issues in the campaign?

Toygur says that, despite the political attention paid to the Catalan crisis and fear of the far right, the major cleavage in the electorate is still over traditional left and right economic policies. “The government is going to be either left or right, so clearcut issues like pensions, the minimum wage, taxes, are still absolutely key.”

According to CIS, unemployment is a concern for 61.9% of voters. Spain was hit hard by the financial crash of 2008, and while unemployment is now at its lowest in over a decade, at 14.1%, it has never recovered to pre-crisis employment levels. The country has dipped in and out of recession for the last decade, but its GDP grew by 2.5% in 2018, outdoing the eurozone average.

Corruption, which rocked the PP last year, worries 33.3% of those polled by CIS.

Will Spain end up with another unstable minority government?

It’s possible.

In the fragmented political landscape, it’s pretty much impossible for any one party to secure the absolute majority of deputies in congress needed in order to approve their prime ministerial candidate (Spain elects its leaders indirectly, meaning people vote for a representative in their local district into the lower house of congress, who in turn elect the president of the government or prime minister of Spain). And the latest polls suggest that even a pact between the PSOE and Podemos, or between the PP and Ciudadanos, would not be enough to make it over the line. The small nationalist parties – from Catalonia and the northern Basque Country region – have refused to promise anything to any of the bigger parties.

While Sánchez’s PSOE is likely to increase its number of deputies, it would need support from Podemos and the small nationalist parties to govern. “Pedro Sánchez will try his best to establish a coalition as quickly as possible,” says Toygur. But, she adds, it may not happen. “No one wants to have to hold another election – but no one’s ruling it out.”

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Write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com