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What to Know About Spain’s Most Important Election in Decades

7 minute read

Spain heads to the polls on Sunday in what could be its most important election in decades. The country, long averse to the far right because of the Franco years that saw Spain ruled as a military dictatorship from 1939 to 1975, could see a far right party enter government for the first time in nearly half a century.

The current Prime Minister, the socialist and renowned risk-taker Pedro Sánchez, took the bold gamble to call a snap election after disappointing losses in regional and local elections in May. That vote saw the center-right People’s Party (PP) come ahead in all but three of Spain’s 12 regions, in some cases aligning with the ultranationalist Vox party to take power. Facing an ascendent opponent in the PP, Sánchez had perhaps hoped that a fresh election might forestall divisions within his coalition—made up of his own center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the leftist Podemos, with support from Basque and Catalan separatist parties—and mobilize left-wing voters to block the resurgent right.

The gamble seems unlikely to pay off. According to the last polls ahead of the vote, the PP stands to gain the biggest proportion of seats in parliament, albeit short of the absolute majority it needs to govern alone. This means the PP will likely need to rely on Vox’s support, a prospect previously unimaginable to many observers. “We have been vaccinated by the [Spanish] civil war and by the long years of [Francisco] Franco’s dictatorship,” Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief who is from Spain, previously told the Washington Post.

In a bid to strengthen his hand, Sánchez has sought to portray his party as the sole barrier to the far right coming to power. Meanwhile, PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo, a self-described bore who has cultivated a reputation for reliability and calls himself a moderate, has presented the vote as a referendum on Sánchez and his reliance on Catalan and Basque separatists.

Below, what you need to know about the crucial July 23 vote.

What is this election about?

While snap elections can often be associated with moments of national peril, the current situation in Spain is fairly positive. The Spanish economy is among the fastest growing on the continent. Its inflation dipped to 1.9% from a peak of 11% a year ago, markedly lower than the 6.1% eurozone average. Although the country’s unemployment rate stands at roughly 13%, that’s a substantial improvement from 26% a decade ago.

“Policy-wise, people are generally happy with the economic policies and orientation of the country,” says José Ignacio Torreblanca, the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Madrid office, noting that this is not an it’s the economy, stupid kind of contest. Rather, this election has devolved into more of a personality contest between Sánchez and Feijóo, each of whom has accused the other of making pacts with unsavory allies.

Sánchez, in his opponents’ telling, lost all credibility after making a series of concessions to Spain’s separatist parties, including pardoning nine Catalan leaders involved in the region’s failed secessionist bid in 2017 and reforming of sedition laws under which they were charged. This support has been “toxic for Sánchez,” says Torreblanca, and could prompt some of the Socialists’ more centrist supporters to stay home or vote for the PP “because they feel that the party has gone too far to the left.”

“In general, people support the policies of the government, but they do not trust Pedro Sánchez,” says Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University. “He’s more unpopular than his policies.”

Meanwhile, Feijóo’s critics argue that he represents Vox’s best path to power, ushering in their opposition to the E.U., immigration, and LGBTQ and women’s rights. This isn’t strictly hypothetical: The PP has already proven its willingness to form governing coalitions with Vox in places such as Castilla y León, Valencia, and Extremadura. While Feijóo has expressed his preference to govern without Vox, he hasn’t explicitly ruled it out.

But doing so could backfire on the PP. “Vox and the conservatives are not compatible,” says Torreblanca, noting that the conservatives, like most Spaniards, tend to be progressive on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. (Vox, meanwhile, has taken issue over the existence of gender-based violence.) On the issue of trans rights, however, the PP and Vox have pledged to rollback measures introduced by Sánchez’s government if elected, including a law allowing children over 14 to change their legal gender with parental approval.

Are Spaniards embracing the far right?

Not exactly. While Vox is closer to power than ever before, the party is actually projected to lose seats this election. “It’s a paradox because the far right may be in government, but they are actually going down in polls,” says Torreblanca. “Vox is not particularly strong now; it’s been stronger.”

This paradox can be explained in part by the fact that Spanish right, which used to be occupied by three parties, is down to just two: the PP and Vox. The third, the center-right Ciudadanos Party, has all but disappeared from Spain’s political landscape and opted not to participate in this election after disappointing results in recent contests. Most of its supporters have flocked to the PP, with some going to Vox.

“This explains why the Socialists can have a pretty similar result in comparison to 2019 but become the second party,” says Simón, referencing the polls that project the PSOE winning 28% of the vote, the same proportion that delivered the party’s victory during the country’s last general election four years ago.

Is there a way for the PP to govern without Vox?

The polls project that the PP could win anywhere between 143 and 145 seats, the biggest proportion of seats but short of the 176 it needs to secure an absolute majority. One way to fill that gap is to partner with Vox, which is projected to win between 34 and 36 seats.

Alternatively, the PP could look to Sánchez’s socialists for help. If the PSOE were to agree to abstain from the parliamentary confidence vote, this would enable the PP to form a government with a simple majority and, crucially, without the support of Vox. This kind of deal is not without precedent: The PSOE did exactly that in 2016, thereby allowing then-PP leader Mariano Rajoy to form a government following two inconclusive elections.

“For that scenario to come up, Feijóo has to be very close to 176,” says Torreblanca, noting that Sánchez will be loath to be seen to help the conservatives unless there was no alternative. Indeed, when Feijóo asked Sanchez directly whether he would make such a commitment during a recent debate, the Prime Minister dodged the question.

Why is everyone talking about turnout?

Spain doesn’t typically hold summer elections, and with good reason. Around 10 million Spaniards—or roughly a quarter of the country’s electorate—will be on vacation this month, according to Simón. Their absence is already being felt at polling stations (which are typically staffed by registered voters, who are conscripted via a lottery system), as well as in the country’s post offices, some of which have already recorded “bottlenecks and queues” as more and more voters opt to vote by mail.

While Simón doesn’t expect turnout will be very low—it has ranged between 68% and 75% in recent years—he says that the parties will need to put in extra effort to mobilize their voters to go to the polls instead of the beach. “It’s very warm in Spain right now.”

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Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com