Spain repeats election as Catalan crisis boosts far right
AP

Spain repeats election as Catalan crisis boosts far right

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MADRID (AP) — Spain is holding its fourth general election in as many years — and the second this year — amid voter distrust and a renewed Catalan independence bid that has bolstered the far right.

The latest polls in Spanish media hint at a close finish between the blocs on the right and left, suggesting that Sunday's vote — amid increasing fragmentation and polarization — won't help dispel the country's political stalemate.

Pedro Sánchez's Socialists appeared poised to again win the most seats in Parliament but fewer even than they won in April, when the interim prime minister was unable to get the support of his left-wing rivals to keep his party in power.

Repeated elections make it even harder to win over voters, said political analyst Pablo Simón, a professor at Carlos III University.

"The public opinion is angry at the electoral repeat, with record levels of discontent toward the political class and great pessimism over how the economy will perform next year," he said.

The incumbent is up against five other men for the job as prime minister. In recent days, he has tried to lure undecided and centrist voters by saying he will focus his next term on economic issues and by toughening his stand on Catalan separatists.

He has, for example, promised to bring back prison terms for those who hold banned referendums for independence, overturning a previous Socialist position.

"If we want a strong government against precariousness and blockade, a progressive government against the extreme right, and a moderate government against the extremists, here is the Socialist party," Sánchez said Friday, wrapping up an eight-day campaign in Barcelona.

The Catalan capital has been hit by a wave of mass protests, at times violent, after nine leaders of the wealthy region's separatist movement were sentenced to prison for an attempt to break away from Spain two years ago.

The turbulence has fueled support in the rest of Spain for Sánchez's opposition — the conservative Popular Party and the far-right Vox, whose leader ended the campaign calling for voters to support his "patriotic alternative" to oust the Socialist leader.

Even if Sánchez succeeds in rallying support from the anti-austerity United We Can and its new splinter, More Country, a Socialist cabinet likely will need either the backing of small regional parties or for the right-wing opposition to abstain.

The eurozone's No. 4 economy has been functioning without a stable government since mid-2018, when Sánchez ousted the graft-tainted conservatives in a parliamentary confidence vote. The center-left minority government then crumbled in less than a year after losing the parliamentary support of regionalist parties.

Sánchez's Socialists went from 85 to 123 seats in the late April election. But he needed support from an absolute majority, or 176 of 350 lawmakers, and a falling out with United We Can leader Pablo Iglesias left him without enough votes.

The latest polls show both of those left-wing parties could lose ground.

The Popular Party, meanwhile, is recovering after losing more than half of its parliamentary representation in April, falling to 66 seats. Polls show the conservatives could win more seats in this election. But leader Pablo Casado's chances to form government are lower than Sánchez's, given that the party's natural ally, the center-right Citizens, isn't expected to do well.

"We cannot divide efforts, we cannot fragment all the momentum of change that Spain has," Casado said before some 3,000 followers gathered for the final rally at the Madrid bullring.

But the party benefiting most so far from the Catalan crisis has been Vox, with its mix of Spanish nationalism and populism.

In addition to calling for deposing Catalonia of its self-government powers and outlawing regional separatist parties, Vox has stepped up its anti-immigration rhetoric. The party has released campaign videos linking migrants with criminality, and its leaders have held rallies outside centers where authorities care for unaccompanied teenage migrants.

Vox won 24 seats in April, less than what polls had predicted but still an unprecedented victory for the far right, which had been on the fringes of the political mainstream since the end of Gen. Francisco Franco's dictatorship in 1975. This time, surveys predict Vox will win at least 40 seats in the Congress of Deputies.

The party now supports minority coalition governments of the Popular Party and Citizens in the regions of Madrid, Andalusia and Murcia, and its support was key for many other local governments, said Bonnie Field, a professor on Global Studies at Bentley University.

"If the right parties pulled out a surprise victory on Sunday, this arrangement would certainly be on the table," Field said.

Turnout is expected to be low in Sunday's election, something that generally has benefited right-wing parties. But she noted that the Socialists succeeded in mobilizing voters in April by stirring the "fear of the radical right and the possibility of a right-wing government that depended on them."

"We'll have to see if that works again," she added.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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