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Spain goes to the polls in contentious snap election

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Spain goes to the polls in contentious snap election

By Pamela Rolfe and James McAuley James McAuley Foreign correspondent focusing on French and European politics and culture Email Bio Follow April 28 at 10:14 AM MADRIDVoters headed to the polls Sunday in a contentious snap election that will determine the future of Spain’s legislature in a moment of bitter political polarization.

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Strictly speaking, the vote was triggered by the failure of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, a Socialist who took office in June 2018, to pass a 2019 budget. But deeper challenges overshadow the contest: a general frustration with the status quo that echoes public discontent elsewhere in Western Europe and widespread anger over the Catalan independence crisis, which many say the left-wing government has failed to adequately handle.

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“After many years of instability and uncertainty, it’s important that today we send a clear, defined message about the Spain we want,” Sánchez told reporters Sunday at a polling station. “And, from there, a broad parliamentary majority must be built that can support a stable government.”

The vote marked the third time Spaniards have gone to the polls in less than four years, and the results are likely to further fragment a two-party political culture that has traded power since the country’s post-Franco transition to democracy in the late 1970s. Voters will choose between five parties. For the first time since Spain’s democratic transition, a far-right faction, known as Vox, is expected to enter parliament.

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The main catalyst of this is probably Catalonia,” said William Chislett, an analyst at Madrid’s Elcano Royal think tank.

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In October 2017, Catalan leaders staged an illegal referendum on independence in open defiance of the constitution. Although 12 Catalan leaders are standing trial in Madrid on charges of rebellion, sedition and the misuse of public funds, Sánchez’s minority Socialist government was ultimately able to assume power only after aligning with Catalan separatist factions.

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His critics on the right have accused Sánchez of being too soft on the Catalan issue, and tens of thousands of right-wing protesters took to the streets in Madrid earlier this year to demand a snap election.

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“Would Vox have emerged without Catalonia? I suspect it would have,” Chislett said. “But with the vengeance it has now? I suspect not.”

As has been the case elsewhere in Europe, the emergence of a right-wing fringe faction has pushed Spain’s traditional, mainstream right-wing parties farther to the right. Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox, has taunted the typically center-right Popular Party (PP) as the “cowardly little right.” The PP’s leader, Pablo Casado, seems determined to prove Abascal wrong, pursuing an anti-Catalan, anti-immigrant hard-line that none of his predecessors pursued.

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Then there is Ciudadanos, a nominally centrist party that typically supports legislative reform but has cast its decisive support to the right on the Catalan question. The party’s Catalan origins give its staunch opposition to regional independence legitimacy with voters in favor of Spanish unity

“All of this rests on a great lie, which is that the Socialists have caved in and would have eventually granted Catalan independence, which is simply not the case,” Chislett said. “But it’s a drum that’s been beaten here constantly. And the more you beat a drum, the more people start to listen.”

The language is much more vicious here than it’s ever been before, especially from the right, disqualifying their opponents as traitors and liars.”

This rhetoric was on display during nationally televised debates among the contenders last week. Both Casado and Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, demanded that Sánchez say whether he would pardon the Catalan separatists on trial if they are found guilty

Sánchez and Pablo Iglesias of the far-left, anti-austerity Podemos party insisted on the need for further dialogue to resolve the Catalan situation. The prime minister then refused to discuss what he called “preventive pardons” and insisted there would be “no referendum nor independence” in Catalonia and invited the separatists to “return to the framework of the statute and the constitution.”

Outside Madrid on Sunday, however, the right-wing rhetoric had already convinced some previously moderate voters

“I like Ciudadanos’s Rivera,” said 64-year-old Donata Ruano, who said she had voted for Ciudadanos in the previous elections. “I think he is serious and smart, but I switched to Vox this time because Rivera seems a bit tender for the current situation. We need someone who is stronger.”

Mariano Collado, 75, also switched his vote to Vox from the Popular Party. As he put it: “Spain is for Spaniards first, then afterward we can welcome immigrants. It’s very sad to say it that harshly, but first I feed my children and then I can be generous.”

“I have a neighbor who can’t find work, and that is the problem in this country. Are there other issues? Yes. I don’t know if the guy from Vox will do a good job. If not, I won’t vote for him again. But, first things first. Spain needs to be strong again.”

Most projections still show Sánchez winning the largest number of seats, but the makeup of a possible governing coalition is anyone’s guess

This election is about the country’s ability to continue advancing, particularly in social reform, education, health care and personal liberties. We are very concerned about the rise of the far right,” Maria Isabel Gómez said after casting her ballot for the Socialist party

“VOX doesn’t have a program or ideas. We don’t know what they will really do, but they don’t see democracy the same way we do.”

“Trump is coming,” chimed in her husband, José López, 70, referring to Vox. “They just wrap themselves in the flag and say, ‘We support Spain.’ “

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