Voters in Spain will go to the polls on Sunday as increasing political instability has led to the country’s third general election in four years.
Incumbent Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez – leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) – was forced to call a snap election after parliament rejected his minority government’s 2019 budget in February.
Spain’s traditional two-party system has fragmented in recent years as both the PSOE and the right-wing People’s Party (PP) came under pressure following the 2008 financial crisis and a series of corruption scandals.
Voters now face a choice of five national parties and a number of groups representing Spain’s autonomous regions, such as Catalonia and the Basque Country.
Alternatives include the left-wing Unidos Podemos (UP), led by Pablo Iglesias, which sprang up in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, as well as the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) party of Albert Rivera.
The growth of far-right party Vox under Santiago Abascal has also become a major issue after the December 2018 regional elections in the southern province of Andalusia, which resulted in an unexpected right-wing regional coalition government formed by PP and Ciudadanos, with Vox agreeing to lend its support in return for certain concessions.
It was the first time that a far-right party had recorded such electoral success since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, and experts believe that the party could repeat its success on a national level.
Polls indicate that the five parties may each gain more than 10% of the vote, resulting in a hung parliament and the first coalition government in Spanish history, according to Ignacio Molina, senior analyst at the Real Instituto Elcano think tank in Madrid.
However without a history of coalition building and a number of polarizing issues in play, experts believe it could be difficult to form a government.
The current political crisis is the worst the country has faced since the restoration of democracy in the late 1970s, and is due in large part to the issue of Catalan independence.
The movement for a Catalan breakaway came to a recent head in late 2017 when separatist leaders triggered a standoff with Madrid after attempting to push forward with the region’s secession.
Despite warnings from the national administration in Madrid that any vote would be unconstitutional, Catalonia went ahead with the referendum, which saw 90% vote in favor of independence, but turnout was low and marred by a violent police crackdown.
Prime Minister Sanchez entered negotiations with Catalan separatists that galvanized support for the right-wing nationalist movement, and Vox has capitalized on concerns over the unity of the nation.
The new far-right group has also tapped into growing worries among conservative elements of society who say their values and traditions are being eroded, with gender and LGBT rights legislation promoted by the PSOE providing a focus for opposition. The party has also stoked fears over irregular migration.
Debate on the campaign trail has also raised questions over inheritance tax, and continued economic issues facing the country, but analysts have noted a change in focus.
“It’s the same as what’s happening in many countries,” said José Torreblanca, senior analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Madrid.
“The elections are much more emotional, playing on feelings, aggravations and identities rather than policies.”
Spain is also set to vote in a series of local and European elections in May as part of a busy electoral year.