CNN  — 

Voters in Spain are voting in a general election on Sunday, and the country appears at a crossroads. As in several other European countries, a far-right party is gaining in popularity and traditional politics is fragmenting, while Spain has specific domestic issues, such as the Catalan independence movement.

“There’s a general sense that these elections are very important, that they’re going to determine the political destiny of Spain for many years,” said Andrew Dowling, a historian at Cardiff University.

For years Spain was governed by the center-right People’s Party (PP), currently led by Pablo Casado, or the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), headed up by incumbent Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

Spain is the only country in western Europe that has never been governed by a coalition government, though recent years have seen minority governments shored up by parliamentary alliances.

A number of new political parties have also emerged, shaking up the two-party established order. They 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 and, more recently, the far-right Vox party of Santiago Abascal.

Polls ahead of Sunday’s elections indicated that these five parties may each gain more than 10% of the vote, resulting in a hung parliament and a coalition government, according to Ignacio Molina, senior analyst at the Real Instituto Elcano think tank in Madrid. There is increasing discussion about a “Frankenstein government,” one made up of a number of parties that may not be politically aligned.

A PP campaign poster

The Catalan question

Experts agree that the issue of Catalan independence casts a long shadow over this election and influences many areas of current political debate. For Angel Smith, a historian of modern Spain at the University of Leeds, Catalonia’s bid for secession has sparked a resurgence in Spanish nationalism and a “defensive radicalism” on the right.

“Historically Spain has faced a lot of challenges from independence movements,” Smith told CNN. “There is this fear on the right that Spain could break up.”

That history is complex, resulting in a policy of decentralization for 17 autonomous regions of which six have their own official languages alongside Spanish, and leading to worries over the unity of the nation that was one of the driving forces behind right-wing dictator General Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939-75.

While the financial crisis and corruption scandals at PP were responsible for the formation of Podemos and Ciudadanos, the Catalan issue has been key in the growth of Vox. Smith believes that Vox has capitalized on a perceived threat to national integrity. “The right has been able to mobilize round the idea that ‘they’re trying to break up our great nation,’” he said.

Each country where the far-right is making ground has its own trigger issue, said Molina, such as the 2015 refugee crisis in Germany. “The Catalan question has broken the party political system, especially on the right,” said Molina.

Far-right party Vox has gained ground under leader Santiago Abascal

‘Crisis of representation’

While the Catalan question is specific to Spain, the growth of Vox is part of a wider process of disaffection with traditional parties in Europe, said José Torreblanca, senior analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Madrid

“It’s got a lot to do with the crisis of representation affecting all of the Western democracies,” he said, emphasizing that the growth of Vox is mirrored in the shifting political landscape in other European countries such as Italy, France and the UK.

“Voters are drifting and angry. They aren’t finding answers in the traditional parties and so they are looking for options that represent their frustrations, their anger, their expectations,” Torreblanca said.

In Spain, the debate over Catalan independence is a rallying point for wider concerns over migration, rights legislation, and the idea that conservative values and traditions are being lost. This plays well in culturally conservative parts of the country, said Smith, as a widening gap in attitudes between cities and small towns adds to a sense of polarization.

While the Socialist party has won urban votes thanks to progressive reforms on women’s and LGBT rights, the pace of change has also led to a backlash in other places. “There are some voters who truly believe that it has gone too far,” said Molina, with political battles focusing more on social policies than economics.

One example is Vox’s opposition to recent domestic violence legislation, which the party believes to be encouraging feminist “supremacy.”

These views have also been spread unmonitored on Facebook, according to an investigation by campaign group Avaaz which uncovered several networks spreading “divisive,” “false” and “misleading” content reaching almost 1.7 million followers. Only on April 23, just five days before the election, did Facebook take action to remove these pages, adding to concerns over social media companies’ capability to remove sensitive content.

For Peter Ceretti, Spain analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, the country has seen the gradual emergence of multiple competing outlooks. “Ultimately the party system is going to reflect people’s views and I think the fact is that we’re seeing the culmination of a process whereby there is a pluralization of opinion in Spanish society,” he said, adding that this has placed pressure on political institutions that favor a two-party system.

Political deadlock?

Similar processes are taking place in both Spain and the UK, according to Molina, as new political parties form in response to new demands from the electorate. While both nations have traditionally been easy to govern, the political situation has become far more unstable due to the Catalan question and Brexit.

“It’s very difficult for countries that are used to this rotation and bipartisanship to change to a system where there are lots of parties and you have to make coalitions,” he said. “Our political culture is not like that, it’s about confrontation and majorities rather than consensus and coalition.”

According to Ceretti, this lack of experience in building coalitions will combine with a split vote and a lack of incentive to compromise ahead of local and European Parliament elections in May. Another factor to consider is the possibility of a verdict in the trial of Catalan separatist leaders, which could have far-reaching ramifications due to the importance of the independence question.

“Against this backdrop it’s going to be very hard to form a government,” said Ceretti, who believes Spain may face a long period of political gridlock that could result in another general election later this year.