Ruling Socialists under pressure as far-right eyes Andalusia seats

Seville (Spain) (AFP) –


Spain's most populous region Andalusia went to the polls yesterday in the first of a series of tests for Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

The vote was Sanchez's first electoral test since he took office in June after winning a surprise vote of no-confidence in parliament against the previous conservative Popular Party (PP) government of Mariano Rajoy over a corruption scandal.

His Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) has ruled Andalusia since 1982, and pre-poll surveys suggest that while it will be re-elected, it will win fewer seats and once again without an absolute majority in the southern region's parliament.

The vote is a mere foretaste of the coming 'super election year': 2019 will see municipal, regional and European elections and perhaps even an early general election to coincide with the other May polls.

As the Socialists look to retain dominance of one of the country's poorer regions, all eyes are on the far-right party Vox.

Vox is looking to win its first seats in a regional parliament and use that as a springboard in next year's elections. If it did win a seat in the next general election, it would be the first time a far-right party had had a presence in Spain's lower house of parliament since 1982.

In all, 6.5 million voters were called on to cast ballots, and the polls closed at 1900 GMT. First results were expected from around 2115 GMT.

The PSOE's Susana Diaz -- who last year unsuccessfully challenged Sanchez for the party leadership -- is seeking to retain the regional presidency while also giving Sanchez and the national party a fillip.

But Vox hope to throw a spoke in their wheel by adding its voice to traditional conservative forces led by the PP and market-friendly Ciudadanos, which has in recent years challenging the PP for the mantle of Spain's dominant liberal force.

"These elections are key as a first step in the removal of Pedro Sanchez" and the PSOE from the government, PP leader Pablo Casado told Radio COPE on Friday. But Casado has struggled to rally the party's base since taking over.

- "Unsustainable" -

Casado said a defeat in its traditional southern fiefdom would render the PSOE's attempt to retain power nationally "unsustainable." The Socialists are already walking a tightrope given they hold just 84 seats in the 350-seat national assembly.

Both the PP and Ciudadanos have said during the campaign that if rightwing forces together win a majority of seats they would not rule out accepting support in the regional chamber from Vox.

Ciudadanos has also said it will no longer back the Diaz administration, which means the stage could be set for tough post-electoral horse-trading.

Vox's campaigning has mainly been against illegal immigration and any decentralisation of powers from Madrid.

"Vox is going to back whichever option entails throwing out Susana Diaz and the Socialist Party" from the regional administration, party deputy-leader Javier Ortega Smith said Saturday.

Diaz meanwhile called for "stability" as she ended her campaign, warning voters against forces of the right and far-right that "want to take us backwards".

Turnout by 1700 GMT was 46.4 percent, the regional government said -- five points down on the last election in 2015.