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Socialists win Spain vote as far right enters parliament

Javier Soriano, AFP | Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (L) delivers a speech during an election night rally in Madrid on April 28, 2019.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialists won Spain's general election Sunday but failed to gain enough votes for a majority in parliament, while the far-right Vox party won seats in the lower house for the first time.

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Sanchez's Socialist Party (PSOE) got 123 lawmakers out of 350, or close to 29 percent of votes -- short of an absolute majority but much better than the 85 seats it got in 2016, results with 99 percent of votes counted showed.

"The Socialists have won the general election and with it the future has won and the past has lost," Sanchez told cheering supporters from the balcony of the party's headquarters in Madrid, claiming victory late Sunday.

After a tense campaign, voter turnout was high at 75.76 percent, up from 66.48 percent in 2016, election authorities said.

The big loser was the conservative Popular Party (PP), which won 66 seats compared to 137 in the previous election. Attempts by its new leader, Pablo Casado, to steer his party further to the right to appeal to those that might otherwise vote for Vox appear to have failed.

Vox, founded by disgruntled former PP member Santiago Abascal only five years ago, secured around 10 percent of the vote, enough for 24 seats, making it the first far-right party to enter the Spanish parliament since the death of Francisco Franco in 1975.

Sarah Morris reports from Socialist Party headquarters in Madrid

The PP also lost seats to the centre-right Ciudadanos ('Citizens') party, which took 57 seats.

Coalition 'respecting the constitution'

Sanchez, who came to power in June after ousting conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy in a no-confidence vote, must now seek coalition partners if he is to carry on as Spain's leader.

He is likely to seek an alliance with the far-left Podemos party led by Pablo Iglesias, which won 42 seats.

Iglesias said he would be open to joining a Socialist-led coalition.

"I have expressed to him (Sanchez)...our willingness to work towards a coalition government," he told supporters in Madrid.

But even with the support of Podemos, the Socialists would still be 11 seats short of the 176-seat majority needed to govern.

Sanchez, a former economics professor, must also seek alliances with smaller parties and decide whether he wants to make agreements with Catalan and other separatist parties – a move that could anger many Spaniards and risk furthering support for the far right, whose rise has been attributed in part to a backlash against the Catalan independence movement.

Possible Spain coalitions ‘far from natural bedfellows’

Speaking to supporters Sunday night, Sanchez said the only conditions he would place on forming a coalition government would be "respecting the constitution and promoting social justice".

If respect for Spain's constitution is incompatible with the Catalan separatists' demands, Sanchez could also try to cosy up to Ciudadanos. Together, they would form an absolute majority but voters from both parties would likely frown on such a move.

Ciudadanos party leader Albert Rivera has repeatedly blasted Sanchez during the campaign, saying his party would only join a governing coalition with the conservatives.

But some analysts say an alliance with Ciudadanos remains a possibility, with an editorial in Madrid daily El Mundo calling on Sanchez to "reach out to Rivera and consider forming a moderate government -- which would undoubtedly go down well in Europe -- to ensure the stability" of the country.

Vox 'has come to stay'

Though Vox performed less well than opinion polls had suggested, its leader Abascal declared it a major victory for the fledgling party.

"We can tell Spain with complete calm that Vox has come to stay," he told cheering supporters.

With a strong stance against feminism and illegal immigration, Vox stood out with ultra-nationalist rhetoric advocating the "defence of the Spanish nation to the end" and a hard line against separatists in Catalonia.

The region in northeastern Spain was the scene of a secession attempt in 2017 that sparked the country's biggest political crisis in decades and caused major concern in Europe.

The issue has continued to cast a pall over Spanish politics.

'Absolute failure of right-wing leadership'

Sanchez was forced to call Sunday's elections after Catalan pro-independence lawmakers in the national parliament, angered at the trial of their leaders in Madrid, refused to give him the support he needed for his 2019 budget.

Right-wing parties for their part lambasted Sanchez, at the head of a minority government, for talking with separatists who still govern the region, accusing him of cosying up to those who tried to break up Spain.

That controversy is likely to continue as two Catalan separatist parties gained even more lawmakers in the national parliament than they did in 2016 -- up to 22 from 17.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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