MADRID: Just days after a shock Brexit, Spaniards voted in repeat elections Sunday to decide if they too want a radical shift as promised by a far-left coalition led by Podemos.
Polls opened at 0700 GMT under generally blue skies in a vote pitting those hungry for change in a country with high unemployment against those who fear it would torpedo Spain’s slow economic recovery.
Britain’s surprise vote to leave the European Union has further exacerbated this cleavage.
The outgoing conservative Popular Party (PP) is insisting on the need for “stability” in the face of “populism” — a thinly-veiled dig at the Unidos Podemos coalition.
PP, Podemos fight it out
“What is important is that lots of people vote and that there is a government soon,”Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena said after casting her ballot in a school in the Spanish capital, echoing general voter exasperation after months of political limbo.
More than 36 million Spaniards are eligible to vote Sunday.
They have the choice between four major political groupings after the emergence of Podemos and center-right upstart Ciudadanos last year uprooted the country’s two-party dominance.
General elections in December resulted in a 350-seat parliament so splintered that parties failed to agree on a coalition, and this is what has prompted Sunday’s repeat vote.
Opinion polls — conducted pre-Brexit — suggest the results Sunday will also be fractured, with the PP coming first without a majority, tailed by Unidos Podemos, which could replace the 137-year-old Socialist party as Spain’s main left-wing force.
Political leaders will have to go back to the negotiating table, under more pressure this time to form a coalition.
Throughout the campaign — and again on Friday after Brexit — the PP has hammered away at the need for stability in reference to the rise of Unidos Podemos, which like Greece’s ruling Syriza party rejects EU-backed austerity and pledges to fight for the least well-off.
The coalition, led by charismatic, pony-tailed Pablo Iglesias, has responded with a message of calm aimed at defusing this criticism.
Unidos Podemos — the “o” of Unidos shaped as a heart — has made “smile of a country” its slogan for an emotional campaign.
‘No time to experiment’
Rajoy argues that since the PP came to power in 2011, it has brought Spain back to growth and overseen a drop in unemployment — though at 21 percent it is still the second highest rate in the European Union after Greece.
But his rivals retort that inequalities have risen, the jobs created are mainly unstable, and they point to the repeated corruption scandals to have hit the PP.
In the latest case, Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz was caught on tape talking to an anti-fraud official, apparently discussing how to incriminate his political rivals — an incident Rajoy shrugged off as a “farce.”
The Socialist party (PSOE), meanwhile, is going through what analysts call its worst crisis in decades as Podemos gnaws away at its support base, with some voters disillusioned with what they see as a staid party that has strayed from its working-class roots.
People like Jonatan Mora, a 31-year-old physiotherapist.
“The PSOE isn’t left-wing anymore, I want deep, general change, and Unidos Podemos is the only one that can do this,” he said in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat next to Barcelona.
“We’ve been through some horrible years. I want all the corrupt to be chased out, social issues to be taken into account and citizens listened to.”
Whether Brexit will have any influence on Spain’s election is as yet uncertain, though analysts say people may flock to established parties that represent a safe pair of hands.
David Rico, a 39-year-old computer engineer, said he had always voted for the Socialists and would continue to do so.
“The new parties have no experience,” he said in Madrid. “This isn’t the time (to experiment). Look at the change in Britain — the stock market plunged.”
The first official results will be known around 2030 GMT. AFP