If Spain’s national elections on Sunday go as most polls and analysts suggest, mainstream conservatives may prevail but will need allies on the political fringes to prevail, bringing the first left-wing party to power since the Franco dictatorship.

The possible rise of that hard-right party, Vox, which has a deeply nationalist spirit filled with the ghost of Franco, would bring Spain into the growing ranks of European nations where mainstream conservative parties have partnered with previously taboo forces out of electoral necessity. It is an important sign for a politically changing continent, and a pregnant moment for a country that has long struggled with the legacy of its dictatorship.

Even before Spaniards voted, it raised questions about where the country’s political heart actually lies – whether its painful past and transition to democracy just four decades ago has made Spain a largely moderate, inclusive and centrist country, or whether it could once again veer towards extremes.

Spain’s establishment, centrist parties — both the conservative Popular Party and the socialists led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez — have long dominated the country’s politics, and most of the electorate seems to be turning away from the extremes to the center, experts note.

But none of Spain’s main parties have enough support to govern alone. The People’s Party, although predicted to win on Sunday, is not expected to win a majority in the 350-seat Parliament, making an alliance a must. The hard right Vox is its most likely partner.

The paradox is that even as Vox seems poised to reach the height of its power since it was founded a decade ago, its support may be waning as its stances against abortion rights, climate change policies and LGBTQ rights have scared away many voters.

The notion that the country is becoming more extremist is a “mirage,” said Sergio del Molino, a Spanish author and commentator who has written extensively about Spain and its transformations.

The election, he said, was more reflective of the political fragmentation of the establishment parties, fueled by the radicalizing events of the 2008 financial crisis and the imminent secession of Catalonia in 2017. This has now made alliances, even sometimes with parties on the political fringes, a necessity.

He pointed to a “gap” between the country’s political leadership, which needed to seek electoral support in the extremes to rule, and “Spanish society that wants to return to the center again.”

José Ignacio Torreblanca, Spanish expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that the messy process of coalition building in Spain’s relatively new era of the post-two-party system lent leverage and visibility to peripheral parties greater than their actual support.

“This is not blue and red country at all,” he said.

Others were less convinced. Paula Suárez, 29, a doctor and left-wing candidate for local office in Barcelona with the Sumar coalition, said the polarization in the country is entrenched. “It has to do with the civil war — it’s a legacy. Half of Spain is left wing and half is right wing,” she said, naming the successors of Vox Franco.

But those who see a largely centrist Spain use the same historical reference point for their argument. The Spanish electorate’s traditional rejection of extremes, some experts said, was rooted precisely in its memory of the deadly polarization of the Franco era.

Later, through the shared traumas of decades of murders by Basque terrorists seeking to break from Spain, the two main establishment parties, the People’s Party and the Socialists, forged a political center and provided a spacious home for most voters.

But recent events have tested the strength of Spain’s immunity to appeals from the political extremes. Even if consistently centrist, Spanish politics today, if not polarized, is definitely pulled at the edges.

A corruption scandal in the People’s Party prompted Vox to split in 2013. Then the near secession of Catalonia in 2017 provided jet fuel to nationalists at a time when populist anger against globalization, the European Union and gender-based identity politics took off across Europe.

On the other side of the spectrum, the financial crisis prompted the creation of a hard left in 2015, forcing Mr. Sánchez to later form a government with that group and cross a red line for himself and the country.

Perhaps of greater consequence for this election, he also relied on the votes of Basque groups filled with former terrorists, giving conservative voters a green light to become more permissive to Vox, Mr. Torreblanca said. “This is what has made politics in Spain quite toxic,” he said.

After the local elections in May, which defeated Mr. Sánchez and prompted him to call the preliminary elections, which Spaniards will vote on Sunday, the conservatives and Vox have already formed alliances across the country.

In some cases, liberals’ worst fears are borne out. Outside Madrid, Vox culture officials banned performances with homosexual or feminist themes. In other cities, they removed bike lanes and took down Pride flags.

Ester Calderón, a representative of a national feminist organization in Valencia, where feminists marched on Thursday, said she feared the country’s Equality Ministry, which is loathed by Vox, would be removed if the party shared power in a new government.

She attributed the rise in Vox to the progress feminists have made in recent years, saying it has provoked a reactionary backlash. “It’s like they came out of the closet,” she said.

At a rally for Yolanda Díaz, the candidate for Sumar, the leftist umbrella group, a women’s alignment spoke about maternity leave, defending abortion rights and protecting women from abuse. The crowd, many cooling off with fans featuring Ms. Díaz in dark sunglasses, erupted at the various calls to action to stop Vox.

“Only if we are strong,” Ms. Díaz said. “Shall we send Vox to the opposition.”

But members of the conservative People’s Party, which hopes to win an absolute majority and govern without Vox, tried to assure moderate voters scared by the prospect of an alliance with the hard right that they would not allow Vox to pull them back.

Xavier Albiol, the People’s Party mayor of Badalona, ​​outside Barcelona, ​​said “100 percent” there would be no retrogression on gay rights, women’s rights, climate policies or Spain’s close relationship with Europe if his party were to bring in Vox, which he called 30 years behind the times.

Vox, he said, was only interested in “show” to feed their base, and would simply “change the name” of issues, such as sexual violence to domestic violence, without changing substance.

Some experts agreed that if Vox were to enter government, it would do so in a weakened position as its support appears to be falling.

“The paradox now,” said Mr. Torreblanca, the political analyst, is that just as Mr. Sánchez entered government with the far left when it was losing steam, the Popular Party seemed poised to rule with Vox, as its support plummeted. “The story would be that Spain is turning to the right. When in fact this is the moment when Vox is at its weakest point.”

Recent polls have shown voters turning away from Vox, and even some of its supporters did not think the party should touch the civil rights protections that Spain’s liberals have introduced, and that its conservatives have supported.

Gay marriage “must remain legal of course,” said Alex Ruf, 23, a Vox supporter who sat with his girlfriend on a bench in Barcelona’s wealthy Sarriá district.

Mr Albiol, the mayor of Badalona, ​​insisted that Spain was inoculated, and said that, unlike other European countries, it would continue to be.

“Because of the historical tradition of dictatorship for 40 years,” he said, Spain “has become a society where the majority of the population is not located at the extremes.”

That was little comfort to Juana Guerrero, 65, who attended the left-wing Sumar event.

If Vox gets into power, they will “tread us under their shoes,” she said, grinding an imaginary cigarette butt under her foot.

Rachel Chaundler contributed reporting.

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