The war in Ukraine is raging. Scorching temperatures prompt a reckoning with climate change. Economic insecurity abounds. But the Spanish election may pivot on the question of bad company.

As Spaniards prepare to vote in national elections on Sunday, experts say voters are being asked to decide who – the centre-left government or the favored centre-right opposition – has the more unsavory, less acceptable and dangerously extremist friends.

Polls suggest that Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, the socialist leader, will be ousted by conservatives who have made hay of his dependence on allies who have tried to secede from Spain. They include northern Spain’s Catalan independence movement and political descendants of the Basque secessionist group ETA, which angered voters ahead of local elections in May when they put forward 44 convicted terrorists as candidates, including seven found guilty of murder.

The socialists of Mr. Sánchez, for their part, have raised the alarm about the extremist allies of their conservative opponents in the Vox party. Vox could become the first far-right party to enter government since the Franco dictatorship if, as expected, the leading conservative party wins and needs its support.

The hyper-focus on political peers has clouded debate on critical issues in Spain such as housing, the economy and employment, as well as the prime minister’s actual record, which includes winning the European Union a price cap on gas for electricity.

“This election is about the partners,” said Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University. “The partners of the right and the partners of the left.”

Neither the conservative People’s Party nor Mr. Sánchez’s Socialists have risen or fallen radically in support since the last elections, in 2019, and neither is expected to win an absolute majority in Spain’s 350-seat Congress.

Instead, the People’s Party and its potential nationalist partners in Vox have used the prime minister’s allies to create an image of what they call “Sánchismo”. They define it as the prime minister’s self-interested, arrogant and unprincipled impulse to break any promise and make any alliance to stay in power.

The main beef is his alliance with independence Catalans. During Spain’s last national election, Mr. Sánchez promised to arrest the main Catalan secessionists. But soon after, with the survival of his government dependent on their support, he began negotiating their pardons instead.

“He succumbed to political pressure and the need to rule the country,” said Gabriel Rufián, a member of parliament from Esquerra Republicana, a pro-Catalan independence party.

Conservatives also often remember that Mr. Sánchez once claimed that he would not be able to sleep at night if the far-left party Podemos entered his government. But Mr. Sánchez needed the party, so it did.

Since then, Podemos has collapsed and, according to experts, its mistakes and overachievements have turned moderate and swing voters towards the conservatives. Mr. Sánchez hopes that a new left-wing umbrella group, Sumar, can make up for the losses, and get him to a threshold where he can once again turn to his secessionist allies for support in Parliament.

In an interview on National Spanish Radio on Sunday, Mr Sánchez said he would, if necessary, seek support from both independence parties again.

“Of course,” said Mr. Sanchez. “To implement labor reform, I would look for votes, even under the rocks. What I will never do is what PP and Vox have done, which is to cut rights and freedoms, denying sexist violence. I’ll make deals with whoever I have to in order to move forward.”

Supporters of Mr. Sánchez point out that the talks and pardons have greatly reduced tensions with Catalonia’s separatist movement, but conservative voters say the near-secession still leaves a bad taste in their mouths.

Even more, they say they are disgusted by Mr. Sánchez’s reliance on the votes of EH Bildu, the descendants of the political wing of ETA, which killed more than 850 people, as it also sought to create an independent country from Spain.

That Basque terrorist group dissolved more than a decade ago, and Spain’s judiciary considered Bildu a legitimate and democratic political group. But for many Spaniards it remains tainted by the bloody legacy of the past and concern for the country’s cohesion in the future.

Even the main allies of Mr. Sánchez recognized that the right benefits by dictating the terms of the election as a referendum on Bildu.

“Their whole campaign is built on that,” said Ernest Urtasun, a member of the European Parliament and spokesman for the left-wing Sumar party. “It mobilizes a lot of the electorate on the right and it demobilizes the electorate of the left.”

But he said the race was still fluid in its final days and claimed internal polling showed them on pace. The more the left could stick to social and economic issues, and not its allies, he said, the better its chances.

If Mr. Sánchez requires their votes in Parliament to rule, the leaders of the independence movements have made it clear that their support will not come for free.

Mr Rufián said there would be an additional “price”, including continued negotiations towards a possible referendum for Catalan independence. He argued that the right wing, and especially Vox, always had a wedge issue to distract voters from real problems and this time it was the Catalans and the Basques.

“We cannot be responsible” for the talking points of the right, said Mr. Rufián.

Mr. Rufián said that Mr. Sánchez warned him that Spain was not yet ready to forgive the secessionists and that his coalition would suffer politically if they were agreed, but under pressure the prime minister reversed course.

“I think it is good for democracy that political prisoners are not in prison,” he said of the pardons granted by Mr. Sánchez. “If there’s a penalty for that, I accept that.”

But the pardons and the alliances made it easier for conservative candidates to convince Spanish voters to judge Mr. Sánchez by the company he keeps.

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the leader of the Popular Party, called Mr. Sánchez the “great electoral hope” for “those who used to go around wearing ski masks,” a clear reference to the ETA terrorists. Left-wing leaders have noted that Mr. Feijóo appears to have questionable personal friends of his own, drawing renewed attention to pictures taken of him hanging out on a yacht with a convicted cocaine dealer.

Mr. Feijóo withdrew from the final televised debate of the campaign, saying he wanted the separatists to be on stage as well. The Socialists believe that he was simply pursuing a Rose Garden strategy to avoid questions about his association with the drug lord and to distance himself from his nominal ally, the Vox leader, Santiago Abascal.

Mr. Feijóo finished by saying that he had a bad back.

Mr. Feijóo explained that he would prefer to rule alone, without Mr. Abascal. But Mr. Abascal wants to enter, and indicated that if Vox entered the government, it would forcefully hire some secessionist movements.

At a campaign event this month, Mr Abascal accused Mr Sánchez of being a liar who made “deals with the enemies of democracy” and added, “As far as Pedro Sánchez is concerned, protecting democracy is about getting the votes of rapists, coup plotters.”

Such language is part of Vox’s playbook.

“Sánchez has a really pathological anxiety for power,” said Aurora Rodil Martinez, the deputy mayor of Vox de Elche, who, in a possible preview of things to come, serves with a mayor of the People’s Party. “I think that his personality is focused on himself and therefore he is not ashamed to give himself to the extreme left, to the heirs of ETA.”

She said his allies in the Catalan independence movement “want to separate themselves from Spain and deny our nation.” Mr. Sánchez, she added, “knelt down” for his far-left allies in Podemos and needed the support of Bildu, “terrorists guilty of bloody crimes.”

All this, say experts, amounted to a distraction from the real challenges of the country.

“We discuss the partners,” said Mr. Simón, the political scientist, adding, “it’s a terrible thing because we don’t discuss policies.”

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