Spaniards will go to the polls on Sunday to vote in an early general election that could see the right return to power and, more importantly, the far right enter the national government for the first time since the Franco dictatorship, almost half a century ago.

The result will determine whether Spain – a nation of about 48 million people and the European Union’s fourth-largest economy – follows a growing trend in Europe where hard-line parties are growing in popularity and, in some cases, gaining power by entering governments as junior partners.

Spain has managed to stabilize its economy and politics after years of turmoil marked by a devastating financial crisis, a protracted secessionist conflict in Catalonia and repeated failures to form a government.

Pedro Sánchez, the current prime minister, has been in power for five years. He leads a fragile coalition government made up of various left-wing parties, including his own, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party.

However, under the leadership of Mr. Sánchez, Spain enjoyed a period of strong economic growth and low inflation. He is also popular in the European Union for his progressive and pro-European policies.

Spain was not due to elect a new parliament until November. But after the Socialists and their allies suffered crushing defeats in regional and municipal elections in May, Mr Sánchez dissolved Parliament and announced a snap election for this Sunday. He said the result of the vote sent “a message that goes beyond” local outrage, and that he took “personal responsibility for the results”.

The move was seen as an attempt by Mr Sánchez to remobilize his supporters and halt the steady decline in popularity of his coalition government. But it also opened the way for the conservative People’s Party to return to power sooner than expected – perhaps in alliance with the far right.

Spain has long been seen as a bulwark against the rise of nationalism in Europe. While populist and far-right victories have piled up across the continent, nationalist forces in Spain have long failed to gain a foothold, largely because Spaniards remain traumatized by the four-decade dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

That began to change in recent years, after a secessionist movement in Catalonia, in northeastern Spain, helped revive nationalist sentiments. The main catalyst of that resurgence, Vox — a party with an anti-immigrant agenda and a history of opposing LGBTQ rights and questioning climate change — is now projected to garner about 13 percent of Sunday’s vote.

This result would not have serious consequences if the People’s Party, which leads the ballots with approximately 34 percent of voting intentions, did not need the support of Vox to rule. But most of it studies suggest it would, meaning the far right could enter the Spanish government for the first time since the return of democracy in the 1970s.

The People’s Party refrained from saying whether it would seek to govern with Vox. But it has already forged several local coalition deals with the far right after the May elections, in a move that many saw as a harbinger of a wider national alliance.

During the campaign, Mr Sánchez and his allies focused on the threat of conservatives bringing Vox into government, saying the election on Sunday would be a choice between liberal democracy and right-wing populism. The vote, Mr. Sánchez said“will explain whether Spaniards want a government on the side of Joe Biden or Donald Trump, of Lula da Silva or Jair Bolsonaro.”

If the left retains power, the socialists, who polled around 28 percent, could seek to form a coalition with Sumar, a platform of left-wing parties.

Whoever wins, the next prime minister will have to juggle concerns about rising energy prices with other long-term issues, including increasingly intense droughts and flows of African migrants risking their lives to reach Spain. The country also assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union this month, and the outcome of the vote may mean that Spain will change its leadership in driving the continent’s political agenda.

Under the leadership of Mr Sánchez, the Spanish economy has returned from a low point in 2020, during the start of the coronavirus pandemic, to growth rates above 5 percent in both 2021 and 2022. The country’s gross domestic product was predicted to expand by 1.9 percent this year, a pace faster than that of most EU countries.

The Spanish government too raised the minimum wage by about 50 percent since 2018 and managed to curb inflation to one of the lowest levels in Europe.

The People’s Party and Vox have fiercely criticized these laws, saying they sow social divisions. In particular, they attacked the sexual consent law, also known as the “Yes Only Means Yes” law, which changed sentencing requirements and created a loophole that cut prison time for hundreds of convicted sex offenders.

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the leader of the People’s Party, also accused Mr. Sánchez of promoting separatism by relying on the votes of deeply polarized Catalan and Basque independence parties in Parliament. He promised to repeal any law that was passed with the support of EH Bildu, a left-wing Basque separatist party led by Arnaldo Otegi, a convicted member of the disbanded Eta terrorist group.

And despite strong economic growth, Spain still has the highest unemployment of all the countries of the European Unionand the purchasing power of many Spaniards remains weak, fueling frustrations – proof, according to the opposition, that economic recovery is far from complete.

All 350 seats in the lower house of Spain’s Parliament, which appoints the prime minister, are up for grabs, along with two-thirds of the Senate, the upper house.

Polling stations will open at 9am and close at 8pm on Sunday in most cities. Exit polls are expected to be published soon after in the Spanish news media, but no official results are expected until later tonight.

And even when the results are known, Spain is unlikely to have a new prime minister for several weeks, as Parliament must reconvene and the winning party will likely have to enter negotiations to form a coalition government — a process that could take weeks, if not months. (All polls ruled out the possibility of a single party securing an absolute majority in parliament.)

If none of the projected coalitions – the Popular Party and Vox, or the Socialists and Sumar – meet the threshold required to achieve a majority in Parliament, they will have to turn to the smaller, regional parties for support.

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