Socialist Workers' Party leader and current Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez greets supporters outside the party's headquarters in Madrid on July 23, 2023. Image Credit: AP

MADRID: Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his right-wing rival will each begin negotiations Monday to try to head off a fresh vote after an inconclusive snap election resulted in a hung parliament.

Defying polls that for months had written him off as defeated, the Socialist premier managed to curb the gains of the right-wing opposition.

With all the votes counted, Alberto Nunez Feijoo’s Popular Party (PP) and far-right Vox - its potential ally - won a total 169 seats, a far cry from the 176 needed for a governing majority.

Sanchez’s Socialists and radical left Sumar ally secured 153 seats for the left bloc.

“Feijoo narrowly wins and Sanchez resists: the government is up in the air,” top-selling daily newspaper El Pais headlines on its front page on Monday.

‘They shall not pass!’

Addressing a crowd of euphoric activists shouting “No pasaran!” - the famous anti-fascist slogan of Spain’s 1936-1939 civil war meaning “They shall not pass!” - Sanchez was jubilant.

“The backwards-looking bloc that wanted to roll back all the progress we made over the past four years has failed,” said a clearly jubilant Sanchez who focused his campaign on the danger of a PP-Vox government.

“There are many more who want Spain to keep advancing than those who want to go backwards,” he said.

With their 153 lawmakers, the Socialists and Sumar will need the support of several regional formations such as the left-wing Catalan separatist ERC party or the pro-independence Basque party EH Bildu, seen as the heir of the now-defunct armed separatist group ETA.

But they will also have to negotiate the abstention of the hardline Catalan separatist party JxCat which has vowed not to help Sanchez remain in power without something in return.

If everything came together, Sanchez could assemble 172 lawmakers behind him, which is more than Feijoo, that would be enough to secure a second parliamentary investiture vote which only requires a simple majority.

Otherwise, Spain - which held four general elections between 2015 and 2019 - could find itself once again in deadlock and forced to call a new vote.

Feijoo, who narrowly won the election on paper, has insisted he has the right to form a government.

“As the candidate of the most-voted party, I believe it’s my duty... to try and govern our country,” he told supporters after results came in.

“Our duty now is to ensure that Spain does not enter a period of uncertainty.”

‘Don’t block me’

“It is with great determination that I will take on the task of take on the task of opening dialogue to form a government,” he said, urging the Socialists not “block” his efforts.

Without an absolute majority, Feijoo would seek to form a minority government but for that he would need the Socialists to abstain during any investiture vote in parliament - which they have no intention of doing.

Jose Pablo Ferrandiz, a director at polling company Ipsos, said the PP had run a bad campaign, adding Feijoo’s boycott of the final TV debate between candidates was a bad decision.

“That is probably what caused the desmobilisation” of PP voters, he told Spanish public radio.

Sanchez, 51, called the snap polls in late May after his Socialist party and its far-left junior coalition partners suffered a drubbing in local and regional elections in which the right surged.

He focused his campaign on warning about the danger of a PP-Vox government in order to mobilise the electorate in a strategy that appears to have paid off, with turnout reaching almost 70 percent, some 3.5 percentage points higher than in 2019.

The vote has been closely watched from abroad over the possibility, which now seems unlikely, of a government in which the far right held its first share of power since the Franco dictatorship ended in 1975.

Vox, which jointly rules three of Spain’s 17 regions with the PP, pledged to roll back laws on gender violence, LGBTQ rights, abortion and euthanasia, as well as a democratic memory law honouring the victims of the dictatorship.