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Spain Election: Divided Nation Holds 3rd National Vote Since 2015

MADRID — As voters in Spain go to the polls on Sunday for the country’s third national election since 2015, the results are expected to confirm the country’s growing political polarization and party fragmentation.

The elections come after an abrupt change of government in June, when Pedro Sánchez and his Socialist Party used a corruption scandal to oust Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party in a parliamentary vote.

Mr. Rajoy became the first Spanish leader in modern history to be unseated by a parliamentary revolt. Mr. Sánchez was sworn in as the prime minister, and the Popular Party elected Pablo Casado to replace Mr. Rajoy as its leader.

In February, Mr. Sánchez suffered a major defeat in Parliament, when opposition lawmakers banded together with Mr. Sánchez’s erstwhile Catalan allies to vote down his national budget.

The Socialist Party controls only 84 of the 350 seats in Parliament. Without the backing of the Catalans — who withdrew their support for the budget plan in an attempt to force the issue of independence for the prosperous northeastern region back to the forefront of Spanish politics — Mr. Sánchez’s fragile minority government collapsed.

In response, Mr. Sánchez called for an election on April 28.

• The long-running territorial conflict over Catalonia continues to be a major point of contention in Spanish politics.

After taking office in June, Mr. Sánchez sought to renew the political dialogue with the governing pro-independence politicians in Catalonia, after their botched attempt to secede in 2017, a move that was unconstitutional.

But Mr. Sánchez got nowhere and has instead been accused of treason by opposition politicians for attempting to negotiate with Quim Torra, the separatist leader of Catalonia, as well as for allying himself with some Basque nationalist lawmakers.

“The question is whether we want a government in the hands of those who want to destroy Spain,” Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, a center-right party that began as a movement against Catalan independence, said last week. “I want a government without separatists.”

Mr. Sánchez recently said that he would not allow an independence referendum in Catalonia, but he has avoided the issue of whether he might eventually use his executive powers to pardon former separatist leaders who are on trial in the Supreme Court, should they be convicted of rebellion and other crimes over the 2017 secession attempt.

• In addition, one of Mr. Sánchez’s first pledges upon taking office was to exhume the remains of the dictator Franco, who died in 1975 and was buried in an underground basilica. That exhumation project has run into problems, delaying Franco’s reburial at least until June. Mr. Sánchez has instead focused on the emergence of a new far-right party, Vox, to warn voters that a right-wing coalition could risk returning Spain to the ultranationalism of the Franco era.

The prime minister recently accused the Popular Party and Ciudadanos of “embracing without a blush the arguments of this extreme right that has always existed in our country.”

• Spain has been on a slow but steady recovery from its 2012 banking crisis and record levels of unemployment, but the parties have been fighting over tax and labor policies.

They disagree over who should get the credit for the economic rebound, with the Popular Party claiming that it put Spain back on track long before Mr. Sánchez took office. But the Popular Party’s new leader, Mr. Casado, has struggled to shed the weight of the corruption cases that precipitated his party’s ouster in June.

During a televised debate, Mr. Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, showed Mr. Casado a photo of Rodrigo Rato, the former conservative finance minister, who was jailed for fraud. “You know where to find the biggest example of the economic miracle of the Popular Party?” Mr. Rivera said. “In prison.”

The latest polls suggest that each of the five main parties in Spain is likely to win at least 10 percent of the votes on Sunday. The Socialists are expected to take home the biggest share, but not to win the 176 seats required to form a majority government.

Pollsters have noted, however, that at least a quarter of the voters remained undecided.

Forecasting elections results has also been complicated by the emergence of the far-right Vox, which is hoping not only to win its first seats in Parliament, but also to repeat the role of kingmaker it played in the region of Andalusia, where it won 11 percent of the vote in regional elections and helped oust the Socialists from office.

Among its proposals, Vox wants to remove the powers of Spain’s regional governments, and is calling for a clampdown on illegal migration, including building walls around Spain’s two enclaves in North Africa.

Spain’s two-party system was broken up in 2015, when Ciudadanos and the far-left Podemos entered Parliament. No single party has won a parliamentary majority since 2011, when the Popular Party, then led by Mr. Rajoy, swept into power.

In 2016, Spain suffered nearly a year of political limbo after two inconclusive elections, which left four parties haggling over who should govern. Sunday’s vote may produce a similar outcome, opening up a new chapter of political uncertainty and fragility. There might even need to be a repeat election to break the deadlock.

But the main parties have broadly split into two blocs during the election campaign, providing some guidance to what kind of governing coalition could emerge.

Mr. Casado, the leader of the Popular Party, has portrayed Ciudadanos as his ideal junior coalition partner, and possibly hopes to gain the support of Vox. On the other hand, Unidas Podemos, the far-left party, has pledged to support Mr. Sánchez and his Socialist Party.

The front-running Catalan separatist party, Esquerra Republicana, has also committed to Mr. Sánchez, although the Socialists may hope to keep clear of another uncomfortable Catalan alliance.

Depending on the vote split, the biggest unknown is the postelection stance of Ciudadanos, which won its first seats in 2015 as a centrist party and came close to forming a coalition government with Mr. Sánchez and his Socialists. Since June, the leader of Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera, has been among the most outspoken critics of Mr. Sánchez and has tilted his party further toward the right, notably after the regional election in Andalusia.

Mr. Sanchez could still try to revive negotiations with Mr. Rivera, however, if Sunday leaves the Socialist Party as a clear winner but short of a majority.

In all likelihood, negotiations to form a national coalition government will overshadow campaigning for Spain’s next set of elections, on May 26, when voters will choose municipal and regional governments and members of the European Parliament.

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