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Far-right expected to gain support as divided Spaniards vote

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Via AP Business

MADRID (AP) — A divided Spain voted Sunday in its third general election in four years, with all eyes on whether a far-right party will enter Parliament for the first time in decades and potentially help unseat the Socialist government.

The incumbent prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, looks poised to win the most votes, but his Socialists seem far from scoring a majority in parliament that would allow the party to form a government on its own. He called the vote after his national budget was defeated by the right-wing opposition and Catalan separatists.

Spain’s political landscape has fragmented from having two main parties to having five, a result of austerity programs that followed a recession, disenchantment with bipartisan politics and the rise of far-right populism.

Polls a week ago found that about one-third of Spain’s nearly 37 million eligible voters hadn’t decided yet how they will vote to fill 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies, who then choose a government, and for 208 senators in the Upper House.

The anti-austerity United We Can party has offered to enter into a coalition with the Socialists, but the Socialists might need to rely on other smaller parties as well, including the Catalan separatists.

On the splintered right, three parties are competing for leadership: the once-dominant conservative Popular Party, the center-right Citizens, and the nationalist, anti-migrant Vox party, which looks set to enter the lower house of the Parliament for the first time. Its arrival would mark a big shift in Spain, where the far right has not played a significant role since the country’s transition to democracy following the death of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975.

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Pablo Casado, who recently took over leadership of the Popular Party and has steered it further to the right to stop losing votes to the far-right Vox, called Sunday’s ballot the country’s “most decisive” in years.

Turnout by 2 p.m. was more than 4% percent higher than the previous election in 2016, including a huge boost of more than 11% in Catalonia, Spain’s Interior Ministry said. Voting stations close at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT, 2 p.m. EDT), with results expected a few hours later.

Speaking Sunday after voting, Sánchez said he wanted the ballot to yield a parliamentary majority that can undertake the key social and political reforms that Spain needs.

The prime minister said he wanted “a stable government that with calmness, serenity and resolution looks to the future and achieves the progress that our country needs in social justice, national harmony” and in fighting corruption.

The Popular Party and the Citizens party focused their campaigns on unseating Sánchez, hinting they will create a conservative coalition government that — with the help of Vox’s backing — could be similar to the one that ousted the Socialists from more than three decades in power in Spain’s southern Andalusia region earlier this year.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal, who had drawn the largest crowds during campaigning, told reporters in Madrid that “millions of Spaniards are going to vote with hope, they are going to do it without fear for anything or anybody.”

Citizens leader Albert Rivera said a high turnout was needed Sunday to “usher in a new era” while United We Can party leader Pablo Iglesias also stressed the importance of voting.

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“My feeling is that in Spain there is an ample progressive majority, and when there is high participation that becomes very clear,” Iglesias said.

At the Palacio Valdes school in Madrid, voter Alicia Sánchez, a 38-year-old administrator, worried that the nationalist Vox could influence policy-making if they score a significant power grab on Sunday.

“I’ve always come to vote, but this time it feels special. I’m worried about how Vox can influence policies on women and other issues. They are clearly homophobic. Reading their program is like something from 50 years ago,” she said.

Having voted in all elections since Spain returned to democratic rule four decades ago, Amelia Gómez, 86, and Antonio Román, 90, said they had little faith in any candidate.

“All I want is for whoever wins to take care of the old people,” Gómez said, complaining that the two of them together receive less than 1,000 euros ($1,100) a month in state pensions.

And for the first time since Spain transitioned to democracy, more than 100,000 people with mental disabilities are being allowed to vote in the general election.

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