Spain’s political deadlock looks likely to continue after the country’s second election in six months failed to yield an outright winner despite a spectacular breakthrough by the leftwing Unidos Podemos coalition, according to exit polls.
Early data suggested a re-run of last December’s election result, when the conservative People’s party (PP), led by Mariano Rajoy, took the largest share of the vote but fell well short of the 176 seats needed to win a majority in Spain’s 350-seat congress of deputies.
An exit poll for the public broadcaster RTVE on Sunday evening put the PP first with 117-121 seats and 28.5% of the vote, followed by Unidos Podemos with 91-95 seats and 25.6%. The socialist PSOE was third with 81-85 seats and 22%, and the centrist Ciudadanos party fourth with 26-30 seats and 11.8%.
According to the RTVE poll, Unidos Podemos and the PSOE could win 180 seats between them, enough to give them a majority if they agreed a coalition.
Another exit poll, for ABC/Cope, gave the PP 121-124 seats and 30.4% of the vote, Unidos Podemos 87-89 seats and 24.8%, the PSOE 84-86 seats and 21.8%, and Ciudadanos 29-32 seats and 13.2%. That poll suggests that a coalition of the two leftwing parties would bring it within one seat of a majority.
Six months ago the PP won 123 seats and 29% of the vote, the PSOE 90 seats and 22%, Podemos 69 and 21%, and Ciudadanos 40 seats with 14% of the vote.
Irritation with the impasse that has beset the country appears to have been reflected in the number of people who voted. Official data put the turnout rate at 51.2%, compared with 58.2% six months ago, making it the lowest election turnout since Spain returned to democracy following the death of Francisco Franco.
If the polls hold true, Unidos Podemos will have overturned four decades of Spanish political tradition by replacing the PSOE as the main rivals of the PP. They will also have vindicated the party’s recent decision to run on a joint ticket with United Left (IU), the leftwing coalition that includes the Communist party.
Podemos’s strong showing last December – finishing first in Catalonia, where it ran in a coalition with Barcelona en Comú, and the Basque country – led its leader, Pablo Iglesias, to declare at the time that the era of PP and PSOE domination was over “Spain is not going to be the same any more and we are very happy,” he said then.
The party has managed to capitalise on a growing disenchantment with the traditional political behemoths as Spain emerges slowly from its economic crisis but still struggles with an unemployment rate of 21% and a youth unemployment rate of 45%. Its hand has been strengthened by the proliferation of corruption scandals that have tarnished the PP in recent years.
Pre-election polls had predicted the sorpasso, or overtaking, of the socialists by the new anti-austerity party, but the PSOE’s leader, Pedro Sánchez, had played down the numbers, insisting that Iglesias would not be prime minister while also refusing to back a PP government with Rajoy at the helm.
The apparent breakthrough opens the prospect of a Unidos Podemos-PSOE coalition, although any negotiations are likely to be fraught given the bitter and unsuccessful attempts to forge coalitions over recent months.
Although a poll published late on Saturday night showed voters sticking to their pre-Brexit preferences, some – not least the leaders of the big four parties – had predicted that the UK referendum would have an inevitable impact.
Rajoy said events in the UK had underlined the need for “institutional and economic stability”, adding: “It is not the moment to fuel or increase uncertainty.”
Iglesias said that while Friday had been a “sad day for Europe”, Britain’s decision only served to highlight the need for major reform. “No one would want to leave a fair and supportive Europe,” he said. “We have to change Europe.”
Earlier on Sunday, Sánchez was blunter still as he urged people to get out and vote.
“If you stay ay home, things turn out like they have in the UK,” he said. “The extremes call the shots, fear votes, hope doesn’t – and then people regret staying at home. There’s so much at stake here: we’re choosing what kind of Spain and what kind of Europe we want in the future.”
Albert Rivera, the Ciudadanos leader, said the Brexit vote had fuelled by “fear and bitterness”, handing victory to conservatives and populists.
The vote has also been overshadowed by the latest PP scandal. The acting interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, has been facing calls to resign since Tuesday, when leaked recordings emerged in which he and the head of Catalonia’s anti-fraud office, Daniel de Alfonso, appear to discuss the possibility of using investigations to smear pro-independence rivals in the region.
The 36.5 million Spaniards eligible to vote returned to the polls after the 20 December election failed to yield a clear winner, tipping the country into six messy months of squabbling, sniping and horsetrading that have tested the patience of the Spanish public and exacerbated the personal and ideological differences between party leaders.
The failure of any party to win an outright majority left Rajoy’s party acting as a caretaker government during months of often bad-tempered negotiations. In January, Rajoy told King Felipe that the PP did not have sufficient support to offer a minority or coalition government.
Sánchez tried to pull together a government with Ciudadanos in March, and to assemble a leftist coalition the following month, but neither initiative secured the necessary support.
At the beginning of May, the king signed a decree dissolving parliament and fixing a date for new elections. The ensuing months of uncertainty and bickering have not gone down well with some voters.
“I’m disappointed,” Sonia Hontoria, a 35-year-old administrative clerk told Reuters, adding that she would leave her vote blank.
“The people voted in December for a greater range of parties and in the end all the politicians wanted was an absolute majority and they were unable to respond to what the people wanted.”
But Carlos Martínez, a retired administrative clerk who cast his ballot for Unidos Podemos in the Arganzuela neighbourhood in Madrid, said he believed the party offered the prospect of real change. “This is a crucial time for the left,” he told Reuters. “Our time has come.”
Pau Marí-Klose, a professor of sociology at the University of Zaragoza, said policy arguments appeared to have been displaced by point-scoring as the struggle for power stretched on.
He told the Guardian: “It’s almost as if the parties decided that all their policy proposals were so well known that they didn’t need to bang on about them any more and so they devoted themselves to politicking instead.”