A Spanish right-wing party doubled its status in a national election Sunday, making it clear how polarized Spanish politics has become and did little to help end the government's long stalemate.
The results were a setback Pedro Sánchez, the acting socialist prime minister, who had hoped the election could strengthen his hand when trying to form a new government.
The election – the fourth in four years – came after months of fruitless coalition talks between Mr. Sánchez & # 39; s party and a smaller leftist party, Unidas Podemos.
Although Mr. Sánchez & # 39; s Socialists came out on top again, winning only 120 of the 350 seats in the House – three fewer seats than in April when the last election was held.
The biggest gains Sunday were made by ultranationalist and anti-migration Vox party. It is now Spain's third-largest party after doubling its seats to 52 from 24, according to preliminary results, with more than 99 percent of the vote counted.
With the emergence of a powerful right-wing party, Spain is now mirroring other countries in Europe.
"We used to talk about Spain being the European exception, but it's clearly gone now," he said Astrid Barrio. professor of politics at the University of Valencia.
Spanish politics, she said, long defined by a left-right and two-party divide, were now "very clearly shaped by the ideology of nationalism, with Vox as the clearest answer to Catalans."
Sunday's election reaffirmed the impact of the Catalan secessionist conflict on national politics, especially after tensions recently spread to violence in the streets of Barcelona and other Catalan cities.
Speaking in Madrid after the polls closed, a triumphant one Santiago Abascal. the head of Vox, thanked more than three million voters for choosing the "patriotic alternative" offered by his party.
And he told supporters that Vox "would not take a step back" in pushing for a program that includes removing the Spanish regions for their administrative autonomy.
"We have managed to open all the banned debates," he said.
Earlier this month, Mr. used Abascal's first televised debate of choice to ban separatist parties as "criminal organizations." He called for a second term of direct rule over Catalonia by Madrid, tougher than that imposed in late 2017 after separatist leaders made an unsuccessful attempt to declare independence.
Mr. Abascal also peppered his remarks with xenophobic comments about migrants and Islam. His party has called for building walls around two Spanish enclaves in Africa to prevent migrants from entering illegally.
Mr. Sánchez could still form a new government if he manages to get support from not only Unidas Podemos but other smaller parties, including Basque and Catalan.
Help may come from the anti-secessionist ciudadanos party. It has long been an opponent of Mr. Sánchez, but its disastrous showing on Sunday, as its representation dropped to 10 seats from 57, could possibly lead to a change in party leadership.
Sánchez, referring to his supporters from the balcony of his party block just before midnight, celebrated the victory of his party, whether it was smaller, and promised to form a new government. He called on his rivals to show "generosity and responsibility" to help end the stalemate, but offered nothing on how he could win them in a new round of negotiations.
Other parties did not seem well disposed to the prime minister.
Pablo Iglesias, head of Unidas Podemos, accused him of "leaving us with one of the strongest right-wing parties in Europe." And Íñigo Errejón, leader of another small leftist party, said the emergence of Vox was "the symptom of a democratic meltdown and the result of a historic responsibility" – Mr. Sánchez & # 39; s decision to risk another election rather than forming a leftist coalition.
In April, when Mr. Sánchez mobilized leftist voters to stop Vox & # 39; s rise, he was met with a near-record 76 percent turnout. On Sunday, turnout declined to 70 percent, reflecting frustration among voters over their party leader's inability to form a government, so much less resolving the long-running conflict in Catalonia.
The main opposition, the conservative Popular party, won 87 seats, up from 66 in April, which was its worst result ever. Its leader, Pablo Casado poured cold water on Mr. Sánchez & # 39; s chances of forming a new government.
"Why did he want to call for another election if it was meant to create more stability when he now has a much harder time forming a government?" Casado. "Spain can't stay in a blockade for much longer."
Last month Prison sentencing by former separatist leaders sparked an outbreak of street violence in Catalonia, raising concerns over whether the protracted conflict was turning out of control. That led to right-wing parties pushing Mr. Sánchez to use the executive's emergency powers to restore law and order in Catalonia.
Catalan society remains divided amid secessionism, with three separatist parties on Sunday winning 23 of the 48 Catalan seats in the Spanish parliament.
Four years ago, Spain's bipartisan system was transformed a much more fragmented landscape, and since then no party has come close to winning a parliamentary majority. Spain spent most of 2016 in political limbo after two elections failed to break the stalemate, and has found itself a similar scenario this year.
The repeated election on Sunday and the result confirmed "the irresponsibility and short-term strategies of party leaders," said Ms. Barrio, a policy professor.