Prime minister Pedro Sanchez (left) casts his ballot next to his wife at a polling station in Madrid. Javier Soriano/AFP
Spaniards began voting in an uncertain snap general election Sunday marked by a resurgence of the far-right after more than four decades on the outer margins of politics.
Opinion polls give outgoing socialist premier Pedro Sanchez a win but without the necessary majority to govern alone, meaning he will have to seek alliances in a political environment that has soured since Catalonia's failed secession bid.
By far the novelty of these elections is the emergence of far-right party Vox, which burst onto the scene in December regional polls in southern Andalusia and looks set to make its first-ever entrance into the national parliament.
Polls predict it could take more than 10 percent of the votes in a country that had no far-right party to speak of since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, in what is likely to cause further concern in Europe.
Polling stations opened at 9:00 am (0700 GMT) and will close at 8:00 pm local time (1800 GMT), with results announced later Sunday.
Sanchez, who took power in June after ousting conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy in a no-confidence vote, has warned against Spain replicating what happened in Finland's elections two weeks ago.
There, the far-right Finns Party came second, closely tailing the leftist Social Democrats, after polls initially predicted it would end up in fifth position.
"There is a real, true risk.
In Spain, polls also forecast that Vox, with its ultra-nationalist rhetoric that advocates the "defence of the Spanish nation to the end," will come in fifth place.
But analysts believe it could do better, saying there may be many "hidden" Vox supporters who lie when asked by pollsters who they will be voting for.
"There is a real, true risk," Sanchez said this week, warning that a right-wing government supported by Vox could emerge in Spain after the elections, even if opinion polls say this is unlikely.
Founded by a former member of the conservative Popular Party (PP), with a strong stance against feminism and illegal immigration, Vox has risen thanks to its hard line against separatists in Catalonia.
The region in northeastern Spain was the scene of a secession attempt in 2017 that sparked the country's biggest crisis in decades and caused major concern in Europe.
Since then, the crisis has continued to cast a pall over Spanish politics.
Sanchez was forced to call Sunday's early elections after Catalan pro-independence lawmakers in the national parliament, angered at the trial of their leaders in Madrid, refused to give him the support he needed for his 2019 budget.
Right-wing parties have for their part lambasted Sanchez, at the head of a minority government, for his attempts to negotiate with Catalan separatists who still govern the region, accusing him of being a traitor.
With no party expected to get anywhere near an absolute majority in what will be the third elections in three-and-a-half years, Spain's fragmented political landscape looks set to continue.
If, as opinion polls predict, Sanchez wins without a majority, he will have to forge alliances with far-left Podemos -- as he did over the past 10 months -- but also possibly smaller groupings like Catalan separatist parties.
People wait in queue to cast their votes at a polling station during Spain's general election in Madrid on Sunday. Jon Nazca/Reuters
He would rather not have to do that, given right-wing parties' accusations that he cosied up with the "enemies of Spain" during his time in government.
A possible alliance with Ciudadanos has not been ruled out, even if the centre-right party's leader Albert Rivera has made "chasing" the socialists from power a "national urgency."
"Fragmented Spain votes with great uncertainty," headlined top-selling daily El Pais on its front page on Sunday, while rival daily El Mundo headlined: "Spain votes today on tenterhooks due to the uncertainty".
The Spanish cast their votes on Sunday in an unusually open election likely to produce a fragmented parliament that has a sizeable far-right presence for the first time since Spain returned to democracy in the 1970s.
Spain is defying the grave-diggers of progressive liberal European politics. The election to the Cortes, far from seeing the right sweep into power with voters turning to the rightist VOX party produced the re-election of the young left socialist Pedro Sanchez who has brought back the Spanish socialist party, PSOE, from the wilderness.
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