MADRID — As Spaniards voted Sunday in the country’s fourth election in as many years, a leading leftist party pledged to help the incumbent Socialists in hopes of staving off a possible right-wing coalition government that could include a far-right party.
Spain's United We Can party leader Pablo Iglesias said he will offer assistance to the Socialists to form a stable leftist government. Sunday's repeated election was called after the Socialists and United We Can —currently Spain's fourth-largest party in parliament— failed to reach an agreement following the last election in April.
"We think that combining the courage of United We Can and the experience of the Socialist party we can convert our country into a reference point for social policies," Iglesias said Sunday.
Spain's four main parties have focused their campaigns on how to deal with the independence push in the northeastern region of Catalonia and the feared surge of the far-right Vox party.
Pedro Sánchez, the Socialist leader and interim prime minister, is tipped to win again, but expected to fall short of capturing a majority. That means Spain may run into another political stalemate, facing weeks or even months more without a stable government.
"I think it's very important that we strengthen the democracy with our vote, encourage all citizens to vote and as of tomorrow we may have the stability to form a government and get Spain moving," Sánchez said after voting.
His party won 123 seats in the 350-seat lower house last time. All seats were up for grabs Sunday, chosen by Spain's 37 million eligible voters.
Vox has already joined forces with Spain’s two right-of-center parties to take over many city and regional governments. Those three groups would readily band together to oust Sánchez, who is seen by the right-wing opposition as too soft on the Catalan secessionist movement.
Polls suggest that turnout could be a factor, with voter fatigue looming. As of 6 p.m., 56.8% of eligible voters had cast ballots, down from 60.7% in the April 28 election.
Julia Giobelina, a 34-year-old web designer from Madrid, was angry at having to vote for the second time in less than seven months but said she cast her ballot in hopes of stopping the rise of Vox.
"They are the new fascism," Giobelina said. "We citizens need to stand against privatization of health care and other public services. Also, because I don't know if my daughter will be transsexual or lesbian and because of our friends the immigrants, we need to vote against the far-right for them."
Spain returned to democracy in the late 1970s after a near four-decade right-wing dictatorship under the late Gen. Francisco Franco. The country used to take pride in claiming no far-right group had seats in the national parliament, unlike the rest of Europe.
But that changed in the last election, when Vox erupted onto the political scene by winning 24 seats on promises of taking a hard line on Catalonia and immigration.
The Socialists' April victory was still seen by many as a respite for Europe, where right-wing parties had gained much ground in countries such as France, Hungary, Italy and Poland.
But many polls predict Vox, headed by Santiago Abascal, may do even better this time, capitalizing on Spanish nationalist sentiment stirred up by the Catalan conflict. Many right-wingers were also not pleased by the Socialist government's exhumation of Franco's remains last month from his gargantuan mausoleum so he could no longer be exalted in a public place.
Dozens of people on Sunday cheered and shouted "President! President!" as Abascal voted in Madrid.
Alfonso Pedro Monestilla, a 59-year-old civil servant, said Vox had many good proposals and some unfortunate ones, but he hoped his vote Sunday could help it become Spain's third-largest political party.
"Only by getting rid of Sánchez we can preserve Spain as it is, not by reaching agreements with the (Catalan) separatists," said Monestilla.
The debate over Catalonia, however, is not going away anytime soon.
Last month, Spain's Supreme Court sentenced to prison nine Catalan politicians and activists who led a 2017 drive for the region's independence. The ruling triggered massive daily protests in Catalonia that left more than 500 people injured, roughly half of them police officers, and dozens arrested.
More protests are expected beginning Monday.
Some of Catalonia's 5.5 million voters said they wanted Sunday's vote to deliver a message for politicians to resolve the situation.
"We are a bit tired, but I hope that the Spanish government understands that there is no other remedy than taking us into account," said Cari Bailador, a retired teacher in Barcelona.
AP journalists Renata Brito and Joseph Wilson in Barcelona contributed to this report.