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Hot, close and unpredictable: Spain braces for chaotic election

Hot, close and unpredictable: Spain braces for chaotic election

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MADRID — When Maripaz Pérez thinks about Spain’s upcoming national election she gets nervous.

Pérez, a resident of the city of Seville, isn’t worried about the tightness of the race or the policies the country’s next government may put in place: The source of her anxiety is the actual date of the vote.

“Who on Earth thinks of holding a national election on July 23, a Sunday in the middle of summer, when nearly everyone is out of town?” she complained. “How can they ask people to interrupt their holidays and stand in line in blistering heat just to do their duty as a citizen?”

From the moment Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez dissolved parliament in May, there’s been all sorts of speculation over how Spain’s summer election might play out.

“We’ve never voted so late in the summer, when at least 10 million of Spain’s 37 million electors are on vacation,” said Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University. “It’s unclear how many voters will be away from their home cities, how many of them will be willing to go back to cast their ballot, how many will vote by mail … It’s all a bit of a mystery.”

With Spaniards forced to break off their holidays to cast their ballots, Simón said it was possible that traffic jams would develop. Similar surges could take place at post offices, where a record 3 million electors are expected to vote by mail. Although the postal service has hired 5,500 extra workers to staff their offices this month, some locations are still expected to be overwhelmed.

The center-right Popular Party, which is ahead in the polls as the official campaign season kicks off Thursday at midnight, has sought to cast the timing of the election as an unfair maneuver by Sánchez. The party’s leader Alberto Núñez-Feijóo has accused the prime minister of forcing more prosperous, traditionally right-wing voters to “choose between the ballot box or their vacations.”

“Is the goal to depress participation and make it difficult for citizens to vote?” he said.

Though May’s municipal elections were marked by scandals involving the purchase of mail-in ballots, overall trust in the electoral system remains strong. Even the far-right Vox party, which has attempted to cast doubt on the mail-in system, is now encouraging voters to make the most of the option.

The midsummer vote may also cause problems at polling stations, which in Spain are run by electors selected through a lottery system. Those selected in the draw face up to one year of jail time if they refuse to remain at their post for the 12 hours that polls are open.

But even with that threat looming over them, in nearly every Spanish election, a few stations have opened late because the citizens assigned to oversee them didn’t turn up. With so many electors on holiday, that scenario is likely to become more common across the country.

While all polling stations will eventually open — authorities can recruit unsuspecting voters to man them on the spot — a late start could delay the announcement of the official results, which can’t be relayed until all polls have closed.


For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Another factor that could complicate the voting process is the scorching weather.

Last summer was the hottest ever recorded in Spain, with July temperatures soaring to levels unseen since 1961. The country is experiencing “abnormally high temperatures” and Spain’s meteorological service predicts this month’s election will coincide with an extreme heat wave that will result in average temperatures of 33 degrees Celsius in Madrid and even more intense conditions in cities like Córdoba, where temperatures reached 44C last July.

Pollsters predict large numbers of voters will head to the polls early in the morning, before temperatures peak, and then again at the end of the day when things begin to cool down. Those voting patterns could lead to early reports of high turnouts that could potentially dissuade less motivated electors from participating.

Given the unusual timing, just who shows up to vote could play a large role in determining the outcome. “The problem with this election is that there are so many variables in play that the results are totally unpredictable,” said political scientist Simón.

Though early polls found right-wing voters to be the most motivated, the balance has shifted in recent weeks, as left-wing voters became alarmed by the prospect of the Popular Party governing with the support of Vox — a scenario Núñez Feijóo has openly contemplated — and which is already happening in local and regional governments across Spain.

Schoolteacher Alicia Arroyo said that possibility was a key motivating factor for her. “I’m really worried about a right-wing coalition,” she said. “Wherever they are, all Spaniards need to participate … Especially all the left-wing voters who usually stay home.”

The center-right Popular Party, which is ahead in the polls as the official campaign season kicks off Thursday at midnight, has sought to cast the timing of the election as an unfair maneuver by PM Pedro Sánchez | Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images

The uncertainty is unlikely to end on election day. If the Popular Party performs as expected, it will still need to hammer out a governing agreement with Vox and decide if it accepts members of the far-right party within the executive.

Should Sánchez and the rest of the left exceed expectations, the negotiations will be even more complex, as they would almost certainly need to secure support from regional and nationalist forces.

In the best-case scenario, Spain won’t have a new government until mid-September: The country’s parliament isn’t due to be called back into session until August 17, and even if one bloc scores a clear win over the other, it will still have to go through an investiture procedure that involves visits to the king, meetings with partners, a debate and several assembly votes — a complex process that takes several weeks.

If neither the left nor the right succeeds in garnering sufficient support to take power, Spain could even face a longer period of uncertainty, with the country in the hands of a caretaker Sánchez government through the fall and electors called back to the polls early next year.

“This election is taking place at a moment of extreme polarization in Spain and that isn’t going away after it’s done,” said Simón. “Anything could happen.

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