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Spain’s PP wins election, Podemos coalition second: exit polls

Spain’s repeat polls ended Sunday with the incumbent conservatives appearing to have won the most seats tailed closely by a far-left coalition led by Podemos, exit polls said.

The election came just three days after Britain’s shock vote to leave the European Union, pitting those hungry for change in a country with high unemployment against those who fear it would torpedo Spain’s slow economic recovery.

If the results are confirmed, this would be a historic shift in Spain with the Unidos Podemos coalition replacing the 137-year-old, crisis-hit Socialists as the country’s main left-wing force.

Podemos was only created just over two years ago on the back of the Indignants anti-austerity protest movement, and has experienced a meteoric rise with charismatic, pony-tailed Pablo Iglesias at the helm.

“If this is confirmed, we would be faced with a historic opportunity for our country,” said Alberto Garzon, one of the leaders of Unidos Podemos, although he urged caution on the results.

The outgoing conservative Popular Party (PP) had based much of its campaign on trying to counter the rise of the upstart, emphasising the need for “stability” in the face of “populism” — and it reinforced this message Friday after Brexit.

But according to a wide-ranging exit poll for public television TVE, it may only have won up to 121 parliamentary seats, far below the 176 needed for an absolute majority and even lower than the 123 it won in December.

Unidos Podemos, meanwhile, looked poised to secure 91 to 95 seats, and the Socialists 81 to 85, according to the poll.

The general election in December had seen Podemos and centre-right upstart Ciudadanos uproot the country’s two-party dominance in an unprecedented result.

But this also resulted in a 350-seat parliament so splintered that parties failed to agree on a coalition, prompting Sunday’s repeat vote.

This time round, exit polls suggest the result is equally fractured.

All eyes will now be on subsequent coalition negotiations, with political leaders under more pressure this time to form some sort of government and avoid a third round of elections.

– Record abstention –

Throughout the campaign — and again on Friday after the Brexit vote — the PP had hammered away at the need for stability in reference to the rise of Unidos Podemos, which like Greece’s ruling Syriza party rejects EU-backed austerity and pledges to fight for the least well-off.

The coalition had responded with a message of calm aimed at defusing this criticism — the “o” of Unidos shaped as a heart in its slogan.

Rajoy has argued that since the PP came to power in 2011, it has brought Spain back to growth and overseen a drop in unemployment — though at 21 percent it is still the second highest rate in the European Union after Greece.

But his rivals retort that inequalities have risen, the jobs created are mainly unstable, and they point to the repeated corruption scandals to have hit the PP.

In the latest case, Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz was caught on tape talking to an anti-fraud official, apparently discussing how to incriminate his political rivals — an incident Rajoy shrugged off as a “farce”.

– Socialists in crisis –

The Socialist party (PSOE) is going through what analysts call its worst crisis in decades as Podemos gnaws away at its support base, with some voters disillusioned with what they see as a staid party that has strayed from its working-class roots.

“The PSOE isn’t left-wing anymore, I want deep, general change, and Unidos Podemos is the only one that can do this,” said one such disappointed voter, Jonatan Mora, a 31-year-old physiotherapist.

“We’ve been through some horrible years. I want all the corrupt to be chased out, social issues to be taken into account and citizens listened to.”

Meanwhile Luis Fernandez, a 37-year-old community organiser, said he had voted for the Socialists in the past but would vote for Rajoy this time around.

“I prefer the devil I know rather than the devil I don’t know,” he said at Madrid’s El Rastro flea market.

Polls closed at 1800 GMT and the first official results will be known around 2030 GMT.