MADRID (AP) — Spain's prime minister on Friday called an early general election for April 28 that is expected to highlight the deep political divisions coursing through the European Union nation.
Spaniards will be going to the polls for the third time in less than four years after the minority Socialist government led by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez lost a budget vote in Parliament.
Sanchez, who was already under pressure from within his own party to cut his term short, saw Catalan separatists join opposition lawmakers to vote down his 2019 spending plans.
"Between doing nothing and continuing without a budget, or giving the chance for Spaniards to speak, Spain should continue looking ahead," Sanchez said in a televised appearance from the Moncloa Palace, the government's seat, after an urgent meeting of his Cabinet.
"I have proposed dissolving parliament and calling elections for April 28th," he added at the end of a speech in which he highlighted the achievements of his eight months in power, the shortest term for any prime minister since Spain transitioned to democracy four decades ago.
The 46-year-old prime minister ousted his conservative predecessor Mariano Rajoy last June, when he won a no-confidence vote triggered by a damaging corruption conviction affecting Rajoy's Popular Party.
But the simple majority of Socialists, anti-austerity and regional nationalist parties that united against Rajoy has crumbled in the past week after Sanchez cut off talks with Catalan separatists over self-determination in their prosperous northeastern region.
Without mentioning Catalonia directly, Sanchez said he remained committed to dialogue with the country's regions as long as their demands fell "within the constitution and the law." He blamed the conservatives for not supporting his Catalan negotiations.
Popular Party leader Pablo Casado celebrated what he called the "defeat" of the Socialists, attacking Sanchez for yielding to some of the Catalan separatists' demands.
"We will be deciding (in this vote) if Spain wants to remain as a hostage of the parties that want to destroy it," or welcome the leadership of the conservatives, Casado said.
Catalonia's regional government spokeswoman, Elsa Artadi, retorted that "Spain will be ungovernable as long as it doesn't confront the Catalan problem."
Opinion polls indicate the April vote is not likely to produce a clear winner, a shift from the traditional bipartisan results that dominated Spanish politics for decades.
Although Sanchez's Socialists appear to be ahead, their two main opponents — the Popular Party and the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) — could repeat their recent coalition in the southern Andalusia region, where they unseated the Socialists with the help of the far-right Vox party.
Vox last year scored the far-right's first significant gain in post-dictatorship Spain, and surveys predict it could grab seats in the national parliament for the first time.
Vox's leader, Santiago Abascal, vowed to use the election to "reconquer" the future, a term that refers back to how Spanish Catholic kings defeated Muslim rulers in 15th-century Spain.
Meanwhile, the Socialists are unlikely to be able to form a new government even if they come to a coalition deal with the anti-establishment Podemos (We Can) party, so a third partner will likely be needed.
Sanchez's options are limited. On the right, a deal with the Citizens party seemed off the table, as its leader Albert Rivera has vetoed any possible agreement with a Socialist party led by Sanchez himself.
And the prospect of Catalan nationalists joining any ensuing coalition is remote, both in the light of the recent failed talks and the ongoing trial of a dozen Catalan politicians and activists for their roles in an independence bid two years ago.
"The Socialists don't want an election marked by Catalonia because the issue creates internal division but right-wing parties will use it as a weapon," said Antonio Barroso of the Teneo consulting firm.
He said polls have erred in recent elections and that clever campaigning could swing the vote significantly.
"The only certainty ... is that fragmentation is Spain's new political reality," he said.
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Aritz Parra can be found on Twitter: @aritzparra