EXIT polls suggesting Podemos would surge into second place in an historic breakthrough were dashed when the final count saw the Socialists hang on and the PP win a strong plurality.
The country now faces renewed deadlock after the second election in just six months failed to significantly shift the composition of an irredeemably fractured parliament.
Although there were celebrations outside the conservative PP’s headquarters in Madrid and acting Prime Minister Rajoy was vaulting delightedly around the podium when addressing the party faithful, they were still far off the numbers needed for the majority enjoyed from 2011-2015.
With 33 per cent of the vote, the PP won 137 seats from 350, and will now initiate coalition talks on two fronts. A pact with Ciudadanos, who disappointingly lost eight seats to take 32, would fall seven seats short of the 176 needed for a majority, but support from regional parties could make up the difference.
Alternatively there is the controversial possibility of a grand coalition between the PP and Socialist PSOE who won 85 seats with 22 per cent of the vote. Pedro Sanchez, the party’s youthful leader, has ruled out the notion of a deal with the PP that would see Rajoy remain as prime minister.
Sanchez was also quick to rub salt in Podemos’ wounds, having blamed his leftist rivals for their failed compromise talks following December’s deadlock, making it highly unlikely that a broad left-leaning coalition will emerge from Sunday’s rubble.
“They had the chance to vote for a progressive government led by the socialist party,” he said of Podemos. “It was within their power to put an end to the government of Mariano Rajoy that has done so much damage to the middle and working classes with its cuts and its policies.”
Instead, “intransigence and personal interest” won the day, to the detriment of the leftist movement he argued.
“Despite the extraordinary difficulties that we’ve had to overcome in the socialist party, despite the predictions that persistently declared a strong decline for the party and the loss of our relevance to the collective life of our country, the socialist party has once again reaffirmed its position as the hegemonic party of the left.”
Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, who had hoped a deal with the hard left would shore up support among the broad section of the electorate disgusted with the major parties, was downbeat and conceded that his party had failed to live up to expectations.
With 21 per cent of the vote the Unidos Podemos coalition secured 71 seats, just two more than December’s success and far off the 90 or so that polls and enthusiastic activists had predicted.
It should be noted that it is only through a quirk of the Spanish electoral system that Podemos won 14 less seats than the PSOE despite almost matching their rivals in terms of voting percentage.
Pablo Iglesias has improved on what was seen as an historic moment in Spanish politics when his party stormed into parliament in December, but expressed heavy disappointment that they could not capitalise on a level of voter anguish and apathy, unrivalled in recent years.
“There’s no doubt that what we have done over the past two years has been historic and unprecedented in the history of our country,” he said.
“But it’s also true that we were expecting different results tonight. We’re worried to see that the Partido Popular and its conservative allies have increased their support.”
Turnout was expected to at its lowest level since the return of democracy, and an unrelenting series of corruption allegations makes the PP’s claims of victory hollow in the eyes of many.
What happens next will surely determine whether Spain’s political system is completely broken or stands some chance of recovery. A third election is surely an absurdity and yet the party leaders have already shown their incapability of reaching a mature compromise.