SPAIN    -   Spain heads to the polls for the third time in four years, with the ruling socialist party expected to win the most votes but fall short of a majority and the far-right Vox party poised to achieve a national breakthrough. The general election was called by the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, in February after Catalan separatists joined rightwing parties in rejecting his 2019 budget.

Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) has governed Spain since last June, when it used a no-confidence vote to oust the corruption-ridden conservative People’s party (PP) from office.

But his minority government has struggled to advance its legislative agenda as it holds only 84 of the 350 seats in the congress of deputies.

Spain’s general election 2019:

all you need to know Sánchez’s opponents accuse him of being weak and too beholden to the Catalan independence parties that supported his successful no-confidence motion.

They argue that he should take a far tougher line on the independence issue, which has dominated Spanish politics since the regional government’s secession attempt in autumn 2017. The territorial crisis has also fuelled the emergence of Vox, which, until last year, was a fringe party without the support to win seats in congress. That changed last December when the far-right party, led by Santiago Abascal, exceeded expectations, picking up 12 seats in the Andalucían regional election.

Vox then demonstrated its abilities as kingmaker by agreeing to support an Andalucían regional government between the PP and the centre-right Citizens party, which ended decades of PSOE control in the southern Spanish region. Speaking Sunday shortly after casting his ballot, Sánchez said he wanted the ballot to yield a parliamentary majority that can undertake social and political reforms in the country. The prime minister said he wanted the lower house to support “a stable government that with calmness, serenity and resolution looks to the future and achieves the progress that our country needs in social justice, national harmony and political cleansing.”

Citizens’ Albert Rivera said that a high turnout was needed Sunday to “usher in a new era.” Pablo Casado, who recently took over leadership of the conservative PP and has steered it to the right in an effort to stop the draining of votes to Vox, called the ballot the country’s “most decisive” in recent years. Vox’s uncompromising stance on Catalonia, which includes proposals to ban pro-independence parties, has helped it build momentum, as have its attacks on feminism and what it describes as political correctness.