Spain appears headed for political gridlock after a snap general election left parties on the right and left without a clear path towards forming a new government.
The conservative Popular Party (PP) won the election but fell short of its hopes of scoring a much bigger victory and toppling Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.
With 100% of votes counted by the early hours of Monday, the PP had 136 seats in parliament while Mr Sanchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) had 122 seats.
Both were short of the 176 seats needed to govern.
Turnout was up at 70.40% compared to 66.23% in the last general election in 2019.
The two leading parties will now seek to negotiate coalition deals in pursuit of a governing majority, but analysts warned the process could end in a hung parliament and another election.
Pre-election polls had predicted a bigger victory for the PP, led by Alberto Nunez Feijoo, and the possibility for it to form a coalition with the far-right Vox party.
The parties with the greatest potential to be kingmakers were nearly even with Vox on 33 and far-left Sumar on
As the results rolled in, a mood of jubilation outside the PP headquarters turned anxious as the gap between the PP and PSOE remained slim.
Each seat gained for the PP was loudly celebrated by the crowd of supporters, but one admitted as the night went on: “This isn’t looking good.”
Meanwhile, at the Socialists’ headquarters, some senior officials were smiling and a supporter in the corridor said gleefully: “We were dead, but we’re now alive.”
Mr Sanchez had called the early election after his ruling party and its far-left partner, Unidas Podemos, took a hammering in local and regional elections in May.
Since being in office from 2018, Mr Sanchez has seen his term marked by crisis management from wrestling with the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout to the political turmoil following the failed 2017 independence bid in Catalonia.
His dependency on fringe parties to keep his minority coalition afloat has led to the passing of a range of liberal laws on euthanasia, transgender rights, abortion and animal rights.
The right-wing parties, who accuse Mr Sanchez of having betrayed and ruined Spain, have vowed to roll back these changes.
Mr Feijoo, who has never lost an election in his native Galicia, has played on his reputation for dullness, selling himself as a stable and safe pair of hands.