MADRID (Reuters) -- Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez unexpectedly called a snap national election on Monday and his main rival spelled out the aim of becoming the country’s next leader, after left-wing parties were routed in a regional ballot.
Sanchez, who had repeatedly said he wanted to see out a full term in office, portrayed Sunday’s crippling defeat as a clear vote of no confidence in his coalition government.
The mainstream conservative People’s Party (PP) of Alberto Nunez Feijoo won outright control of two regional administrations and could run six more in partnership with the far-right Vox, whose leader said he was ready to form coalitions with the PP. In all, 12 regions were contested.
Sanchez, saying he felt compelled to “take personal responsibility for the results”, called the national election for July 23.
The announcement - the biggest gamble in the career of a politician with a well-established reputation as a risk-taker - wrongfooted most of Sanchez’s government and even some members of his inner circle.
Sunday’s results indicate the PP and the far-right Vox could unseat Sanchez’s Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) if they replicated that performance at national level.
Vox leader Santiago Abascal said his party was open “creating an alternative” to Sanchez by forming national and regional governing coalitions with the PP.
Sanchez had previously said the national election would be in December, and it is rare for a Spanish government to call a snap ballot after a poor regional election - especially when much of the country will be on holiday.
Pablo Simon, professor of political science at Madrid’s Carlos III University, said Sanchez’s strategy may be to rally support by raising the specter of a first far-right party in government since dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, at a time when Spain will also hold the six-month EU presidency.
Sources close to the prime minister said almost no one within the government knew of his decision beforehand.
“The move has caught us by surprise, but now we know about it, it is the bold gesture we need to win,” said a senior government official.
David Hernandez Martinez, professor of international relations at Madrid’s Complutense University, said Sanchez had hoped to use Spain’s EU presidency to sell himself to voters as an international statesman, and “this puts a huge spanner in his plans.”
But the prime minister has become known for taking unexpected political risks.
He took office in June 2018 by winning the first no-confidence vote in Spanish history, removing PP Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy after negotiating a pact with Catalan and Basque pro-independence parties.
The fragility of his coalition government forced him to call snap elections twice in 2019.