MADRID — Spain is poised on a precipice: On Sunday, voters will determine if the country will become the latest one in Europe to take a swing to the hard right or if it will slip into a state of paralysis with a caretaker government for the foreseeable future.

The vote is, by far, the most consequential to be held in Spain in recent memory. For the first time since the death of dictator Francisco Franco, the election could lead to a Spanish government with far-right ministers. That eventuality could signal a wider sea-change in Europe ahead of next year’s European Parliament election and give fuel to right-wing forces that want the EU to take more hardline stances on everything from climate policy to migration.

But in practical terms, this election may also stand out for being the most chaotic in the country’s history.

Called after the left-wing coalition government suffered a surprise defeat in May’s local elections, the vote is being held in the dead of summer when over one-fourth of Spain’s 37 million registered voters are on vacation. There’s a real possibility that the electors assigned to man polling stations won’t show up, a scenario that would oblige authorities to conscript staff on the spot and delay the start of the vote.

The election is also being held in the midst of a brutal heat wave, with temperatures between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius expected across the country. Local authorities tasked with overseeing polling infrastructure are scrambling to install fans in the schools and public buildings where Spaniards will line up to vote; and in some places, Red Cross teams are on call if medical emergencies arise.

The summer date and extreme heat make it impossible to predict participation rates in a tight election where no party is expected to secure the seats needed to form a majority government.

That means no one knows what will happen in a vote that is likely to force Spain’s two largest political forces — Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Party and the center-right Popular Party — to make deals with the left-wing Sumar party or the far-right Vox party in order to govern.

An unpopular prime minister

For Sánchez, these elections are less a referendum on the left-wing coalition government he has led for the past four years and more a test of his personal appeal.

The Spanish economy is in great shape and polls indicate most electors approve of the policies his cabinet has pursued. But Sánchez himself is unpopular among the electorate and it appears he may lose his hold on power simply because Spaniards can’t stomach him.

At his final campaign rally on Friday, the prime minister urged voters to look past him and view the election as a choice between “the progressive government of the Socialist Party … or a government composed by the Popular Party and the Vox party.”

For the prime minister, remaining in power is a numbers game in which the odds are stacked against him.

It is illegal to publish official polls within five days of elections in Spain, and the last surveys indicated that Sánchez’s Socialist Party and Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Díaz’s Sumar party — a coalition of left-wing groups — were nowhere near securing the 176 seats needed to form a majority government. But on Saturday, unofficial tracking polls published outside the country showed the left-wing allies making major advances that situated them on the cusp of victory.

SPAIN NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

If the parties defy expectations and perform well, Sánchez would likely seek to repeat his gameplan from 2019, forming a coalition government with Sumar and forging agreements with smaller regional parties willing to exchange their support for his candidacy in parliament for concessions in the form of infrastructure like new railways or hospitals.

The rightward swing

Polls indicate the Popular Party will score the most votes in this election — but not enough for conservative Alberto Núñez Feijóo to be able to govern on his own.

If the party performs well, Feijóo will almost certainly attempt to form a minority government. But for that attempt to be successful, he either has to get 176 MPs to vote in his favor or wait for a later round of voting to have more votes in favor than not against his candidacy.

This sounds like simple math, but it isn’t: MPs can abstain, which means its difficult to predict exactly how many votes Feijóo would need.

Feijóo has said he will attempt to convince his natural allies in the far-right Vox party to back a minority government in which it has no ministers. But ultranationalist leader Santiago Abascal indicated he has no interest in this option.

If the Popular Party scores more than 165 seats, Feijóo may try to sidestep Vox and cobble together support from smaller regional parties, making deals with groups such as the conservative Basque Nationalist Party and the insular MPs from the Canarian Coalition. But the more votes he needs, the more difficult this process becomes: Sooner or later a potential ally will ask for concessions incompatible with those made by another theoretical partner.

If that fails, Feijóo will have to negotiate with Vox and attempt to form a coalition government. Abascal has said that if his party comes to power, it will demand that Spain’s Ministry of Equality and the Spanish courts focus on eliminating violence against women.

He also wants to repeal existing gender-equality legislation and laws that protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. The party’s program additionally proposes deploying the navy to block migrant boats from making it to Spain, pulling out of the Paris Agreement and similar climate accords, and declaring the primacy of the Spanish judiciary over the European Union.

“Only Vox dares to change the direction in which Spain is travelling,” Abascal told supporters on Friday, vowing to rescue the country from “the leftist sect” that had hijacked the country.

In exchange for its support, Vox reportedly also intends to ask for major positions in the government, including control over the ministries of the Interior, Defense, Culture and Education, all key portfolios the Popular Party says it will never hand over.

If the far-right party does not back down and cede on this and other issues, Feijóo may calculate that his best option is to let the country operate without a government throughout the fall, with hope electors will give him a clearer mandate — and perhaps even a majority in parliament — when new elections are called.

The Belgium of the south

Sunday’s vote will give way to a pause, with the action only starting up again in late August, when the Spanish parliament will be reconvened. Shortly thereafter, Spain’s king will meet with the leaders of each political group and ask the one with the greatest amount of support to attempt to form a government.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez | Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images

That candidate will then negotiate with potential partners before submitting his or herself to a formal investiture vote, which this year is unlikely to be held before the middle of September. If 176 MPs give the candidate their support, they become prime minister. If that support isn’t secured, a second vote can be held 48 hours later, with the candidate just needing to secure a simple majority (more yeas than nays).

But by that point the clock is already ticking: The moment the king’s candidate loses their first vote, a two-month countdown begins, at the end of which the king must dissolve the parliament and call for new elections.

Given the timeline we’re working with, parliament could likely only be dissolved in November, and elections must be held 54 days after that date — so Spain would hold a new vote at the end of this year or, more likely, at the beginning of 2024.

During that long period, Sánchez would remain as caretaker prime minister with limited powers: No new laws can be adopted except for emergency reasons.

Spain already has some experience with caretaker governments. Following inconclusive elections in December of 2015, conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy remained as Spain’s caretaker leader until new elections were held in June of the following year. With no party securing a majority of seats in parliament, Spain seemed condemned to yet another electoral repeat, but in October of 2016 the Socialist Party agreed to abstain and allow Rajoy to form a minority government in a bid to end the impasse.

Sánchez himself was already caretaker prime minister in 2019: Following inconclusive elections in April of that year, the Socialist leader was unable to come to a governing agreement with the left-wing Podemos party. After snap elections in November saw both parties lose seats, their leaders agreed to set aside their differences to form Spain’s first coalition government.

Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III university, said Spain’s increasingly polarized political landscape makes it all the more likely for the country to face a political impasse and caretaker governments most people associate with country’s such as Belgium, which famously holds the world record for operating without an elected government.

“Spain is fragmented right now: There is no single right, there is no single left,” he said. “Sánchez may lose these elections and still remain prime minister for quite awhile.”

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