But their victory is, to say the least, a Pyrrhic one. The PP, having clawed its way to within sight of success, claimed the true triumph was its own. The common denominator is most likely to be a period of horse-trading towards a coalition.
In what appeared to be near-record numbers, possibly around 77 per cent of the electorate, Spaniards rose to the occasion yesterday and turned out at polling stations in the finery they usually reserve for the season's best bullfights. Many middle-aged people interviewed outside polling stations said they had never voted before.
There were several angry protests around the country as even longtime residents discovered they had not been included on the roll. In the Madrid suburb of Leganese, police had to keep order when hundreds of would-be voters were turned away and told to seek voting certificates at their local census office. 'We want to vote. They won't let us vote. This is robbery,' some shouted, complaining of having to queue for six hours.
Similar complaints were made in Granada and in the Canary Islands constituencies of Tenerife and Las Palmas. It appeared unlikely anything other than bureaucracy or human failing was to blame, but PP spokesmen were not slow to hint of some kind of conspiracy.
One Spaniard who did not vote was King Juan Carlos. He could have done but opted not to in line with his tradition of neutrality. The King's moment will soon come, however. It is he who must formally ask someone to form a government. The closeness of the result will not leave him with an easy task. He is expected to consult intensely with all parties. Should he fail, new elections could be called.
It was not merely the fact that voters got all dolled up in their Sunday best that demonstrated the self-consciousness of a nation starved of democracy for much of the century. From the man in the street to the nation's senior electoral officials, there was just a whiff of unease in the early hours and an almost tangible sigh of relief as the day passed with only scattered and relatively minor incidents.
This, after all, is a country where, only last week, a state television news presenter opened the bulletin by warning citizens not to be alarmed at any military activity the following day: it was Armed Forces Day and there would be regional military parades, she pointed out. The trauma of the last military coup attempt, in 1981, dies hard.
Electoral officials and radio and television presenters echoed the theme of near-surprise that they had nothing terrible to report. 'Tranquillity, transparency, an atmosphere of total normality,' were the catchwords. The officials and media types, in contrast to the man and woman in the street who did not appear to have been taken in by the mud-slinging and fear-mongering of the two big parties, had apparently been brainwashed by the campaign mud.
Spaniards were greeted with headlines heralding 'an historic day'. 'Today's election, whoever wins, will mark the end of a period in history,' said the daily El Pais, long pro-Socialist but increasingly critical in recent months. 'If the PP is called upon to form a government, it will produce a system of alternating (parties) and, for the first time in Spain, the right would have returned to power, after a period of hegemony by the left, through the ballot box and not through a coup d'etat.'
The worst incidents reported were in the Andalusian town of Jaen, where arsonists set fire to a Socialist Party office before dawn, and Zaragoza, where a bomb threat suspended voting at one station.
The first polling station to close was in Torremontalbo, near the city of Logrono in the wine-producing La Rioja region. Officials started counting at 9.20am, 20 minutes after they opened. By then, all 10 eligible voters had popped in to do their civic duty. Communities do not get much more tight-knit than that and attempts to do an exit poll ran into a brick wall.
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