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BARCELONA, Spain – The party that had dominated conservative politics for decades in Spain suffered an unprecedented debacle in national elections Sunday, with the eruption of an ultra-nationalist party causing a seismic shift in the nation's political right.
The Popular Party lost more than half its support from elections just three years earlier as disenchanted voters flocked to conservative rivals outflanking it on both the left and right. Provisional results gave it 66 seats, which was its worst result since it participated in its first national elections in 1989 and was less than half the 137 it won in 2016.
"I am not one to elude responsibilities, the results are very bad," Popular Party leader Pablo Casado told a dejected crowd at his party's headquarters in Madrid. "I only have to say that we are going to start working right now to recover this support and to do so leading the center-right. We had sent warnings out that fragmenting the vote would not be a winning option."
The Socialist Party of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez replaced the Popular Party as the biggest vote winner and is poised to stay in power.
But the votes that the Popular Party lost went to its closest ideological competitors.
The far-right Vox party will enter the lower house of the Parliament by winning 24 seats. It ran as the defender of Spanish traditions such as bull-fighting and railed against illegal immigration and the women's rights movement.
The center-right Citizens party, which was participating in its third national election, also improved its share of seats to 57 seats and can aspire to soon overtake the Popular Party. Citizens persuaded some Popular Party members to leave the party and join its ranks during the campaign, including the former president of the Madrid region.
The undisputed loser of the night was Casado. The 38-year-old politician was elected party leader in July to replace former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who retired from public life after he lost a no-confidence vote in Parliament following a court ruling that implicated several former Popular Party members in a corruption ring.
Casado had promised to clean up his party, but he flopped in his first major electoral test.
Vox and Citizens both stole away what had been the banner cause of the Popular Party: the fight against Catalonia's separatists.
Vox leader Santiago Abascal blasted the Popular Party for not wielding a tougher hand with the secessionists, which held an unauthorized referendum on independence in 2017 that Rajoy was unable to stop. Abascal left the Popular Party and took charge of Vox in 2014. He called his former party "the cowardly right" throughout the campaign.
After announcing a "reconquering of Spain" to a thrilled crown in downtown Madrid late Sunday, Abascal turned up his attacks on the Popular Party.
"I want to send a warning to (the Popular Party), which is already trying to blame us for their failings, for their acts of treason and their fears," Abascal said. "You are the only ones responsible for not being able to stand up to the left."
Spanish voters will return to the polls next month for European, municipal and regional elections.