Polls close in most of Spain amid divisions
The Latest on the Spanish national election (all times local):
Polls have closed in most of Spain in an election with one of the highest turnout levels in recent years amid division over the role that the far-right could play in influencing the country's politics.
Participation in Sunday's election was more than 9% higher than during the 2016 vote, especially in the northeastern region of Catalonia, two hours polls closed.
Spanish media showed long lines still in many of the polling stations at 1800 GMT (2 p.m. EDT), when all voting is supposed to end everywhere but the Canary Islands, where voting finishes one hour later.
Voter turnout in Spain's general election is over 9% higher than during the 2016 vote, especially in the northeastern region of Catalonia.
Two hours before the polls close Sunday, Spain's Interior Ministry says nearly 60.8% of all eligible voters have already cast their ballots, up from 51.2% at the same time in the 2016 election.
In Catalonia, turnout is up to 64.2% from nearly 46.4% in 2016. This is the first national election since the region's failed secession attempt in 2017.
In southern Andalusia, Spain's most populous region, turnout has risen to nearly 57.3% from nearly 50.3%. Right-wing parties won Andalusia's regional election in December, ending the ruling Socialists' long-time hold on the region.
A highly polarized campaign that included rising support for the far-right nationalist Vox party and an uncertain result Sunday appear to have motivated voters.
Turnout is soaring in restive Catalonia as voters go to polling stations in much higher numbers for Spain's first national election since the northeastern region's failed secession attempt in 2017.
The Spanish Interior Ministry says that by 2 p.m. (1200 GMT), voter turnout in Catalonia is more than 11% higher than in 2016 elections, up from 32.31% to 43.52%.
Sunday's election comes during the ongoing trial of 12 leaders of Catalonia's secession bid who are facing charges including rebellion. Five of those defendants are running in the election from inside a jail cell.
Imma Margalef, a 60-year-old administrative assistant, says in Barcelona that she has voted for the pro-secession Republican Left for the first time because "I think it is unfair that they have put these people in jail."
Pilar Olivar, a 62-year-old marine biologist, is against Catalonia seceding and says she has voted for the ruling Socialists to keep the right-wing parties from returning to power.
Spain's Interior Ministry says turnout for Sunday's national election so far is 4% higher than the previous ballot.
The ministry says, as of 2 p.m. (1200 GMT), 41.5% of all eligible voters have already cast their ballots Sunday, up from 36.9% at the same time in the 2016 election.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialist party is favored to get the most votes, but it is expected to fall far short of a majority. The right-wing in Spain, long dominated by the conservative Popular Party, has now split into three groups, including the Citizens party and the far-right nationalist Vox party.
The uncertain outcome includes the likelihood that a far-right party could enter Parliament for the first time since the 1980s.
Polls close at 8 p.m. (1800GMT) for the nearly 37 million Spaniards allowed to vote.
The leader of Spain's conservative opposition says that Sunday's general election is perhaps the country's "most decisive" in recent years.
Minutes after casting his vote in a polling station at a Madrid school, Popular Party leader Pablo Casado told reporters that he wishes for a stable government to emerge from the ballot.
Santiago Abascal, the leader of the first far-right party likely to grab a significant number of parliamentary seats since the 1980s, also voted in a public school in the Spanish capital.
"Millions of Spaniards are going to vote with hope. They are going to do it without fear for anything or anybody," he told cameras.
Vox, which has revived Spanish nationalism in response to separatist and liberal-minded movements, posted a tweet with a picture adapted from a battle in HBO's Game of Thrones series. A sword-wielding Vox warrior faces a wall of enemies carrying the symbols of Vox's political opponents: media organizations seen by the party as unfavorable and feminist and gay rights logos.
"Let the battle start, (hash)ForSpain" the tweet said.
Alicia Sanchez, 38, and her mother cast their ballots in Spain's general election at the Palacio Valdes public school in central Madrid "in order to stop the racist extreme right" from making a significant power grab.
"I've always come to vote, but this time it feels special. I'm worried about how they can influence policies on women and other issues. They are clearly homophobic. Reading their program is like something from 50 years ago. I'm scared," Sanchez said Sunday.
Minutes later, Amelia Gomez and Antonio Roman, she 86 and he 90, emerged from the crowd flocking to the polling station.
Having voted in all elections since Spain returned to democratic rule four decades ago, following the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, the couple they didn't have much trust in politicians.
"All I want is for whoever wins to take care of the old people," Gomez said, complaining that the two of them together receive less than 1,000 euros (1,100 euros) a month in state pensions.
"They need to watch for the poor, that's their job," Roman added.
The five top candidates to become Spain's next prime minister are casting their ballots and encouraging people to take advantage of the sunny spring day to come out and ensure a high turnout in Sunday's general election.
All are voting in the Spanish capital except for the center-right Citizens party leader, Albert Rivera, who cast his ballot in a town near Barcelona.
Rivera, who has focused his campaign on unseating the incumbent Socialist prime minister, told reporters that a high turnout is needed for a government change and to "usher in a new era."
Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the left-wing United We Can party, also stressed the importance of voting on Sunday.
"My feeling is that in Spain there is an ample progressive majority, and when there is high participation that becomes very clear," Iglesias told reporters at a public school in the residential suburb near Madrid where he lives.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez says he wants Sunday's highly contested general election to yield a parliamentary majority that can undertake social and political reforms in the country.
Surrounded by cameras and accompanied by his wife, the 47-year old incumbent Socialist leader cast his ballot early on Sunday at a cultural center in an affluent suburban neighborhood of the Spanish capital.
He was the first of the five top candidates to vote in the general election marked by the rise of a far-right party and the high number of undecided voters.
All polls forecast that Sanchez's Socialists will overtake the conservative Popular Party to garner the most votes, but Sanchez will be nowhere near a majority in the parliament's Lower House.
Up for grabs are the 350 members of the Congress of Deputies, who then choose a government, and also 208 senators for the Upper House.
A divided Spain is voting in its third general election in four years, with all eyes on whether the rise of conservative nationalism will allow the right wing to unseat the incumbent prime minister.
Pedro Sanchez is set to win the most votes, but his Socialists seem far from scoring a majority in parliament to form a government on their own.
The fragmentation of the political landscape is the result of austerity that followed the economic recession, disenchantment with bipartisan politics and the recent rise of far-right populism.
Sanchez called Sunday's ballot after a national budget proposal was rejected in the Lower Chamber by the center-right-conservative opposition and Catalan separatists pressing for self-determination in their northeastern region.
Voting stations opened at 9 a.m. (0700GMT) Sunday and will close at 8 p.m. (1800GMT), with results expected a few hours later.