The polls had it wrong. The ruling conservative party in Spain won a much stronger plurality than expected on Sunday with 33 percent support. Surveys had given it 28 to 30 percent.
Even more surprisingly, the mainstream Socialists defended their leadership on the left, beating the anti-establishment Podemos party into third place.
The polls had shown the two neck and neck with some predicting a Podemos victory over the Socialists.
In the end, Podemos won 71 seats, exactly the number it did in December, while the Socialists got 85, down by five.
That means there’s no real chance of an all-left government.
The liberal Ciudadanos lost eight seats and ended up with 32. Together with Rajoy’s 137, that puts the two center-right parties close to the 176 seats needed for a majority.
There appears to have been some last-minute movement from the Ciudadanos to Rajoy’s People’s Party and from Podemos to the Socialists. The acting prime minister had warned right-wing voters that the alternative to him was a Venezuelan-style left-wing government. Or maybe the polls simply underestimated support for the mainstream parties which had always been there.
Either way, the result makes it harder for Rajoy’s foes to argue he must go. The Ciudadanos had conditioned their support for a center-right government on Rajoy’s resignation. That may now be hard to maintain.
On the left, the outcome is a relief for leader Pedro Sánchez. Had Podemos surpassed the Socialists, his position would have become untenable. He looks more likely to survive now and lead what is probably going to be a long and difficult struggle to win back the trust of left-wing voters.
The upside is that this will be easier to accomplish in opposition to a right-wing government than as part of a grand coalition with Rajoy or as the junior party in a coalition with Podemos, which looked to be the Socialists’ only options just yesterday.