MADRID -- Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Monday called an early general election for July 23 in a surprise move after his Socialist party took a serious battering in local and regional elections.
Before Sunday's debacle, Sánchez had insisted that he would ride out his four-year term with leftist government coalition partner United We Can, indicating that an election would be held in December.
But the outcome of the local and regional votes quickly changed things.
"I have taken this decision given the results of the elections held yesterday," Sánchez said Monday from the Moncloa presidential palace.
The woes for Sánchez and his Spanish Socialist Workers Party come as Spain is due to take over the rotating presidency of the European Union on July 1.
Sánchez said he had spoken to King Felipe VI and would hold a special Cabinet meeting later Monday to dissolve parliament. The date chosen for the early election comes in the middle of Spain's summer holiday period, with many people likely to be away from their voting areas.
The local and regional elections on Sunday saw Spain taking a major swing to the right and made the leading opposition conservative Popular Party, the main political force in the country.
"This is unexpected," said Ignacio Jurado, a political scientist at Madrid's Carlos III University. "Sánchez is trying to short circuit the PP's rise as soon as possible."
In the municipal vote, the Popular Party won 31.5% of votes compared with 28.2% for the Spanish Socialist Workers Party. This was a 1.2 percentage point decrease for the ruling party on 2019, but almost a nine point increase for the PP, which benefited from the collapse of the centrist Citizens party.
The Popular Party, which is led by Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, won in seven of the 12 regions contested and dominated in several regions previously won by the Spanish Socialist Workers Party including Valencia, Aragon and La Rioja. It remains to be seen how much the Popular Party will be forced to rely on far-right party Vox to form local and regional governments.
Feijóo said at a news conference on Monday that the results expressed "the desire for change that exists in our society."
"Sánchez reacts to a shock with another shock," Spanish political expert Sandra León said. "He also avoids deterioration of his party in two ways: the costs of internal division in the government until December and the division with [Socialist] party barons in the regions."
She said the announcement will force the parties to the left of the Socialists -- United We Can and Sumar -- to regroup fast.
Although the coalition government has shepherded Spain out of the covid-19 pandemic, made the economy among the fastest growing in the EU and introduced several ground-breaking laws, something was sorely lacking.
"The message received last night was clear: Things have to be done differently," Díaz tweeted.
Feijóo has capitalized on criticizing the coalition's reliance to stay in power through support from separatist parties such as the Republican Left in Catalonia and the Basque region's EH Bildu.
Sánchez has been in office since 2018, when he brought and won a no-confidence vote against the PP prime minister at the time, Mariano Rajoy. He then led the Socialists to a general election victory in 2019 before forming Spain's first coalition government in four decades.