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Andalusia votes Sunday in an early regional election that the incumbent conservative Popular Party is expected to win comfortably, dealing a blow to Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez ahead of a national vote expected at the end of 2023.
Over six million people are eligible to vote in Spain's most populous region where scorching temperatures are expected to cool slightly after a week of extreme heat which officials feared would hurt turnout.
Polling stations opened at 9:00 am (0700 GMT) and will close at 8:00 pm, with final results expected a few hours later.
Surveys suggest the conservative Popular Party (PP) will win around 50 seats in the 109-seat Andalusian parliament, more than all leftist parties combined.
It has governed the southern region known for its white-walled villages and popular Costa del Sol beach resorts since 2018 in a coalition with smaller centre-right party Ciudadanos.
The Socialists are predicted to win around 33 seats, the same number as at the last election in 2018 when they were ousted from power in Andalusia for the first time since the regional government was established in 1982.
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A scandal over the misuse of public funds intended to fight unemployment was blamed for the party's drubbing in its longstanding stronghold which is home to around 8.5 million people.
"All social advances that have taken place in Andalusia and in Spain were initiated by the Socialists. Never by the right," Sanchez told a final campaign rally Friday in Seville, the region's capital.
While the PP appears set to win Sunday's election, it is not clear if it will secure an absolute majority which would allow it to govern alone.
If it doesn't, the PP will likely need to seek support from the far-right Vox by bringing it into the regional government, as happened earlier this year in the northern region of Castilla y Leon.
Until now, Vox has supported the PP in Andalusia but from outside government.
Any deal with Vox would complicate efforts by the PP's new national leader, Alberto Nunez Feijoo, to project a more moderate image.
The head of the PP in Andalusia, Juan Manuel Moreno Bonilla, has urged voters to deliver him a "strong" government that is not "weighed down" by Vox.
If the polls are right, this will be the Socialists' third consecutive regional election loss to the PP after votes in Madrid in May 2021 and Castilla y Leon in February.
Losing in Andalusia would be a "severe blow" for the Socialists and would mean "Sanchez might face an uphill battle to get re-elected" next year, said Antonio Barroso, an analyst at political consultancy Teneo.
"The PP seems to be gaining increasing momentum, and voter concerns about inflation might only make it more challenging for Sanchez to sell his government's achievements in the next legislative election," he added.
Spain's inflation rate hit 8.7 percent in May as the economic fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine has fuelled inflation worldwide, especially through increasing energy prices.
The PP has sought to present itself in Andalusia as a "sensible alternative" from the centre, University of Granada political science professor Oscar Garcia Luengo told AFP.
The strategy appears to be working as the party is poised to win the support of nearly 17 percent of voters who cast their ballot for the Socialists in 2018, according to a Sigma dos survey for the El Mundo daily.
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