Spaniards are voting in their fourth general election in as many years in a bid to break the political deadlock triggered by April’s inconclusive poll.

The ruling Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE), led by the acting prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, is expected to win the most votes once again, but to fall well short of a majority and perhaps lose a handful of its 123 seats.

The repeat election comes amid renewed tensions between the central government and the separatist regional government of Catalonia.

In the middle of October, Spain’s supreme court jailed nine Catalan separatist leaders for sedition over their roles in the failed push for independence two years ago.

The verdict provoked violent unrest in Catalonia and prompted rightwing Spanish parties to call for a tough response from Sánchez, whom they routinely accuse of being too soft on the separatists.

The re-eruption of the Catalan crisis has fuelled the rise of the far-right Vox party, which favours a radical recentralisation of Spain. Polls suggest that the party, which entered the national parliament for the first time in April – winning 24 seats – could finish third in Sunday’s election.

Sánchez will be hoping that leftwing voters will once again rally in the face of a resurgent far right.

“On Sunday, we democrats have a foolproof weapon for curbing the far right, for breaking the deadlock, for building on rights and freedom, for securing the future and for ensuring that Spain moves forward without leaving anyone behind,” he wrote on Twitter. “Our vote.”

The conservative People’s party, which experienced its worst ever results seven months ago, is expected to bounce back and come second with a significantly higher seat count.

Citizens, which has moved further to the right over the past year, appears to be headed towards a disastrous result, dropping from 57 seats to 20 or fewer amid increased competition for voters on the Spanish right.

The anti-austerity Unidas Podemos is expected to dip slightly while Más País (More Country), the new party led by Iñigo Errejón, one of Podemos’s founders, is forecast to win a few seats.

Frustration and apathy are expected to hit turnout as many Spaniards decide to shun the ballot box. In April, turnout reached 75.5% – well up from the 69.8% of voters who went to the polls in June 2016.

At 2.15pm on Sunday, turnout stood at 37.9% – 3.6 percentage points lower than at the same time in April’s election.

The election comes amid growing concern over the economy. Spain’s unemployment figures rose by almost 100,000 last month, and the European commission has revised the country’s growth forecast down from 2.3% to 1.9% for this year, and from 1.9% to 1.5% for 2020.

Any swift end to the impasse looks unlikely. The PSOE was unable to form a government with the backing of Unidas Podemos last time and Citizens, which firmly ruled out helping Sánchez back into power in April, looks willing but far too weak to play the kingmaker.

Pablo Iglesias, who leads Podemos, again offered his support to help the PSOE govern, saying their recent disagreements were now in the past.

“We’re reaching out our hand to the socialist party,” he said. “We’re leaving behind the reproaches so we can combine their experience and our courage.”

The PP leader, Pablo Casado, called for a “massive turnout…to try to guarantee political stability”, while Citizens leader Albert Rivera urged everyone to vote – “especially the moderates”.

Santiago Abascal, who leads Vox, said he hoped the election results would “serve to strengthen the unity of Spain, the freedom of Spaniards and national harmony”.

Errejón, meanwhile, said he hoped Sunday’s vote would head off the need for yet another election, but added: “We can’t rule it out, though.”

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