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Voter fraud allegations mark last day of election campaigning in Spain

People walk by Plaza Real square in Barcelona

MADRID (Reuters) - Allegations of voter fraud in small towns and an unprecedented case of kidnapping marked the last day of campaigning before local and regional elections in Spain on Sunday.

The voting is taking place in 12 regions and 8,000 towns and cities, most of them currently governed by the Socialist Party (PSOE). Opinion polls are predicting gains for the conservative People's Party (PP), which if replicated in a national election in December could unseat the ruling left-wing coalition.

Police arrested at least nine people in Spain's North African enclave of Melilla on Monday and Tuesday over alleged election fraud with mail-in ballots, involving one of the parties in the coalition government of the autonomous city, Coalition for Melilla (CpM).

Other cases emerged, with seven arrested on Wednesday in the Andalusian town of Mojacar for an alleged vote-buying scheme and investigations underway in small towns on the Canary Islands and in the Murcia region.

The councillors involved in those cases are mostly from the PSOE.

An unrelated kidnapping case in the small Andalusian town of Maracena, in which a PSOE councillor was allegedly held captive and threatened in February, was made public on Thursday by a court.

The judge pointed to the current PSOE mayor, Berta Linares, and her ex-partner as possible perpetrators, according to court documents cited by El Pais newspaper.

Speaking to reporters, Linares denied any involvement and questioned the fact that the case was revealed hours before the election, contributing to "media noise".

Opposition leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo of the conservative People's Party (PP) called on Friday for "massive" voting on Sunday against "those who want to win with deceit and cheating", adding that "democracy is not for sale".

PP spokesman and MEP Esteban Gonzalez Pons said the investigations proved the "rule of law works".

"Therefore, I believe the elections results cannot be called into question," he added.

In the last election year, 2019, there were 69 voting-related crimes, according to Interior Ministry data.

Ignacio Jurado, professor of political science at the Carlos III University, said the alleged fraud would have little impact on Sunday's election except in the specific places where arrests have been made.

"But I don't think we are talking about a game-changer. It is going to hinder the recovery of confidence in politics, which has been going on since the economic crisis," Jurado said, referring to Spain's 2008 crisis.

(Reporting by Belén Carreño; Additional reporting by David Latona; Editing by Frances Kerry)