The far-right Vox party was on track to take third place with 53 seats, more than doubling its seats in parliament since the last general election in April.
Failure to reach agreement between the Socialists and United We Can, Spain's fourth largest party in parliament, following the last election in April was one of the main reasons for the calling of Sunday's vote, the fourth in as many years.
Opinion polls however suggest this new election will fail to break the deadlock. No party is projected to win an outright majority.
Over the past four years, elections in Spain have produced minority or short-lived governments as political leaders struggled to adapt to the emergence of new parties that ended years of dominance by PP and Socialists.
The Socialists look set to finish top again, but with slightly fewer seats than the 123 they picked up in April.
The conservative People's Party (PP) was seen second with a projected 85-90 seats.
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Early results in Spain's national election show the ruling Socialists leading the count and the far-right Vox party surging, as Spain's political divide widens between left and right, further exacerbating the country's political deadlock.
As the crisis gathered pace, Sanchez came under increasingly harsh criticism from the right, particularly from Vox leader Santiago Abascal who demanded Madrid suspend Catalan autonomy and arrest regional president Quim Torra.
Less than a month ago, Spain's Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to lengthy jail terms over their role in a failed 2017 independence bid, sparking days of angry street protests in Barcelona and other Catalan cities that sometimes turned violent.
The ruling prompted a clash between pro-independence protesters and the police, leaving many people injured.
Mr Sanchez said Madrid had sent a "significant" number of security forces to the northeastern region to ensure the unrest did not disrupt voting in Catalonia.
During a recent TV election debate, PP leader Pablo Casado called for a "real government that will put order in Catalonia". Attempts by acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to secure support from other parties to form a government subsequently failed, prompting him to call an election. "Drastic solutions are needed", he said during his final campaign rally last Friday night in Madrid.
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The crowd responded by chanting "Torra to the dungeon".
The governing Socialist Workers' Party wants the standoff to be resolved through dialogue.
Spain's fourth election in as many years has been overshadowed by the ongoing Catalan separatist crisis which has cranked up support for Vox.
Meanwhile, Vox, which secured its first parliamentary seats in the previous election, could see its seats almost double from 24 to 46. The Popular Party has 21 percent and Vox has 14 percent.
The party only made parliamentary debut in April when it won 24 mandates in the biggest showing by the far-right since Spain returned to democracy after dictator Francisco Franco's death in 1975.
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