By Sonya Dowsett
MADRID (Reuters) - The leader of Spain's most populous region, Andalusia, on Monday called a regional election for Dec. 2, in what will be the first electoral test for the country's ruling Socialist party since Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez took power in June.
Andalusia is the first of a slew of local votes expected over the next year that will gauge the public mood after Sanchez came to office with the smallest parliamentary party minority since Spain returned to democracy.
The southern region, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the European Union, is a stronghold of Sanchez's Socialist party. But the Andalusian branch of the party has been damaged by corruption scandals.
In addition, Andalusia is the destination for thousands of Africans who have entered Spain by sea since other European countries like Italy shut their ports to illegal migrants.
Sanchez's Socialists have taken a softer view on illegal migrants, allowing the disembarkation on Spanish shores of charity boats turned away from other European ports and restoring free healthcare for undocumented migrants.
Parties on the right such as the conservative People's Party (PP) and hard-right Vox have seized on these moves to step up their rhetoric against illegal migration.
However, polls show the Socialists riding high in the polls, with a recent well-regarded survey showing them easily winning an election if a vote were held.
But with the Socialists holding just 84 seats in the 350-seat parliament, Sanchez is scrambling to find support from other parties as he negotiates next year's budget.
The conservative PP and market-friendly Ciudadanos have vowed to reject the budget proposal, leaving Sanchez relying on hard-left Podemos and smaller, regional parties. Catalan regional parties have also threatened to withdraw their support.
Most Spanish regions and cities will hold local elections in May. European Parliament elections are expected for that month as well. A general election is due in 2020, but could come sooner if Sanchez's minority government fails to last the term.
(Reporting By Sonya Dowsett; Editing by Hugh Lawson)