If Spaniards vote for the right next month, Spain would be yet another country in its growing European bulwark.
On the last Sunday in May, 36.6 million Spaniards were called to the polls. In the weeks leading up to the election, the right-wing opposition had done everything in its power to turn the regional and local elections into a plebiscite on the work of the government of Pedro Sánchez. From their point of view, it was a question of voting on ‘Sanchism’, which had, over the past three and a half years, purportedly brought the country to an abyss.
Despite positive economic trends and a multitude of legislative initiatives that have particularly benefited the middle and low-income classes, this view has had surprising currency. Local and regional issues, usually at the forefront of these elections, hardly played a role.
After the regional elections, the right-wing-conservative Partido Popular emerged as the winner. Nationwide, it received 31.5 per cent of the vote, leaving the social-democratic PSOE behind with 28.1 per cent. The PP has become the strongest force in seven of the 12 autonomous communities in which elections took place. It will also determine the mayors of 30 of the larger cities. In Andalusia, the bastion of the Spanish socialists, where the state government went to the PP last year, seven out of eight larger cities—Almería, Cádiz, Córdoba, Granada, Huelva, Malaga and Seville—will be governed by the party.
Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the president of the PP who was elected to office a year ago, already sees himself as the next prime minister. The party owes much of its success to the almost complete demise of the centre-right Ciudadanos.
Normalising the ultra-right
Although the far-right Vox party came in well below its national poll ratings, at around 7 per cent, it has significantly expanded its presence in the regions and municipalities and is consolidating itself as the third-strongest political force in Spain. Similar to other right-wing-populist parties, Vox has undergone a transformation from a party that sees itself as the opposition to one that is interested in governing. Its leader, Santiago Abascal, announced on election night that its support would come at a price.
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In five regions and municipalities, the PP will only be able to govern with the help of the ultra-right, either as a coalition partner, as has been the case in Castile and Leon since 2022, or as a government tolerated by Vox, as so far in Madrid and Andalusia. This means that the PP, which wants to present itself as a moderately conservative party under its new chair, faces a delicate, fundamental decision and—should it take the step of ‘politically normalising’ an ultra-right partner—difficult coalition negotiations.
While the political and media public was just beginning to deal with the election results—the ‘blue wave’, the ‘tsunami’, the ‘landslide’—and the PP was busy organising government majorities, Sánchez’s announced that this year’s general election would be brought forward to late July. This succeeded in putting the focus on the question of who Spaniards trust to be in charge of government for the next four years.
His decision appears as an act of liberation that is allowing the prime minister to take charge again. He seems to be seizing the opportunity, even as he swims against the tide.
The opposition PP has set a different timetable for itself and will be very busy in the coming weeks as it conducts difficult negotiations in the regions with its only possible partner on the right. The debate about the legitimacy of coalitions with Vox and the lack of alternatives in this regard will also determine the national debate and—according to this calculation—mobilise voters in the progressive camp more strongly.
The Spanish electorate has shifted to the right, as shown by the latest polls. The PP has however no coalition options beyond Vox. This may reduce its chances in the elections. Economically, Spain is in good shape at the moment—at 3.2 per cent, the country has one of the lowest inflation rates in the European Union. In this respect too, from a social-democratic point of view the timing of the elections is good.
There is a fragmented party landscape to the left of the PSOE. The left-wing parties performed appallingly everywhere in last month’s elections. Podemos was kicked out of six regional governments and was able to hold only 18 out of 49 seats in the regional parliaments. Spain’s electoral system exacerbates the disadvantages of this fragmentation. The Sumar alliance of left-wing political forces—which was formed in recent months under the leadership of the labour minister and vice-president, Yolanda Díaz, with a view to the national elections—has been weakened by the defeats of its co-operation partners in Barcelona and Valencia. Consequently, it sees itself faced with even more of a challenge to create a stable, united alliance of left-wing forces.
For the existing political constellations, however, the early election date is bringing a breath of fresh air. Sumar and Podemos must come to an agreement quickly so as not to squander their chance to form a progressive government led by the PSOE—they only have until today to do so, before the statutory deadline expires. Díaz’s first course of action was to register the Sumar alliance as a party. Thus, it can now stand in elections nationwide. For the first time, more conciliatory voices have been heard from Podemos, so that an agreement no longer seems out of the question.
It will be interesting to see how the new left will form and whether it will be able to send convincing and clear messages to voters. If there were a more reliable partner to the left of the PSOE with whom a coalition could be formed, with the PP only managing to find a partner in the controversial Vox, then the progressive camp would be in a much better starting position.
Coming so soon after the start of the Spanish EU Council presidency on July 1st, the election brings with it a number of uncertainties. Spain is not however the first country to face a major election during an EU presidency. The responsible ministers emphasise that the staff of the ministries will ensure that everything runs smoothly. Politically, the so-called golden presidency—the last presidency of the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, before the coming elections to the European Parliament, which should place her in a good position to bid for a second term—is now moving into uncharted waters.
The conservatives in the European Parliament are very much hoping for a change of power in Spain. The European People’s Party under Manfred Weber had bet on a victory for the PP towards the end of the year, which would then also result in a stronger position from which to define the election of the candidate for the commission head.
Much is at stake for Spain and Europe. If the majority of Spaniards vote right-wing conservative next month, Spain would be another building block in the shift to the right in Europe. It remains to be seen whether it can resist this trend.
This first appeared on International Politics and Society
Bettina Luise Rürup heads the office of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Madrid. Previously, she was head of the Forum for Politics and Society in Berlin and headed the foundation's offices in New York, Chile, India and Turkey.