The elections in Spain represented a modest victory for the outgoing Socialists but the rhetoric of the right recalled a much darker era.
In this day and age, it is always news when a centre-left party wins an election. So the victory of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) in the snap general elections of April 28th was news. The PSOE did not win a resounding victory—it secured less than 29 per cent of the vote and about 35 per cent of the seats in the Congress of Deputies. But this is one of the strongest performances by a social-democratic party in the last several years.
Otherwise the elections demonstrated how Spain was in many ways coming to resemble its European neighbours. The party system has continued to fragment, the radical-right populists have made their first entry into parliament, immigration has become more salient and a worrying polarisation has manifested itself. Spain’s successful transition to democracy rested on the moderation of its political leaders, left and right, in Madrid and Barcelona. Now, many key political players seem to be abandoning that restraint—and one worries what they might abandon next.
Spain has lived through almost constant political instability since 2015. Austerity, the corruption of the two main parties (the PSOE and the conservative Partido Popular) and mass social mobilisation have splintered the party system. The December 2015 elections produced a result so inconclusive they had to be repeated in June 2016; even then the PP prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was only confirmed in office in October. Then followed the Catalan independence crisis and, in May 2018, corruption convictions which implicated the PP and its former treasurer. This allowed Pedro Sánchez, the PSOE’s deposed (2016) and re-elected (2017) leader, to dislodge Rajoy in a vote of no confidence in June.
Sánchez was unable accomplish much in his few months in office: a breakdown in talks with the Catalan parties over the region’s constitutional status meant he could not pass a moderately left-wing budget in February. The Spanish authorities began judicial proceedings against several leaders of the Catalan independence movement that month, which, along with disputes over the format of talks and an independence referendum, broke up the coalition he used to win power.
Meanwhile, Sánchez faced the steady radicalisation of the Spanish right. As he negotiated with the Catalan nationalists, the new PP leader, Pablo Casado, accused him of treason. The focus on Spanish unity, along with immigration, allowed Vox, a radical-right party founded by a PP defector, to win its first-ever seats in a regional parliament in Andalusia in December 2018. Rather than form a firewall against the far right—as centre-right parties have done in Sweden, Germany and Belgium—the right-wing liberal Ciudadanos (Citizens) and the PP quickly allied with Vox to form a regional government and together they demanded Sánchez’s departure in a march in February in Madrid.
There all three parties endorsed a narrative of outrageous Socialist concessions to the Catalans—concessions the PSOE never made. The PP and Vox questioned Sánchez’s legitimacy, the PP’s secretary general calling him ‘the enemy of Spain’. Ciudadanos’ leader, Albert Rivera, described the Socialist leader as ‘the preferred prime minister of all Spain’s enemies’. In short, the whole Spanish right took an increasingly extreme stance towards the Sánchez government and Catalonia—all three parties sought the imposition of direct rule there, though the Catalan authorities had made no further moves towards secession.
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In the elections the PSOE came first in the vast majority of Spanish provinces, including the traditionally right-leaning Madrid. Yet this is a bit misleading. The Spanish electoral system uses mostly small, multi-member districts and the d’Hondt formula for assigning seats, which favours larger parties. Thus, the PSOE benefited from the weakness of its main left-wing rival, Unidas Podemos, and the fragmentation of the right into three parties. UP suffered from the change in focus from socio-economic issues to questions of national unity and immigration—it had a nuanced view on Catalonia which left it falling between two stools. The party had also suffered splits and scandals.
The left and right both won about 43 per cent of the vote. In fact, the right has won about 43 per cent steadily since 2011 but the PSOE won two thirds of the left’s vote while no party of the right won even a majority of that camp’s take. Hence the left won 165 seats to the right’s 149. The Catalan and Basque regionalist parties gained five and three seats, respectively, while the PP lost all but one seat in Catalonia and the Basque Country. The PP bled votes almost equally to Ciudadanos and Vox (Casado estimated 1.1 million towards the former and 1.3 million towards the latter).
Spain faces three main dangers in the coming parliamentary term. The first is deadlock: as in 2015-16, the parliamentary parties may be unable to form a government. Once the process of choosing a premier starts, the Congress of Deputies has two months to complete it; otherwise, it is automatically dissolved. Spain will hardly benefit from months of instability.
The second and third dangers are intertwined: the continuing Catalonia dispute and the increasing polarisation of Spanish politics. Catalan nationalist parties still control the regional government in Barcelona, though they failed to win a majority of the vote in the region on April 28th. And Madrid is unlikely to satisfy their demands to end the prosecution of the leaders of the October 2017 independence push.
Most worrisome of all has been the willingness of the Spanish right to cast the Socialists as traitors. If the right ceases to see the left as a legitimate competitor, then it has to win every election or abandon democracy. The right used much the same anti-Communist and anti-Catalan rhetoric in the 1930s, when it pursued the second option. Santiago Abascal, the Vox leader, even revived the civil-war charge of being ‘anti-Spain’.
We are already seeing a growing drift to the authoritarian right among centre-right parties in many parts of the world, as they face competition from the far right and great difficulty in supplying any economic benefits from the neoliberal model. In Spain, the perceived Catalan threat to national unity reinforces this trend: all three right-wing parties are strongly centralist, including the most moderate, Ciudadanos, which began in Catalonia as an anti-nationalist party.
The worst-case scenario would be a fragmented, increasingly radical right focused on the national issue, willing to impose harsh restriction on Catalan autonomy and political organising, and on politics more generally. This would probably keep the right from power for some time: the nationalist parties will never vote for a right-wing government. Yet if the right is locked out of the executive it could radicalise still further.
Right now, the PP is trying to move to the centre to regain the voters and position it lost on April 28th, slamming Vox as ‘ultra-right’. Perhaps this will allow the PP to regain some of its lost strength. But it is too late to try to marginalise Vox this way: with 10 per cent of the vote, the radical right looks like it may have medium-term roots and the PP may not really be able to form a majority without it again.
Only the PSOE can form a viable coalition and, mathematically, there are two options:
- a PSOE-Ciudadanos coalition, which would have a simple majority (180 of 350 seats)—the two parties made a failed attempt at a pact, with the same party leaders, in the spring of 2016;
- a PSOE government supported by UP and the nationalists, with the former as coalition partner or external support.
The first option, a coalition of the centre, is supported by Spanish business. It could attempt to craft a new constitutional settlement with Catalonia and a centrist economic policy.
Politically, however, a PSOE-Ciudadanos coalition would be pernicious over the medium term. The PSOE would be accused of abandoning its commitments to higher wages and an end to austerity; Ciudadanos would be charged with jettisoning its liberalism and commitment to the unity of Spain. It would, like the grand coalitions in Germany and Italy, hollow out the centre while leaving the extremes to fester in their bunkers. In any case, PSOE militants very vocally rejected an alliance with Ciudadanos and its leader, Rivera, on election night.
A left-wing government would not necessarily be a paragon of stability but it would at least be consistent with the Socialists’ campaign promises and the pursuit of an accommodation with the Barcelona authorities. It would preserve the possibility of a real alternation in power—crucial for democracy—and if it could defuse the Catalan issue it would create a path for the mainstream right to move back towards the centre.
The age of stable bipartisanship in Spain is over. As with the leaders of most other European democracies, those of Spain must face a fragmenting society, a menacing nationalist right, economic headwinds and a general lack of trust in political and other authorities. The task facing Spain’s leader now is to ensure that some form of stable party system emerges and to rebuild—if possible—a right that limits the influence of the nationalist extremes.
Pedro Sánchez is a formidably persistent politician but even he will struggle to knit Spain together again.
Ben Margulies is a lecturer in political science at the University of Brighton. He was previously a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Warwick. He specialises in European, comparative and party politics.