Spain’s citizens flocked to polls for the fourth time in four years last Sunday, hoping to break the existing political deadlock. But results now are just as inconclusive as they previously were, with the left losing a few seats, the right gaining more, and the centre all but wiping out. Voter frustration was evident, as turnout dropped to 69.9 percent versus the 75.5 percent seen last April.
The Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE), led by acting president Pedro Sánchez, won 120 seats and retained its lead – albeit with three fewer seats than in the last election. The right-wing PP party won 88 seats, while far-right Vox surged ahead to become the third-largest party in Parliament – more than doubling its seat count from 24 to 52 seats and making it the biggest winner of yesterday’s elections.
Other parties also saw a reshuffling in their electoral fortunes. The anti-austerity Unidas Podemos came in fourth at 35 seats, with the pro-independence Catalan Republican left in fifth place with 13 seats. Seven months ago, Citizens (Ciudadanos) had 57 seats; now they have 10, and the party’s leader, Albert Rivera, resigned on Monday.
These results mean that Spain is more politically fragmented than ever. But despite predictions that months of negotiations lie ahead, Podemos and PSOE have managed to cobble together a preliminary coalition deal, locking Vox and their right-wing compatriots out of government – assuming they get more allies on board to reach the 176 seats needed. El Diario newspaper has reported that the alliance hopes to entice other parties to join them, including the significantly-reduced centrist Ciudadanos party, far-left Mas Pais, and the Basque nationalist PNV. If this deal is confirmed, Spain will see its first coalition government since the country’s return to democracy in the late 1970s.
In his victory speech, Sánchez announced his intentions to form a progressive government, and warned challengers and opponents from standing in his way. The acting deputy president, Carmen Calvo, said in a speech Monday morning that the PP and Citizens’ decision over the last year to work with Vox to take power in some Spanish regions was a complication.
“We’ll try to explore [a] situation that will lead to a stable government”, Calvo said. “The PP is in a complicated situation. It and Citizens are responsible for the level of support the far right has received. They haven’t shown themselves able to stand up to radicalisation. The PP will have a problem if it’s dragged along by Vox and becomes a constant obstacle in Spanish politics.”
Unidas Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias has offered to help Sánchez retain his office, and is wary of further elections, noting that this one served “to reinforce the right and to give us one of the most powerful extreme right in Europe”. Even so, an alliance falls short of the 176 needed to secure a majority in Parliament, and repeat elections could result if a wider alliance is not secured. If they manage to make the coalition government work, Iglesias would be the new deputy president.
Podemos and PSOE’s refusal to bridge their political differences is what triggered these new elections in April, when Rivera rejected facilitating Sánchez’s return to office. The Spanish people are unlikely to feel kindly towards Podemos should a repeat of April’s contentions happen again this November.
Vox party leader, Santiago Abascal, remains jubilant over his party’s rise. He received congratulations from his far-right political peers abroad, including France’s Marine Le Pen, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders. “We have led a cultural and political change, because we have opened up all the forbidden debates and told the left that the story isn’t over yet and that they don’t have any moral superiority”, Abascal told journalists after the election.
This election’s results have signalled a big change. At this time last year, Spain was the only large country in Europe without a populist party sitting in parliament. Now, it joins the ranks of other EU nations fighting xenophobic far-right parties within their own government.
A fractured political landscape and voter apathy are only some of the obstacles facing Spain today.
This election took place in the shadow of renewed tensions concerning Catalonia. Following the conclusion of a landmark trial, nine former Catalan leaders were incarcerated, and some Catalan MEPs were unable to take their seats in the European Parliament due to the trial results. The sentencing sparked mass protests, some of which grew violent. This, in turn, caused right-wing Spanish parties to demand a tough response from Sánchez, whom they often accused of being too soft on the Catalan separatists. It also helped to boost Vox’s popularity, which was evident in the poll results.
Meanwhile, Catalonia’s pro-independence parties also made hay of the issue, as the Republican Left beat the Catalan Socialists into second place in the region, and the far-left pro-independence Catalan Popular Unity Candidacy party nabbed its first two seats in the national parliament as well.
Meanwhile unemployment is on the rise, with over 100,000 people more out of work. The European Commission noted that the economy is doing less well than predicted, and revised 2019’s total growth forecast down to 1.9 percent, from a previous 2.3 percent, and 2020’s down to 1.5 percent.
The exhumation of Franco’s remains from his mausoleum also sharpened divides among the electorate. While the Socialists hoped to use it to court left-wing voters, others warned of backfire. Fernando Vallespin, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Madrid, has said that the move would “not have the effect that the government, optimistically, thought it would”.
How developments and alliance play out in the coming weeks will be critical to the success of the Spanish government, as citizens hope this latest vote is their last one for a while.