Voters headed to the polls yesterday to decide Spain’s future. But what prompted voters was not the state of the economy, the role of the EU, or even immigration. Instead, what inspired voters at the polls was the issue of Catalan independence and the rise of Spain’s far-right.
“Many of us have voted to avoid the rise of the extreme right,” said Anna, a 50-year-old care worker in Barcelona speaking to Reuters. She told Reuters that she hadn’t voted in the last two national elections, but decided to head to the polls this time over concern about Vox.
It seems she was not alone: Voter turnout was very high this election, despite the frequency of the elections and mounting political instability. Previously dominated by a two-party system, citizens went to the polls with five strong contenders to choose from.
As of late last night, with 99 per cent of the votes counted, Spain’s socialist party – the PSOE – has won the 2019 general election; 11 years after its lasts win. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who leads the centre-left PSOE with a win of 123 seats and a stronger mandate than ever before, is expected to enter negotiations with left-wing populist party Podemos, with 42 seats, to form a leftwing government. In order to clinch the majority, however, it is also likely that Sánchez will rely on the Basque nationalist party, the PNV.
“The Socialist Party won, and we are now going to build the Spain we want,” Sánchez said at a victory rally. “This demonstrates the support the whole country has done in defence of democracy,” he said. “It doesn’t want to go back. It wants a country that advances.”
The win was seen as a strong endorsement of Sánchez’s left-wing policies, which have included a pension overhaul and raising the minimum wage by 22 per cent in 2019. Podemos also signalled its willingness to work with PSOE going forward. Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias glibly noted post-election that “It’s not the result we wanted, but it’s enough to achieve our objectives.”
What Caused this Snap Election?
Yesterday’s elections were called in part due to the Catalan parties withdrawing support from Sánchez’s government due to clashes over the national budget, causing the government to collapse near the start of this year. However, even though Catalan independence has long been a common millstone for Spanish governments, it looks like they miscalculated: while Catalan parties are still represented in parliament, it is likely Sánchez will be able to do entirely without their support this time around, leaving the Catalan parties with less leverage than ever before. It is very likely that Catalan independence will no longer dominate the political agenda going forward.
In Catalonia itself, the independence issue remains a hot one. Within the region, the rise of the Republican Left (ERC), is much talked about. The party is led by Oriol Junquearas, who is currently on trial for his role in Catalonia’s illegal unilateral declaration of independence back in 2017. The rise of ERC is directly related to the demise of the party Together for Catalonia, the party of former president Carles Puigdemont (currently residing in Belgium) – even in the latter’s heartland in the north of the region.
The Right-Wing Post-Mortem
Similarly to other European elections, the right-wing did fairly well – albeit a weaker performance compared to the resurgent rise of the populist right in states like Hungary, Poland, and Italy. However, the vote was a total wipeout for the traditional conservative People’s Party (PP) with a total of 66 seats, losing more than half of their previous holdings of 135 seats. And while PP limped into Parliament, rival centre-right party Ciudadanos got even fewer, with 57 votes – but still an improvement over their 2016 results of 32 seats.
Formerly a right-wing political powerhouse, PP has been fending off allegations of corruption for years. Lack of confidence in the political establishment and competition from both Vox and Cuidadanos ate away at their base of support. In May 2018, former party leader Mariano Rajoy was forced to step down in a vote of no confidence after the National Court ruled the party had profited from funds obtained illegally via “an authentic and efficient system of institutional corruption,” including a slush fund.
Forced to admit defeat Sunday night, Pablo Casado was frank, saying the results were “very bad,” also highlighting the fact to his Popular Party members that “we have been losing our electoral support for several elections.”
The anti-feminist, Euro-skeptic, anti-immigration Vox party, however, won a solid 24 seats in parliament, worth 10 per cent of the vote – their most significant victory since the end of Franco’s dictatorship. “Vox is without a doubt one of the big winners of the night,” said Narciso Michavila, the head of GAD3 pollsters.
While a significant win, Vox still did less well than they had hoped, and failed to play the kingmaker role many predicted they might. Until last night, Vox had expected to win more than 30 seats in the government, an expectation tempered by last night’s final results. Still, there is no doubt Vox is a rising star: during December’s elections in the Andalucían regional election, the party that had splintered from the then-dominant PP five years ago picked up 12 seats, prompting party leader Santiago Abascal to call for a “reconquest” of Spain.
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Speaking to disillusioned PP voters, Vox called for the total suspension of Catalan self-governance “until the defeat of the coup plotters” – those who had called for the independence referendum, and a total ban for parties and NGOs that they considered a threat to the “sovereignty and territorial unity of the nation.” The party spoke out heavily against Sánchez for so much as holding talks with the Catalonians, labelling him as a “traitor to Spanish unity.” Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Madrid in early February demanding both new elections and condemning Sánchez’s handling of the Catalonia issue. Having also engaged in tirades against “feminazis,” Vox spoke against legislation targeting gender violence, and railed against political correctness.
“We are going to have to fight harder. This is only the beginning,” said party leader Santiago Abascal at an event at Vox’s headquarters in Madrid. “We told you were starting a re-conquest and that is what we have done. We are here to stay.”
Vox’s rise has not been as smooth as Abascal may have hoped. In the lead up to yesterday’s elections, Facebook removed three fraudulent far-right networks with over 1.2 million followers, all in support of groups like Vox, engaging in coordinated behaviour on the platform to spread far-right propaganda and encourage divisiveness ahead of Sunday’s elections.
Activist group Avaaz, which tipped off the network, noted that Facebook acted fast, but not fast enough. “These networks are likely just the tip of the disinformation iceberg — and if Facebook doesn’t scale up, such operations could sink democracy across the continent,” said Christoph Schott, campaign director at Avaaz, in a statement. “This is how hate goes viral. A bunch of extremists use fake and duplicate accounts to create entire networks to fake public support for their divisive agenda. It’s how voters were misled in the U.S., and it happened again in Spain,” he added.
While their electoral success shows that Vox’s playbook has worked to bleed support from the previously dominant PP and drag the Spanish right-wing even further from the centre, their less than spectacular breakthrough indicates that their politics may not be nearly as popular with the rest of Spain’s citizens.
Voters seem to concur. Speaking to the Washington Post on election day in Madrid, Spanish citizen Maria Isabel Gómez said, “This election is about the country’s ability to continue advancing, particularly in social reform, education, health care and personal liberties. Vox doesn’t have a program or ideas. We don’t know what they will really do, but they don’t see democracy the same way we do.”
“Trump is coming,” said her husband, José López, 70, comparing Vox to the American president. “They just wrap themselves in the flag and say, ‘We support Spain.’”
Many Europeans were watching the elections with bated breath, seeing the results as something of a bellwether for the European Parliament elections approaching this May – in which populist, far-right parties are also expected to make themselves heard. The results – a left-wing coalition faced with a far-right minority presence – are not entirely surprising for Spain, nor for Europe as a whole.