On December 2, 2018, mere days before the 40th anniversary of the ratification of the Spanish constitution, Andalucía held elections for their regional government. The results have implications beyond its borders, and could result in early general elections.
This election is the first test for Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who took power this summer after his coalition ousted the conservative People’s Party (PP), following a parliamentary no-confidence vote. Sánchez’s government has since faced some high-profile resignations. The government’s Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE), had thought to maintain a strong hold on Andalucía, or at least lose as few seats as possible.
Those hopes were dashed. Even before the election, support for the ultra-conservative right-wing was on the rise. The combination of corruption scandals, and the Catalan independence crisis all served to weaken the PP’s standing among the Spanish right. The PP, which had previously been the umbrella for right-wing political organising in Spain, responded by moving further to the right – but it’s the tiny, far-right Vox party, that made the largest gains in the polls, capitalising on issues of immigration and frustration with the EU.
Taking 33 seats, PSOE won the majority of seats in the election, but lost so many overall that its rule of the region collapsed. Meanwhile, a total of 12 seats, representing 11% of the vote, went to Vox. Even with the support of the 17 seats from the Podemos-led Adelante Andalucía coalition, the PSOE is still short of the 55 seats it needs to form a majority in the regional coalition. However, despite losing seats of their own, the conservative PP took 26 seats, and the centre-right, Ciudadanos party, took 21. Were they to join with Vox, they would command a right-wing majority with 59 seats – potentially making Vox a kingmaker. This shift was both unprecedented and unexpected, and the result will be the recognition of Vox and its far-right politics as a legitimate political party.
The impact of the electoral results could resonate beyond Spanish borders, with far-reaching effects influencing the European elections in May of next year. Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian Prime Minister, and President of ALDE in the European Parliament, warned that the success of the far right was something that should worry us all. “We face a battle for Europe’s soul at the European elections in May.”
Prime Minister Sánchez is determined that this will not alter the government’s agenda. In a tweet, he wrote “My government will carry on with its pro-European renovation project for Spain. The results in Andalucía strengthen our commitment to defending democracy and the constitution in the face of fear.”
Sánchez is considering holding elections on May 26th, 2019, the same date as regional, local, and European elections, making it a “Super Sunday” election day. Holding early elections could be advantageous, as it may help the government leverage upon its relative popularity, as well as prevent any backlash that could come from governing without a new budget – an issue that is of increasing importance as elections draw nearer. One of the pillars of the new budget is a minimum wage hike of 22% – recently announced to take effect in January – the largest annual increase in over 40 years.
Prime Minister Sánchez announced the increase, saying that “a rich country cannot have poor workers”. This came about two days after French President, Emmanuel Macron, announced a 100 euro increase for minimum wage workers, following weeks of protests from the “gilets jaunes” movement against the high cost of living, including a gas tax.
This particular measure, along with other socially-oriented policies such as a raise in pensions, and increased unemployment and disability benefits, are part of Sánchez’s courting of the anti-austerity party Podemos. But their support, while necessary, isn’t sufficient to get the budget passed through Parliament. Without the PP’s support, Sánchez needs the backing of at least a few of the nationalist and smaller parties. Already under duress from the rise of the Vox party, Sánchez is being pressured on multiple fronts, including both the EU and domestic opposition parties, who are casting doubt on the government’s ability to finance the proposed budget.
As Sánchez heads a minority government (84 seats out of a total of 350 in Congress), he needs the support of other parties to pass a new budget. But to pass the budget, Sánchez requires the support of the Catalan parties. Because of the ongoing strife between the government and Catalan independence leaders, these parties are unlikely to support this endeavor. Until Sánchez passes his budget, he must continue to rely on the current fiscal plan passed by his predecessor. Unsurprisingly, Sánchez has said that if the new budget is not approved, his “call to govern to the end of the term will be cut short.”
In a bid to push forward a solution, the leader of the Podemos party, Pablo Iglesias, met with jailed leaders of the Catalan independence movement for four hours, to discuss the government’s new budget. However, the 17 members of Congress representing the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the European Democratic Party of Catalonia (PdeCAT), are only willing to negotiate the budget if Sánchez’s government offers a goodwill gesture, and releases the independence leaders, who are currently being held in detention due to their role in last year’s unauthorised independence referendum.
Iglesias also telephoned ousted Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont, who is in self-imposed exile in Brussels, after he fled charges concerning his involvement in the independence movement.
After leaving the prison, Iglesias said “I have done my job. Now it is up to the government.” He then said, “I have never supported the separatist cause, [but] I hope I never again have to go to a prison to speak with a political adversary.” ERC deputy Joan Tardà thanked Iglesias for his visit and his “empathy and solidarity,” and added “We will make an effort, but the government has to as well.”
The fate of the 2019 budget remains undecided; however, ongoing party negotiations are a good sign. Right-wing parties, PP and Ciudadanos, hold 166 seats between them, and will vote against the plan. That means the government needs the support of at least one Catalan party, and an abstention from the other. Considering the likely popularity of the social measures proposed in the new budget, President Sánchez may just pull it off.