A bad day for the right
The Spanish general election and what it teaches us
The most recent turning points in Spanish politics occurred on 2 December 2018 and 13 February 2019. 2 December saw regional elections in the Autonomous Community of Andalusia, where the left had been in power for decades. The social-democratic PSOE party suffered a significant decline, dropping seven percentage points. While the conservative People's Party (PP) also lost around five percentage points, the elections in Andalusia were nevertheless a clear victory for the right. The far-right VOX party came from virtually nowhere to take almost 11% of the vote, and the centre-right liberal Citizens party (Ciudadanos) upped their vote by nine percentage points to around 18%. With 59 out of 109 seats in the Anadalusian parliament, the PP, VOX and Citizens were able to form a stable governing majority. The election result and the rapid formation of a coalition between the three right-wing parties sent shock waves through Spanish politics. The far-right newcomer VOX made a particularly big splash and until the general election on 28 April sought to set the political agenda with its own brand of extreme polarisation, strident nationalism, undisguised xenophobia and overt anti-feminism. The success of an extreme right-wing party also came as a shock to Spain's political left.
The second turning point followed in mid-February 2019. Pedro Sánchez had been elected prime minister on 1 June 2018 following a vote of no confidence in Mariano Rajoy, and had since led a minority government with his PSOE party, backed by Unidas Podemos, the Basque PNV and separatist parties. Early elections were always on the cards given the fragility of the alliance and the parliamentary arithmetic. On 13 February, Sánchez failed to get his draft budget through parliament after the Catalan separatists voted against it. This was also unsurprising as the trials against leading representatives of the Catalan independence movement had begun in Madrid that week. Following the collapse of this minority government, new elections were called for 28 April 2019.
The nationalist dynamic
With Citizens and VOX predicted to do well, and in view of the coalition formed in Andalusia, the possibility of a national government comprising the three right-wing parties was talked of as a serious option ahead of the election, and indeed right up until election day. This was viewed as a dream coalition by the right and a nightmare scenario by the left. The conflict over Catalonia dominated large parts of the election campaign, with all three right-wing parties adopting a rigidly nationalist stance. The PP in particular, under its new leader Pablo Casado, veered sharply to the right and acted in a manner reminiscent of the extreme right. The high symbolic charge introduced into Spanish politics by the Catalonia conflict affected all political parties, as illustrated by the rejection of the draft budget in February 2019. This move by the separatist regional parties was not a vote against the budget itself but against the court cases under way in Madrid. The election campaign too was to a large extent overshadowed by this conflict, something that the right in particular tried to turn to its advantage. Even Citizens, part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) in the European Parliament, took a firmly nationalist stance on the Catalonia issue. Especially in Catalonia itself, the party was perceived as an uncompromising force for Spanish nationalism. In this charged environment, it will be hard for left-wing forces such as the PSOE, but especially for Unidas Podemos, the United Left coalition (Izquierda Unida) and Podemos, to make themselves heard with a non-nationalist agenda, an emphasis on social and democratic principles and a willingness to engage in dialogue with the regionalist parties. This is also a concern for the municipal citizen platforms, which will have to prove their worth in the upcoming local elections in May. Such platforms currently govern Madrid, Zaragoza and Barcelona as well as a number of other Spanish cities, but whether they can hold on to this strong position is questionable. In Barcelona especially, the dispute over Catalonia threatens to sideline the progressive grassroots platform Barcelona en Comú and its popular mayor Ada Colau. However, the results of the general election on 28 April are now likely to raise some cautious hope even here.
Defeat for the right, differentiation of the political camps
The general election was, first and foremost, a crushing (and, in its scale, surprising) defeat for PP leader Pablo Casados and his policy of appealing to the shrill right-wing rhetoric of the VOX party. Admittedly, the PP is undergoing a major crisis of confidence following a number of corruption scandals, and Mariano Rajoy's administration was not exactly a golden age for the party. Nevertheless, its defeat now appears rather more serious than might have been thought. In the 2018 Andalusian election, the PP had seen its vote fall by almost six percentage points to 20.8%. In the 2019 general election, it was down by 16.3 percentage points nationally, halving its share of the vote to just 16.7%. This was a historic defeat, and not offset for the right by the gains made by Citizens and VOX.
The PSOE and Citizens won enough seats together to give them a narrow majority, but the likelihood of such a coalition is low. Citizens has positioned itself in the right-wing camp and the nature of Spain's central political conflicts suggests that the deep division of the country between two fundamentally divergent camps will persist. And while Citizens' European allies might wish otherwise, both the newer right-wing parties – Citizens and, of course, VOX – are offshoots of the PP and are therefore connected to its political project. The differentiation of Spain's political camps, which may not yet be complete, has surely done nothing to bridge the divide between 'las dos Españas'.
The same observation applies to Unidas Podemos. The alliance lost almost seven percentage points in the general election, picking up just 14.3% of the vote. This made it the second biggest loser in these elections after the PP. In both the 2015 and 2016 general elections, Podemos or its two-party alliance polled over 20%. In 2015, Podemos alone managed to almost overtake the PSOE and there was even talk of it replacing the PSOE as the country's leading left-wing party. Such claims are unlikely to be made now, but then the 2015 and 2016 elections were heavily influenced by the protest movements of 2011 and 2012, from which the Podemos party emerged. Izquierda Unida, for its part, had not scored over 10% in any elections since the mid-1990s, and while there may have been some disappointment in this camp in view of Podemos' past performance, its result was actually pretty respectable. The PSOE's excellent mobilisation, including legitimate concerns and warnings about a right-wing coalition, may also have come at the expense of Unidas Podemos, some of whose voters may have preferred to back Pedro Sánchez in view of the current situation.
A sign from Catalonia
In Catalonia, something remarkable happened at this general election. In 2016, Carles Puigdemont's conservative and separatist electoral alliance Junts per Catalunya came out on top in the nationwide poll. This year it was relegated to fourth place, garnering 12% of the vote. The strongest party, with just under 25%, was the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), which now has 15 seats in parliament. Although a separatist party, ERC is more social-democratic in policy terms, and on issues of independence and regionalism would make a more suitable partner for the PSOE than the conservative separatists. ERC could now play a significant role as a regional party in the Spanish parliament, and its improved showing may be seen as a sign of tenacity but also of the willingness of many in Catalonia's separatist community to engage in dialogue. If Pedro Sánchez plays his cards right, ERC's deputies could help the left-wing camp form a majority in parliament and significantly advance the dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona. Assuming a measure of goodwill, the Catalan election result provides the best conditions for such an outcome.
Bad news for the right
Adopting and pandering to right-wing/populist positions has not led the PP out of its crisis; rather it has exacerbated the crisis into one of existential proportions. While the circumstances and issues may be different, this is yet more proof that, by espousing far-right principles, conservative parties struggle to maintain, and may even considerably worsen, their position. 28 April was undoubtedly an electoral victory for the far-right VOX party, but for the right as a whole it was a defeat. This should not blind us to the fact that the election campaign and results will have very negative consequences. Political sentiment and culture have been further poisoned, polarisation has been amplified and all the adverse effects of right-wing populist mobilisation will become apparent. And with just over 10% of the vote, there can be no doubt that VOX has become part of the Spanish political scene. That said, the left technically won a majority, and the key to making that majority effective will be a willingness to compromise and engage in dialogue on the issue of Catalonia. If Pedro Sánchez were now to show such a willingness, this would undoubtedly be the worst of all news for the nationalist right. The Sánchez government has thus been given the option of an extension, a fresh opportunity to tackle the country's pressing social and economic problems and perhaps also to set in train a constitutional process that can address the regions' desire for self-determination on the basis of federalisation and greater democratisation.