Social democrats reaffirm their leading position in Spain’s regional and local elections

  • Conservatives retain institutional control and look set to keep the right in power thanks to coalitions with liberals and far right in mid-sized cities
  • Transformative left suffers setbacks but generally performs better where coalitions were maintained
  • Municipalists lose power in a number of cities, often by a very small margin of votes and seats

It is clear that the results give the social democrats more breathing room, consolidating the results of last month’s general election. Their majorities have been maintained, with the number of votes up compared to the last regional and local elections in 2015. This will mean more regional and local governments led by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), probably in some cases with the support of left-wing electoral alliance Unidas Podemos.

The conservative People’s Party (PP) won control of Madrid (both the city and region) and retained power in some key mid-sized cities, having increased its vote compared with the general election on 28 April, when it plummeted. In most cases, the PP will not govern alone but usually with the support of liberals and the far right.

VOX has managed to enter every level of government in just one month. However, in terms of votes and the number of regional and local representatives, they performed well below what the polls suggested. Nonetheless, VOX is key to cementing PP rule in municipalities and regions because in most cases the margin between the left and right blocs has been reduced to just one or two councillors or regional representatives.

The performance of the transformative left, comprising Podemos-IU and the municipalist initiatives, was mixed. In general, however, the left did better where it did not split. In many places, the left had three different names in the ballots for the three different levels of government that were elected yesterday (European, regional and municipal). This differentiated strategy may have hindered the potential of the radical left.

In general, the trend compared with the general election last month was an increase in absolute numbers of votes for the mainstream traditional parties (PSOE and PP) and a decrease for
the liberals (Citizens), Unidas Podemos and municipalists, and VOX.

The liberals have not become the dominant force on the right but will probably enable the PP to enter government at local and regional level in many places.

Results in the ‘cities of change’

Four years ago, Spain was a very rare case of a country in which the radical left was expanding in symbolic but also electoral terms, winning over the country’s main cities. This was thanks to a new political movement called ‘municipalism’. After four years in government, the trend has shifted completely: the municipalists failed to win in many big cities and even with the potential support of the social democrats (or vice versa), the numbers will not allow any ‘progressive bloc’ to govern. Here is a case-by-case analysis:

Madrid

Más Madrid, the successor to Ahora Madrid led by Manuela Carmena, won the election, but together with the PSOE did not garner enough votes to govern the city. A coalition or a minority government led by the PP and supported by Citizens (Ciudadanos) and VOX will put the capital back into the hands of the conservatives, meaning that the far right will enter government for the first time.

Madrid en Pie, the left-wing platform formed by IU, Anticapitalistas and Bancada Municipalista, scored 2.66%, well below the 5% needed for representation. Even if Madrid en Pie’s votes had gone to Más Madrid, Manuela Carmena would still not have won a majority as her party lost a large number of votes.

An important fact to note in terms of turnout: in every district where turnout fell (working-class neighbourhoods), the most popular party was Carmena’s Más Madrid.

Barcelona

The progressive independentist party Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, ERC) won the election in Barcelona, coming 5,000 votes ahead of Barcelona en Comú (BeC). ERC picked up the independentist votes, with the radical left independentist CUP out of the picture and Junts per Catalunya plummeting.

The Socialists’ Party of Catalonia came third, with a sizeable increase in both votes and seats.
The unionist bloc grew and the independentists declined, but the progressive majority in Barcelona remains. Negotiations between ERC, BeC and the PSOE are likely to prove impossible due to their huge differences over the Catalonia conflict, so Ernest Maragall, brother of former mayor Pascual Maragall, is set to become the new mayor of Barcelona, heading a minority government.

Zaragoza

Zaragoza is another ‘city of change’ in which a small margin of seats for the right-wing bloc has made it impossible for the progressive left to govern. In this case, the transformative left were split in two in the run-up to the elections, and yet again the PSOE increased its number of votes and seats compared with 2015. Municipalist movement Zaragoza en Común used to have nine councillors, whereas Podemos and the new Zaragoza en Común managed to win a combined total of just five seats this time round. Despite the PSOE’s 10 seats, the Chunta Aragonesista (the progressive regionalist party in Aragon), which allowed the progressive government in Zaragoza in 2015, failed to gain representation in these elections, ruling out the possibility of a progressive government.

Valencia

In Valencia, the Compromís government will return to power. Compromís is the progressive regionalist government of Valencia, which in some respects is close to Podemos and the cities of change but which also has its own parliamentary group at national level. It is considered to be on ‘the right side of the left’.
PSOE support will put Joan Ribó in charge of the city for another four years.

A Coruña

Marea dropped from 10 to six seats, and the conservatives won the city with the same number of seats as the social democrats. A progressive government is possible if the BNG (the Galician leftist regional party) and Marea support the PSOE, but A Coruña’s previous municipalist government is a thing of the past.

Bilbao

The Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) has been in power in Bilbao for 40 years and won a majority once again. Its results improved in the three capitals of the Basque Country, and it is likely to govern in all three cities, supported by the Socialist Party of the Basque Country-Basque Country Left (PSE-EE).

Cádiz

Cádiz is the outright exception. The current mayor José María González Santos (known as ‘Kichi’), of Podemos (more specifically the anti-capitalist faction), will remain in government with his Adelante Cádiz platform (including IU), which increased its votes and seats. In the last election, two leftist parties joined forces in Cádiz, winning a total of 10 seats. This time, with only one force on the left, the radical left won 13 seats, very close to an absolute majority.

Municipal scenario

The margin of votes and seats in the main cities was minimal in many cases, as it was generally in the last election too. The ‘cities of change’ movement probably had more to do with a demobilisation of the right, which has recently re-mobilised. In Madrid, for example, even with the split, the decrease in votes for the progressive bloc was just 527. The point is that the conservatives grew. In the case of Barcelona, the progressive majority has been broken by the Catalonia conflict and the arithmetic for the negotiations is extremely complicated.
In some cases, the social democrats moved into the space vacated by the loss of votes on the left.
IU performed better than in 2015, increasing its number of representatives and keeping hold of key cities like Zamora.

Analysing the local results in the round is risky because the reasons for the fall or rise of municipalist fortunes can be explained by different local trends in each city. However, the fact is that municipalist councillors are most likely to be in opposition and the reconfiguration of the left needs to be discussed.

In this regard, municipalism is still a player on the local scene and the four years of municipalist governments have put in place many important public policies that cannot now be reversed. In political terms, the alternative ways of approaching local organisation and policymaking remain in place. Four years ago, the scope of what was possible in Spanish local politics opened up and this space has not yet closed. Now is the time for regrouping and discussion, and many alternative proposals should emerge in this term that will enable the municipalists to face the next elections with greater political maturity.

Analysis by region

There were no regional elections in Catalonia, Galicia, the Basque Country, Andalusia and the Valencian Community, so those regions are excluded from this analysis.

In the Community of Madrid, the right-wing People’s Party (PP) – despite losing 11% of its votes, meaning 18 fewer seats (out of 132) – is still able to form a government with the support of liberals (Citizens) and the far right (VOX). The likelihood of an agreement between the right-wing parties means that the PP will hold on to one of its most important ‘fiefdoms’, namely the Madrid region. While the PSOE won the most votes, it did not increase either its votes or its seats, which is the opposite of what happened in most other regions. Más Madrid – a breakaway from Unidas Podemos, led by Íñigo Errejón – won 14.65% of the votes and 20 seats. Unidas Podemos fared worst, picking up 5.5% and seven seats. This almost saw them excluded from the regional assembly, which has an entry threshold of 5%.

In Castile-La Mancha, the Socialist Party won with a broad majority, picking up 44% of the votes, more than enough to form a majority government. Castile-La Mancha is one of the traditional fiefdoms of the Socialist Party, which governed with Podemos in the previous term. However, after this election, Podemos has no seats in the region, its vote share falling from 10% to less than 7%. The far right has no institutional representation, and the two mainstream party groups consolidated their positions, namely the Socialist Party and the right wing/liberals (with 28% and 11% respectively).

Extremadura and La Rioja are two regions where the coalition between IU and Podemos worked well, especially for IU. Even though the coalition lost votes in both regions compared with 2015, the blow was cushioned. More importantly for IU, the coalition with Podemos enabled it to secure institutional representatives in two regions where it had not been represented for a long time.

On the other hand, in Cantabria, Castile and León and Murcia, where there was no coalition between IU and Podemos, the left performed very badly. In Cantabria, neither party secured representation and in Castile and León and Murcia, Podemos saw its vote fall from 12% to less than 5%, and from 13% to 5% respectively, winning minimal representation in the regional assemblies.

Regional scenario

At regional level, the socialists generally benefitted from the national momentum, but neither they nor their potential partners won enough votes to govern. The PSOE reaped the rewards of its success in the general election just one month ago. The conservatives continued their sharp decline, hit by structural corruption and the breakaway of VOX on their extreme right. The neofascist, misogynist and racist far-right VOX party won seats in seven of the 12 regions where elections took place, and have thus secured seats at every institutional level: local, regional, national and European. This will give them a lot of resources as well as the ability to form governments with conservatives and liberals (as has already been the case in Andalusia since December 2018) and to influence the political agenda.

The transformative left parties suffered a notable fall. In general terms, in the regions where the left parties joined forces, i.e. as part of the Unidas Podemos coalition, the blow was softened. In the case of IU, despite the poor showing by Unidas Podemos, it was able to win seats in three regions – the Balearic Islands, Rioja and Extremadura – where it had not had seats for several years. A graphic example of the effect of not joining forces was Castile and León, where Podemos lost nine of its 10 seats and IU lost its only seat. Had the two parties worked together as Unidas Podemos, their joint tally of one seat would have been at the expense of VOX.

In short, the general overview is that, while the Socialist Party won the most votes in almost all the regions, the combined performance of the left was not enough to form governments. Consequently liberal and far-right parties will have the keys to power, either as single-party governments or coalitions, as has already happened in Andalusia.

This is happening at the same time as discussions on forming the national government, so multiple scenarios are already possible. The Citizens party could enter coalitions with the PSOE in some regions to prevent the far right gaining power. However, it would seem that Citizens feels more comfortable working with VOX (with the Catalonia conflict as an excuse), despite the disapproval of its European partners. A coalition with VOX is the only way for conservatives to retain power in some regions. On the other hand, in some other regions, the combined left – Socialist and Unidas Podemos – have an absolute majority. It is not yet clear whether Unidas Podemos will adopt the same strategy as at national level, i.e. asking to be part of the government in exchange for supporting the PSOE.

General overview

The leaders of Podemos and IU have argued recently that there is a clear trend: when the left works together in elections, it performs better. It is now apparent that this is not enough, as Unidas Podemos has seen its votes and seats decline significantly, both at national level one month ago and now in these elections. However, the leaders’ statements indicate their willingness to maintain the pact between the two political forces.

It is paradoxical now that Unidas Podemos is pushing for a coalition government at national level, having performed quite badly at the regional and local levels. According to its latest statements, the PSOE is not willing to form a coalition government with Unidas Podemos. However, some regions could be in the hands of PSOE/Unidas Podemos coalitions. Others are awaiting the outcome of negotiations with Citizens, which would be a red line for Unidas Podemos to join those governments.

The debate now seems to be focused on the splits in the left and how this impacted the results, but the data shows that there has been a decline across the board, so this seems rather a weak explanation or at least it does not explain the whole situation. Fear of the far right has worked to the electoral advantage of the social democrats rather than the left. Following the motion of censure at national level, the social democrats have seen their poll ratings increase. In a sense, the PSOE has gained momentum from a situation and has kept up that momentum in a very advantageous way until this electoral cycle. In other words, the social democrats have played their cards well. As such, the increase in votes for the conservatives (despite their much weakened status) compared with the election a month ago might suggest that Spain’s ‘old’ parties have more life in them than was generally thought.

The decline of the radical left is universally acknowledged. It was actually the big loser of this electoral cycle, although there are some lights in the tunnel of course. The consolidation of social democracy as the main force in the country at all levels and the channelling of votes from Unidas Podemos to the PSOE are developments that will be much debated.

Even though the traditional Spanish bipartisanship is not a valid framework of analysis anymore, it seems that there is still a logic of blocks, left and right, with two or three parties in each side, instead of one like 5 years ago. If this logic of block is currently valid because there is a clear exchange of votes within the blocks, the discussions, reflection, self-criticism, challenges and next steps among the diverse left forces should take this into account. In terms of government coalitions, though, this logic could be broken by PSOE and Ciudadanos agreements in many regions and cities, as lately we are also witnessing at European level.