Spain’s centre-left Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was the decisive winner in last night’s general election, securing a 12-point victory in a fragmented political landscape. With 29 percent of the vote, his Socialist Party capitalised on a higher-than-usual turnout as voters mobilized against the threat of a major breakthrough from the extreme-right.
In a contest that saw candidates cast one another as an existential threat to the nation, a fragmented right bloc failed to make gains where the left parties united against the insurgent far-right Vox party. The prediction the Right may mobilise new demographics that included abstaining voters around Spain’s fraught national question - having labelled Sánchez a “coup-plotter” and his allies as the enemy within - ultimately missed the mark. As veteran Spanish journalist Pedro J Ramirez put it, “many Spaniards feared [a] Vox [government] more than they feared [regional] independentists”.
The interim prime minister had framed this election as a straightforward choice between a progressive and open vision for the country, represented by his party, or a regression to worst of Spain’s past, as personified by Santiago Abascal’s extremist Vox. In the end, Vox registered a lower-than-expected 10 percent of the vote - though, still the far right’s first significant national breakthrough since Franco - and the broader right-wing bloc totalled just over 43 percent. In this sense, the result was a clear rejection of the Right’s promise for further confrontation around Catalan independence.
Sánchez called the election in February after only nine months in the job, betting he could strengthen his hand both internally and externally. His so-called “Frankenstein coalition”, made up of anti-austerity coalition Unidas Podemos as well as Basque and Catalan nationalists, had been unstable from the beginning. Caught between an increasingly radicalized Right, on the one hand, and a reliance on the Catalan parties to pass key legislation, on the other, he seized an opportunity to call snap elections in February.
The defeat of Sánchez’s 2019 budget that same week, which also saw the trial of the leaders at the centre of 2017’s Catalan independence drive get underway, made clear the limits of his interim administration, as it began to crumble under the weight of its own contradictions. Now, a year after ousting Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party government in a vote of censure, and less than two since he regained his party’s leadership in dramatic fashion after a palace coup, his group is the envy of social-democratic forces across Europe.
Both the no-confidence motion and Sanchez’s dramatic primaries comeback were in different ways instrumentalised by the actions of Spain’s new left-wing force, Podemos. The young party was not fighting this election on its own terms as it had done in 2015 and 2016 - its populist “above/below” framing has been replaced by a renewed discursive confrontation between left- and right-wing identity. Moreover, since their parliamentary cooperation began with PSOE last summer, it has been Sanchez and not Pablo Iglesias’ formation that has come out on top in a struggle for hegemony of the progressive bloc. In this respect, Spain’s political map now looks even more like Portugal’s than it did last year when Podemos themselves - perhaps naively - began to talk publicly of a formal coalition.
This relationship remains a dilemma for both parties, although Sánchez may now feel confident he can contain Podemos as a junior ally as he seeks to govern alone with their external support. The reliance of his administration on some kind of support from regional nationalists complicates matters further, as the outcome of the politically explosive Catalan trial will coincide with government formation talks.
The verdict and sentencing will doubtless be a propaganda coup for Spain’s radicalised Right. This galvanised bloc had bet that, after removing the Socialists from Andalusia’s regional government in December for the first time in 36 years, it could produce a similar result at the national level as public opinion became increasingly entrenched around the national question. If its fragmentation, along with a demobilised left vote, helped it to victory at the end of last year, though, the intense competition among right-wing parties split their vote in key constituencies this weekend.
One of the main upshots of this election is the collapse of the conservative Popular Party (PP), seeing its share of seats more than halve at 66. Vox and Ciudadanos - which, until last year, still defined itself as “social-democratic” on its party statutes - are in their different ways scissions of the PP. The fear that Vox would go beyond the largely middle- and high-income demographics it attracted in Andalusia ultimately did not appear to take place. Although the party (and Casado’s PP) copied a good deal from Trump’s playbook in this election, it did not seek to exploit social vulnerability to reach out to working-class communites as Marine Le Pen done but stuck to its purely identitarian appeal.
Sanchez’s electoral wager, polarising the Spanish electorate around fear of the far right has paid off and he is now in the driving seat going into government talks. However, his negative campaign and his failure to defend a left-wing agenda raises doubts over his next move. Addressing supporters at PSOE’s Madrid headquarters last night, it seemed clear the former are holding out for a left coalition of some kind. Sanchez’s reply, however, was characteristically ambiguous and elusive.