How Spain’s new left-wing coalition fits into Europe’s shifting political allegiances

The leaders of Spain’s PSOE, Pedro Sánchez, and Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, shake hands after signing an accord to form a new coliation government. Gabriel Bouys/AFP

Spain could soon have its first left-wing coalition government after general elections on November 10 led to an agreement between erstwhile political rivals on the left.

These elections were Spain’s second in 2019, but resulted in an even more uncertain political scenario than the results of a vote in April 2019.

In the April 2019 elections, the Socialist Party (PSOE) of Pedro Sánchez won 123 of parliament’s 350 seats. Together with the 42 seats of the radical left alliance Unidas Podemos (UP), led by Pablo Iglesias of the populist party Podemos, this meant that a coalition government looked possible. However, the two parties failed to reach an agreement and the expected coalition government never saw the light of day.

PSOE and UP had multiple disagreements but the main disputes were between the leaders and over which party would run which government ministry. As a result, although some of Spain’s minor regional parties could have helped form a centre-left coalition government, the lack of agreement between the two main parties forced new elections.

The results of the November 10 election, which took place soon after leaders of the Catalan independence movement were jailed, complicated the process of forming a government even further. While PSOE remains the biggest party, it lost three seats and UP lost seven.

The graphs below reflect this recent political instability in Spain through our own statistical analysis. The left-hand graph shows the level of electoral volatility – the net electoral change between parties between two consecutive elections. The higher the number, the more unstable Spain’s politics is. The right-hand graph shows how the effective number of parties, a statistical calculation used to measure the most relevant number of political parties in an election, has shifted since the first democratic elections in 1977 until 2019.

Both indicators reflect the country’s growing political instability, showing that, since 2015, electors have often changed who they voted for. Spain’s two traditional parties – PSOE and the conservative People’s Party – have also become less important. They experienced a drop in their combined percentage share of seats from an average of 85% between the 1990s and 2011 to 60% in the November 2019 election.

Electoral volatility and party fragmentation in Spain. Author provided

This caused a shift in the Spanish political party system that seems to be moving from a competition between political parties towards a pattern characterised by the competition between blocs, similar to the dynamic within Italian party politics.

Nevertheless, on November 12, just one day after the general election, PSOE and UP announced a government deal. This will now be presented to the parliament for approval in a series of investiture votes in December. If ratified this would be the first coalition government in the history of democratic Spain.

No coalition government after 15 elections

In fact, even though government coalitions in Spanish politics are very common at the regional and local level, all 15 national elections since 1977 resulted in minority governments, with or without external support from smaller regional parties. There were just five exceptions that resulted in majority governments (three socialist and two conservative).

The pact between PSOE and UP make us believe that a stable government is now possible in Spain. There will be two votes in the investiture process. In the first, the coalition will need a majority of 176 votes, but in the second, they will just need more Yes votes than No votes. The graph below is an early simulation of the final vote in the Spanish parliament. While various allegiances could shift, especially those of the Catalan parties, our simulation exercise shows that, in the second round of the investiture session, Spain could finally have a government.

The rise of Vox

Although the details of the final coalition government are far from settled, our simulation suggests that it has a good chance of succeeding. This coalition between the left and centre-left would be somewhat of a rarity in Europe. The exception is in Finland, where Prime Minister Antti Rinne leads a coalition including centre-left, left and green parties. Centre-left governments in Portugal, Czech Republic, Denmark and Sweden also have informal support from the radical left.

This coalition, as well as the success of the populist radical right party Vox, can only be understood by taking into account the changes in wider political shifts between the parties. Mainly due to the movement for Catalan independence, territorial splits have become more important in Spanish politics. This split was exploited by Vox, which has condemned the political organisation in charge of greater decentralisation, arguing instead for a much more centralised state.

With this type of discourse, Vox attracted many former People’s Party voters. This shift away from a traditional competition between the left and the right, is partially responsible for the speed at which PSOE and UP came to an agreement.

The European dimension

More broadly, thinking about the dimensions of party competition allow us to better understand southern European political parties’ incentives for forming coalitions in recent years. In Greece, populist left party Syriza was in government with populist radical right party Independent Greeks (Anel) until 2019. In Italy, the populist Five Star Movement similarly built an agreement with the populist radical right party The League and, recently, with the centre-left non-populist Democratic Party.

If we only think about classic left-right divisions, these coalitions seem completely random. But if we take into account the other splits that structure party systems, such as competing views on globalisation and nationalism, then things are much more straightforward to understand.

In Spain, after four elections in four years, a coalition government between PSOE and UP that comprises 155 seats (far from the majority of 176 seats) is close to being settled. However, many questions remain, including whether the government will be stable and whether new elections are likely in the short term. It seems that doubts and the uncertainty will continue to play a role in Spanish politics.

This article was originally published in Spanish