Since Spain’s last elections in 2015, there has been no shortage of conflict, tension and surprise developments around the country. There was the June 2018 no-confidence vote that led to the fall of Mariano Rajoy and his center-right government, with Pablo Casado taking control of the People’s Party. The Socialist Party (PSOE) rose to power and Pedro Sánchez became prime minister, but the party was subsequently defeated in the Andalusian regional elections by the far-right Vox. Then there was the seemingly endless Catalonia independence standoff, followed by the rise of right-wing politician Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo and the confirmation of Inés Arrimadas of Ciudadanos as a seemingly realistic alternative for the province, and Spain.
A new scenario
Now we have election results that leave Spain with a new normality.
PSOE (the Socialist Party) achieves its goal. It has an electoral victory on which to leverage its past government strategy and propose a new project in the short term. With a government of unstable support, we may see more social and emotional politics. The leadership of Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister, is indisputable. Winner.
PP (People’s Party) has a serious problem. The PP must now quickly define a new political strategy. The PP has underpinned the political right in Spain since 1989, the date of its refoundation, and was in power from 1996 to 2004 and from 2011 to 2018. It has now suffered its biggest historical defeat, sinking to a low that will force it to rethink its mission. Its crisis, with a loss of 71 seats, is unprecedented. The PP has lost, big time.
Ciudadanos suffers a middle-age crisis. It has secured 55 seats, but failed to achieve its real objective, which was to overcome the PP and become the voice of the opposition. It has made progress (up 25 seats), but was still 220,000 votes behind the PP. Landing in third position means nothing in political terms – it is neither the opposition nor the government. In the current political context, Ciudadanos risks becoming a “support” party, not one that governs. It wins, but loses.
Unidas Podemos (UP) recovered during the second week of the campaign. The UP is located to the left of the PSOE. It opted for the rhetoric of the European left, close to Yanis Varoufakis (Greece) or Jean-Luc Melenchon (France). But that ideological segment is limited in Spain and does not connect with other social/demographic layers. In practice, the UP missed an opportunity to focus its appeal to voters. But while it lost votes and seats, it will get a prize because its support will be decisive in the process of electing the prime minister. The party loses, but wins.
Vox enters parliament. The extreme-right party now has seats at the table, where it will receive media attention and be able to make its demands visible. With this power comes a responsibility: it will now have to offer specific policies, not just slogans. It shares a lesson with Podemos: voters come and go. Let’s not take this 2019 result as an electoral floor or ceiling, because vote transfers have just begun – the passage of voters from one party to another. The electoral market is a zero-sum game, with the number of voters fixed, so they flow from one party to another. In Spain there was historically no significant transfer from the PP to the PSOE and vice-versa. But with the arrival of Vox, Ciduadanos and Podemos, everything is new. For that reason, we don’t yet know if the Vox voter will be faithful in the municipal elections. At the moment, the party has obtained fewer votes in the national elections than in the Andalusian ones in that territory. Winner.
Nationalist parties maintain their course. They win. In particular, the success of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, which has managed to seize the Catalan sphere, should be highlighted. ERC is the Catalan left that groups pro-independence positions and other sovereignist voices. This matters because Catalan nationalism is fractured between ERC, on the left, and Junts, on the right). The fact that ERC has captured all these voters and surpassed the PSC (Catalan version of PSOE) is relevant.
Next up are Spain’s municipal elections, which will take place on May 26. They’re important because gaining control of big cities gives parties greater visibility and institutional power and allows them to exercise leadership and make decisions. This is essential for parties without a long track record (Vox, Ciudadanos and Podemos) and for more established ones, it allows them to create real alternatives to the ruling Socialist Party. For example, Podemos has greater influence thanks to the mayorships of Barcelona and Madrid, while Ciudadanos, without control of key cities, loses this advantage.
When Spain is bored, in the manner of the famous article by Pierre Viansson-Ponté prior to the Paris explosion of May 1968, new tensions, new political scenarios and new actors appear. And so has been the case with these elections.