Yesterday's election shows that there is no clear way forward for any party
Two months ago, socialist Pedro Sánchez’s prospects of renewing his position as Prime Minister of Spain seemed doomed. His party had lost by heavy margins to the conservative Popular Party, or PP, in local and regional elections in May, resulting in Sánchez’s decision to call a general election for 23rd July.
But to nearly everyone’s surprise, it was the Right, not Spain’s Left-wing parties, that underperformed last night. Despite securing 33% of the vote in yesterday’s election, Alberto Núñez Feijóo’s PP does not have the votes to form an outright majority — even with the support of the radical Right-wing party Vox. Sánchez, meanwhile, finished second with 31.7% of the vote, which may be enough to make him the only party leader capable of becoming Spain’s next PM.
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The bigger story, however, is that the relative success of Feijóo and Sánchez shows that Spain’s establishment parties remain firmly in control. Sánchez’s PSOE and Feijóo’s PP garnered almost 16 million ballots between them, but their success masks several deeper-lying problems in the Spanish system, namely political polarisation and electoral fragmentation.
Although Vox and the Left-wing party Sumar, formerly Podemos, underperformed in these elections, they have consolidated their role as ancillary forces of the two larger parties of Spanish politics. Indeed, it was these two — not the Socialists or PP — that shaped the election’s narrative by reviving the rhetoric of Spain’s Civil War, conveying a clash between the return of Franco and the Red Terror, as well as taking stands on culture war issues related to migration, transgenderism, feminism and ecologism.
These are issues that populist parties across Europe have tapped into, but what makes Spain different is that the country is still reeling from secessionist movements in Catalonia and, to a lesser extent, the Basque region. As a result, Vox’s virulently anti-Catalan and anti-Basque stance has become a major obstacle to the Right-wing coalition securing enough support in the parliament. Had there been no Vox, conservative votes likely would have gone directly to the PP, making it more likely for Feijóo to strike deals with various moderate peripheral nationalist forces.
Sánchez has learnt to navigate this unstable reality better. By constantly claiming that “fascism is coming”, he knows that Left-wing and centre-right peripheral nationalists have no option other than to keep him in office. Nevertheless, due to a successful campaign by Catalan nationalists to abstain from voting in this election, Sánchez’s political future rests in the hands of Carles Puigdemont’s Junts party. If Puigdemont, the exiled former president of Catalonia, doesn’t marshal votes in the direction of Sánchez to form a coalition government, Spain will likely have to repeat elections next autumn.
Yesterday’s result shows that Spain’s political system remains deeply fragmented and unstable. And while fears of a populist insurgency were overblown, the existing problems are not only not going away, but widening too.