Paulo Valdivieso / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
Paulo Valdivieso / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

2019 European Parliament Elections in Spain

Luis Ramiro

Increased Polarisation and Fragmentation in the Shadow of National Electoral Politics

  • 2019 marks the beginning of a new electoral cycle: general elections, regional elections, local elections and European Parliament elections
  • The European Parliament elections will take place just one month after crucial general elections
  • Left-wing parties are entering the electoral cycle in very different positions: PSOE recovered, the radical left greatly weakened

The political and electoral context ahead of the 2019 European Parliament (EP) elections in Spain could not be more different from the context in the aftermath of the 2014 EP elections. After several years of political discontent triggered by the effects of the 2008 Great Recession and a string of very high-profile political scandals, the 2014 EP electoral results opened a new electoral cycle that included what many observers and, above all, some party politicians understood as a new era for Spanish left-wing parties. The five years that have passed since then have undoubtedly been momentous for Spanish politics in general, but the earth-shattering period for the Spanish progressive forces launched by those elections has delivered very different fortunes to the left-wing parties that lived through these extraordinary years of Spanish politics. While the social democrat Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party; a member of the Party of the European Socialists) is enjoying a period of stronger popular support after suffering significant major electoral and organisational crises, the Podemos-IU coalition (created in 2016) is suffering a drastic multidimensional weakening after experiencing – in the case of Podemos, at least – an impressive rise. In the pages that follow, we review the transformative years that have passed since 2014 and present the party political context in the run-up to the 2019 EP elections.

Contrary to the current situation, in 2014 the national government was in the hands of the conservative Partido Popular (PP, Popular Party; a member of the European People’s Party). The PP had won the 2011 general elections and the Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, was the head of a Government that enjoyed a comfortable majority in Parliament. In those 2011 elections, the social democrat PSOE had suffered a significant defeat after their years in office, while the radical left Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left; a member of the Party of the European Left) had regained some of its previous support and secured 6.9% of the vote. But between the 2011 Spanish general elections and the 2014 EP elections, political life underwent a period of change and acceleration that made these EP elections the real beginning of what appeared, at the time, to be a new political era. As we will see later, far from ushering in a new era, the 2014 EP elections really heralded an open-ended period of electoral and party turmoil, and political uncertainty in Spain.

The 2014 EP elections exhibited several features that would become characteristic of the immediate future of Spanish politics. Firstly, PP and PSOE only received a little under 50% of the vote (26.1% and 23% respectively). Each of these two parties sustained losses of around 16% compared to their results in the – politically very remote – 2009 EP elections. The two-party hegemonic configuration that had previously dominated voters’ preferences was weakening very rapidly and very significantly.

Secondly, two new nationwide parties obtained somewhat modest, but nonetheless remarkable results: Podemos, on the radical left, won 8% of the vote, while Ciudadanos (Cs, Citizens), on the centre-right, secured 3.2%. Although Cs was not a completely new party – it had already been a significant player in Catalan politics, where it had opposed the nationalist agenda – the 2014 EP elections marked its first foray into the national electoral arena. A former regionally-based party on the centre-right had mutated into a nationwide party and successfully obtained representation at national level.

The case of the radical left-wing party Podemos certainly was spectacular. The history of Podemos is very well known today as the party was, for a time, the success story of the West European radical left. The party had been formed only a few months before the elections, in January of the same year, so went from 0 to 8% of the vote in a handful of months. At the same time, this rapid rise of a new radical-left party was accompanied by a momentary resurgence of IU that saw it obtain 10% of the vote, more than doubling its meagre previous results. Together, Podemos and IU almost recouped the huge losses sustained by PSOE, and, more importantly still, these two radical left-wing parties garnered the most support ever obtained by the Spanish radical left in nationwide elections.

Thus the last EP elections announced the dawn of a new era in Spanish politics (weakening of two-party dominance and fragmentation); in particular, they also heralded a complete transformation of left-wing politics. However, proving that volatility and fluidity of electoral behaviour seem to be the norm among Western electorates, the changes in the Spanish left did not stop there. The electoral volatility that fostered the rise of new parties in 2014 and made their rapid advance towards two-digit shares of the vote possible was going to hit them (especially Podemos) very hard only a few years later.

In the meantime, the months between the aftermath of the 2014 EP elections and the 2015 Spanish general elections were historic for the left. During this period, Podemos constantly grew at the polls, to the point that it seemed the party may overtake PSOE. These crucial months in the configuration of the Spanish left saw three parties (PSOE, Podemos and IU) compete fiercely amongst themselves.

At that time, Podemos exhibited its most clearly populist stance; toyed with a progressive form of Spanish nationalism (while simultaneously defending the right of Spanish regions to held referendums to decide on their secession); avoided describing itself as a left-wing party (holding that the left-right divide had ceased to be a meaningful political distinction and that keeping it as a way of structuring the political world was a self-defeating strategy for progressive parties); hastily built an organisation that sought to combine elements of an online party, a traditional mass-party and an extremely hierarchical organisation very much dominated by the party leadership; very firmly ruled out reaching any type of agreement with IU; and regarded PSOE as part of the political and social ‘caste’ that had ruined the country, deeming it directly responsible for Spain’s social, political and economic difficulties. However, Podemos failed to achieve its ambitious goals of electorally overtaking PSOE and winning office in the 2015 general elections.

The electoral distance between PSOE and Podemos at those general elections was small, but Podemos could not repeat Syriza’s electoral success. This was not surprising given that PSOE was not PASOK (the Spanish social democrats had been in opposition for four years by 2015), and that the economic and political crises in Greece and Spain were not of the same magnitude. IU repeatedly attempted to reach an agreement with Podemos to run together the 2015 elections. All IU’s efforts were unsuccessful, its overtures being rejected with very unkind words by some Podemos leaders. Despite taking on Podemos at a time when it was rising strongly in the polls, IU survived the 2015 elections, gaining parliamentary representation (3.7% of the vote and two MPs out of 350). PSOE suffered another defeat, although its electoral decline was offset by the relative achievement of maintaining its position as the largest left-of-centre party (PSOE got 22% of the vote, and Podemos 20.7%). After these elections, new developments took place that decisively affected the upcoming evolution of Spanish party politics and the country’s main left-wing organisations.

The inconclusive outcome of the 2015 general elections was followed by unsuccessful negotiations between PSOE and Podemos to form a government. A government agreement between PSOE and Cs failed because Podemos did not support it in parliament. New general elections were called for 2016. While the radical left saw these elections as another opportunity to gain office, the results would bring renewed, and this time very serious, disappointment. Some of the problems currently affecting Podemos and IU, as well as PSOE’s optimistic prospects, have their origins in the 2016 general elections.

To begin with, the turbulent months suffered by PSOE due to the election outcome were to pave the way, in an unforeseeable manner, for its return to office. The 2016 general elections produced an inconclusive result again. Although PSOE was able to slightly increase its share of votes (but not of MPs), the conservative PP experienced a significant improvement in its results. With the support of a weakened Cs and the abstention of most of PSOE’s MPs, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was able to form a new government and remain in office. These were crucial times for PSOE. A very serious internal crisis exploded around the results and Rajoy’s investiture vote, resulting in the resignation of the party leader, Pedro Sánchez, who lost the support of the majority of the PSOE’s regional leaders. Sánchez preferred to resign to allow the formation of the new conservative government, a move that was defended by most of the party’s regional leaders. Months later, Pedro Sánchez would be elected party leader again in a process of party primaries in which he could present himself as the defender of a tough stance against PP. In just a few months, PSOE went from an electoral defeat, an internal crisis and a divisive leadership contest to a reinvigorated opposition role under the leadership of Sánchez, who had been obliged to resign only a few months earlier.

For the radical left, the 2016 elections were a kind of moment of truth. Podemos dialled back its populist overtones and, in a full reverse of strategy, formed a coalition with the ‘established’ radical-left IU in an attempt to overcome PSOE. However, the strategy failed. The Podemos-IU coalition lost thousands of votes. In terms of the expectations generated by Podemos’ rise and by the party’s own strategy, the significance of this failure cannot be underestimated. Podemos was unable to become the largest left-of-centre party, its original formally stated goal, irrespective of the strategy it followed (left-wing populism and rejection of any alliance with IU, or left-wing strategy and alliance with the ‘established’ radical-left IU). The Spanish radical left had never before attained such a high level of support, but that was an insufficient reward compared to Podemos’ own goals. If the 2016 elections provoked a deep crisis in PSOE, from which Podemos-IU could benefit, the social democrats’ reinvigoration after Pedro Sánchez won a new term as PSOE’s leader ended any hope. On the contrary, the usual internal crises experienced by Podemos in many of its regional organisations acquired even more severe features since 2016.

After winning office in 2016, the PP government faced an intensification of nationalist demands in Catalonia and a constant presence of political scandals affecting high-ranking PP officials. A motion of no confidence stemming from the latter of these fundamental issues ended with all the peripheral nationalists and Podemos-IU supporting the PSOE candidate for the prime ministerial post in June 2018. Pedro Sánchez was elected Prime Minister. A social democrat Prime Minister took office with the external support of the radical-left Podemos-IU coalition.

Since then, two main developments have taken place. Firstly, PSOE has almost continuously improved its support in the polls while Podemos-IU’s support has eroded (although the level of Podemos-IU’s support is relatively high by the standards of the West European radical left, it is very worrying considering Podemos’ previous level of support). Secondly, the conservative PP has suffered a loss of support, Cs seems to be unable to benefit from that weakening despite implementing a right-wing turn to its strategy, and the radical-right (Vox) has finally appeared as a significant party with notable levels of electoral backing. In sum, the party system is becoming ever more fragmented and polarisation (following the appearance of the radical right) has definitely increased.

However, Spanish party politics in the run-up to the 2019 EP elections are even more complex: after being unable to secure a parliamentary majority in support of the annual budget, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has called for general elections to be held at the end of April, only one month before the EP elections. In these circumstances, the polls indicate a very likely strengthening of PSOE, a very dramatic defeat for Podemos-IU, a relevant loss of support for the conservative PP, a modest increase for Cs, and a significant result for the radical-right Vox.

Only five years after the changes brought by the 2014 EP elections, the party system seems to be ready for a new change. The case of the radical left is especially telling. Podemos appears today extremely weakened in organisational terms, has suffered several regional splits (including in Madrid, one of its previous strongholds), has gone through several leadership crises (including precisely the substitution of its head candidate for the EP elections), and it is at risk of losing half of its previous share of the vote. IU, after joining Podemos in an electoral coalition in 2016, is faced with an existential challenge: competing against Podemos looks like an extremely risky strategy, but stabilising the alliance does not guarantee a promising future either. More than ten years after the 2008 Great Recession, the social democrats are once again in office and have optimistic electoral prospects, while the radical left’s rise looks severely diminished.

Since the EP elections will coincide with the local and, for most of the regions, regional elections will be run in the aftermath of the crucial general elections, the debate around the EU will be completely overshadowed. The 2019 EP elections in Spain will be part of a kind of second round of the national general elections. Almost never before has the EP elections’ status as second-order elections been more accentuated. At the same time, given the current development of Spanish politics, they are part of one of the most important electoral cycles and political moments of Spanish democratic history.