Opportunities and Risks for the Left in Spain

Vera Bartolomé Díaz & Amelia Martínez Lobo (RLS Madrid Liaison Office)

Elections on 28 April 2019

Following a short term of office, Social Democrat Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called for elections in Spain in the midst of a deeply volatile political period, just one month before the European, regional (except in Catalonia, Galicia, Andalusia and Comunidad Valenciana) and local elections.

Next Sunday 28 April, the Spanish Parliament will be re-elected. These will be the 13th general elections in Spain since the transition in 1978. The traditional two-party system that prevailed for over 30 years broke down after the indignados movement and the 15M demonstrations in 2011. Two years later, with a strong and highly active campaign of demonstrations and struggles, Podemos emerged on the left in an attempt not only to reflect the indignation shown in the streets but also with a promise of taking a different approach and implementing organisational changes. At national level, we also saw the emergence of Ciudadanos, a neoliberal unionist party born in Catalonia in 2006 to counter the independentist forces with a regenerationist narrative. As a result, the prevailing two-party system morphed into a four-party system. This new system, born in 2015, has proven to be erratic and unpredictable for analysts and politicians alike.

Political – national, local and regional – and social context

The Catalonia conflict, the declining street power of the social movements, the ongoing austerity measures sold to the citizens as economic recovery, a very Spanish housing bubble, the Partido Popular corruption cases still under investigation and the police corruption that allegedly helped to build up false accusations against Podemos all feature on Spanish news broadcasts daily. Given this social context, Podemos and Izquierda Unida (despite local disputes) are strengthening their ties within Unidas Podemos for nearly all of the elections.

Regarding local coalitions, it should be pointed out that Íñigo Errejón (for many years the number two man at Podemos and the leader of the most populist strategies) together with Manuela Carmena, the current mayor of Madrid, abandoned the idea of running in the elections as part of Podemos or Unidas Podemos (UP, the national coalition) for the Madrid local and regional elections. This could lead voters to think the left has been split, which could hurt not only the local and regional results, but also the national ones, especially taking into account the particularities of Spanish electoral law.

Interestingly enough, at a time when the social democrat family is plummeting in Europe, this is not the case in Spain. On the contrary, PSOE – far from the ‘Pasokisation’ it could have suffered – has taken advantage of being the ruling party. Unidas Podemos has also openly supported the budget negotiations, claiming to “the most social budget-minded”, and defending the budget as if it were its own, probably more so than PSOE itself. However, the tumultuous party system in Spain did not respond to this budget proposal (opposed both by Catalonian independentists and by the liberals (Ciudadanos) and the conservatives (Partido Popular), making the Sánchez premiership obsolete and making him call for elections.

The rise of the far right: VOX in Parliament

VOX, a far right party, appeared on the Spanish political scene for the first time after the 1978 transition with a xenophobic, anti-feminist, deeply neoliberal and pro-European platform, and already with institutional representation in Andalusia. It would appear that the phenomenon of votes moving from Unidas Podemos to VOX is not still happening in Spain. That means that VOX voters are not mainly coming from disappointed Unidas Podemos voters, but rather from Partido Popular’s right wing and some citizens deeply disaffected with the political class. This means that VOX is an far right, fascist party, more similar to Orban’s party in Hungary than to Le Pen’s in France or Salvini’s in Italy.

The rise of the far right could make some Unidas Podemos voters vote for PSOE next Sunday because they do not want to ‘waste’ their vote. Voters could think this in order to have a strong centre-left party governing out of fear that the far right could garner enough votes leading to a three-party right-wing government: Ciudadanos, Partido Popular and VOX. This ‘experiment’ worked in Andalusia and is already on the minds of Spanish voters. A vote in reaction to this situation, in a scenario where PSOE is already governing and taking advantage of that position and Unidas Podemos is very weak could be enlightening. The social measures implemented by the social democrat government never challenging the neoliberal status quo but proposing measures appealing to the left, such as the removal of Franco’s tomb from the official site where it is today, is part of ongoing fashion of doing PSOE things that seems to work.

Unidas Podemos scenarios

For Unidas Podemos, there are two electoral thresholds that could impact it significantly because of the totally non-proportional rule governing the Spanish electoral system known as the D’Hondt method. The first one is obtaining less than 14% of the vote and the second one is less than 11%. In the first case, the parliamentary group would be reduced to half of what it is now and in the second case it would be miniscule and absolutely irrelevant. Surveys currently show that a slight increase in votes for Unidas Podemos indicate that it could reach 14% (around 35 seats). However, the best case scenario for Unidas Podemos would be achieving 40 or more seats, which is far removed from their current situation (currently UP has 45, plus the ‘confluences’, leading to a parliamentary group of 69 MPs).

Regarding the confluences, it is also remarkable that in this case both the Valencian and Galician regional groups (confluences) that ran together with Unidas Podemos in the last elections are not running together this time. This, together with an expected drop of En Comú Podem (The Commons – Los Comunes, as we call them in Spain) due to the exaggerated media discredit because of their management of the Catalonian conflict, could jeopardise the goal of achieving 14% of the vote.

In sum, there are significant differences between surveys, meaning the elections are more wide open than ever before in recent Spanish history. Low voter turnout is also a remarkable factor that historically harms the electoral results for the left. All the polls agree that voter turnout will be low on 28 April.

Some left-wing analysts say that Spain is reaching a point where the left’s window of opportunity has been already closed. Others, even more radically, contend that it is not only closed but that the left is already dead and showing no signs of recovery. Others are optimistic in the mid to long term, i.e. not for next elections, but for the possibility of building unity in the left and a strong popular movement in the streets that will result in higher voter turnout and appeal to the working class.

Perhaps the numbers provide an opportunity for a ‘progressive’ government ruled by PSOE and supported by UP and PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) and/or ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia), or at least to avoid a far right government, as already happened in Andalusia. In this scenario, Unidas Podemos would have the opportunity to either push the government for leftist measures if the number of seats is over 35, or just let PSOE govern and support specific measures, as Bloco de Esquerda and the Communist Party in Portugal did this term.

There is also the real possibility of a three-party neoliberal right and far right coalition like the most ultra-right government in Spain’s recent history. In this case, the tasks facing Unidas Podemos and the configuration of the left in Spain deserve a deep analysis.