Emiliano García-Page Sánchez / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
Emiliano García-Page Sánchez / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Elections in Spain 2019: the progressive majority wins

Vera Bartolomé & Amelia Martínez Lobo, RLS Madrid Liaison Office

  • A clear victory for the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) with 28% of the vote, making it one of few European social democratic parties not just to survive, but to grow and consolidate its power base.
  • The extreme right party, Vox, burst into the Spanish parliament with 24 seats, winning more than 10% of the vote.
  • The left-wing party Unidas Podemos (UP) lost almost 1.5 million votes, but was key to the formation of the government led by Pedro Sánchez.

The result of the Spanish general election held on 28 April provided a snapshot of the political times in which we are living. A large majority of the Spanish electorate proved to be feminist and anti-racist and rejected the extreme right.

The results in figures

The overall turnout of voters was 75.75%, which is very high for a general election. The PSOE emerged as the clear winner, with almost 7.5 million votes (a 28.68% share). The conservative People’s Party (PP) was the biggest loser, winning just half its previous total of seats from the previous legislature, the worst result in its history. The most plausible reason for this is its association with numerous instances of corruption, plunging it into deep crisis and making it seem as though it was falling apart. But it was also punished at the polls because it lost out to its split on the right: Vox a party that is misogynistic, racist and ‘filofranquist’. Vox entered the Spanish parliament for the very first time, winning 24 seats (10.26% of the vote, similar to its election showing in Andalusia in December 2018). Ciudadanos (meaning Citizens), the liberal party, increased its support and number of seats, but failed to hoover up all the votes of the historic right, i.e. the PP. It is now vying with the PP to become the dominant force of the political right. Unidas Podemos (UP) lost 28 seats and 1.5 million votes, while votes for the pro-independence and/or nationalist parties in both the Basque Country (Euskadi) and Catalonia were up, reflecting the plurinational reality of the Spanish state.

An analysis of the results at autonomous community level is very interesting. The fact that none of the three forces of the unionist right (PP, Ciudadanos, Vox) in Euskadi won any seats is a milestone result. It also meant that one of the PP’s national leaders, Javier Maroto, failed to win a seat in the Congress of Deputies (the lower house of the Spanish parliament). Also noteworthy was the significant drop in votes for the ‘Commons’ (as Unidas Podemos is known in Catalonia) that were somehow transferred to Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (the Republican Left of Catalonia), whose leader is still imprisoned. In the remaining autonomous communities and provinces (which are Spain’s electoral constituencies), the election result was overwhelmingly in favour of the social democrats.

Territory and class: a few figures

After almost a decade of conservative party hegemony, the PSOE became the most popular force in almost all Spanish territories. This effectively gave it control of the Senate, the upper house of Spain’s parliament and chamber representing Spanish territories.

One reassuring result was the banishment of the spectre of the extreme right, which failed to make the huge inroads predicted by most polls, despite the fact that Vox won the support of more than 2.5 million voters. There is every indication that these were disgruntled PP voters. As various voices on the transformative left had warned, this meant there were no right-wing parties in the Spanish parliament, though it did not mean there were no right-wing MPs. The far-right MPs had been members of the PP, who, having no other right-wing option, added their vote to this party. Vox’s reactionary, Franquist, misogynistic and racist ideas have always been there, but were masked beneath the wide political umbrella of the PP.

Interestingly, the place where the PSOE gained most votes (75%) was a neighbourhood of Seville, Murillo, which is in the area known as Las Tres Mil Viviendas, itself historically a socialist stronghold, but with the peculiarity of being a neighbourhood of working-class people with a very high rate of exclusion. Another curious fact was that the units smaller than municipalities that voted most emphatically in favour of Vox were in Andalusia and Murcia, both of which have both socially and environmentally unsustainable intensive farming and a relatively high immigrant population, and parts of Madrid, the capital of Spain’s kingdom and of General Franco’s regime. The voter profiles in both these strongly pro-Vox locations point not to a working class vote, but rather to the opposite end of the social spectrum. The same phenomenon emerged in the Andalusian elections, and it remains to be seen whether this pattern holds up in the next regional and local elections, but for now, at least, (and it is important to highlight this momentary status) the extreme right is not winning working class votes.

Another interesting observation is that in both Madrid and Barcelona, the PSOE’s vote in working class neighbourhoods and cities rose sharply, showing that this left-wing urban vote, which at one time went to UP, this time served to mobilise the social democrats.

In Catalonia, the increase in the numbers of votes and seats by the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) was remarkable. During the election campaign, the ERC showed its willingness to support a central government led by the PSOE in a very interesting movement that forced the government in Madrid to either openly accept or reject that support (which would be easy for unionists to attack in the media). This, combined with the fact that the leadership of the ERC is still in custody while its trial continues, could explain part of this complex migration of votes in Catalonia. One thing is certain: Catalonia had one of the highest turnouts (77%), so Catalans expressed a mixture of pro-independence and progressive unionist views, with Commons – the Catalonian branch of Unidas Podemos – ranking as the third most popular party after the ERC and the PSOE, despite losing votes).

Unidas Podemos’ election results

Taking a close look at the trend in votes for the UP compared with 2016, the party suffered a serious drop in support not only in Euskadi and Catalonia, but also in the Valencian Community, where the left traditionally scores high in elections. Perhaps the UP’s relative decline was also partly due to the Valencian Community’s parliament being elected the same day.

There being no clear way of pinpointing the causes of this decline, various left-wing groupings attribute it to different issues, as is typically the case in left-wing political dialogue. Most polls, except for the one conducted by the official agency CIS, predicted an even worse setback for the UP. Apparently, a good campaign run by the party helped it perform slightly better than expected, at least winning 42 seats (previously it had held 69), but leaving it with 27 fewer MPs. Thus, it overcame the first barrier (14% of the vote) that we mentioned in our previous article. It is unfortunate that a party like the UP, which was designed to have very broad appeal and win people over to its cause, scored rather badly in the election.

The future: negotiations and agreements for a future Spanish government

The PSOE will undoubtedly govern Spain and has the option of doing so alone, with specific support from all parties (except Vox, in principle, but including the liberal Ciudadanos and the conservative PP), or leading a coalition government.

The PSOE has reiterated its proposal to govern alone despite not commanding a parliamentary majority. To do this, it will need support both for its investiture and for the approval of the national budget. Pedro Sánchez has already announced that he is willing to reach agreements with the PP and Ciudadanos on “questions of state”. It should be remembered that on the night of the election, the militant wing of the PSOE chanted “Con Rivera No!” (meaning “Not with Rivera”, the leader of Ciudadanos) right in front of the exultant winner, Pedro Sánchez. It remains to be seen what path the Socialist Workers’ Party will take: one backed by its militants and voters, or one favoured by the financial oligarchy, which would prefer to see the socialists govern with Ciudadanos. If the PSOE confirmed a government with UP (which currently seems unlikely), it would need the nationalists and/or pro-independence parties to abstain to obtain the required numbers.

On the other hand, Podemos is insisting on joining the PSOE in government, based on the argument that its support constitutes the only guarantee of a left-wing government that will implement social policies and build bridges and establish dialogue on territorial issues. Some people within the transformative forces support this position; others see more risks than benefits. For the left-wing parties that joined social democrats in governments in Europe have either disappeared or now find themselves condemned to not only institutional, but also political and social insignificance.

The new parliament will be formed on 21 May. By then, many meetings will have taken place between the different political formations to refine the various proposals and potential agreements. As things stand, it seems very unlikely that an investiture debate will take place before 26 May, the date on which European, local and regional elections will take place in Spain (except in Andalusia, Catalonia, Galicia and the Valencian Community). The socialists are hopeful of building on their winning ways by improving their showing in the 26 May elections.

Journalistic resources (maps, figures, etc.) in Spanish: