Adolfo Lujan / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Adolfo Lujan / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The 2019 European Parliament Elections in Spain

Luis Ramiro

A Tale of Two Lefts

  • The April and May general, regional, local and European Parliament elections have inaugurated a new period of Spanish politics, remarkably reconfiguring the party system.
  • There have been important changes in the weight of parties from both the right and left blocks.
  • The Social Democrat PSOE and the radical-left Unidas Podemos (UP) coalition got opposing outcomes, showing a reinvigorated PSOE and a struggling UP.

April and May brought a succession of important elections with results whose relevance has modified Spanish politics. Anticipated general parliamentary elections called by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, regional elections in 13 regions and in the two autonomous cities, local elections in all municipalities across the country, and European Parliament (EP) elections took place on April 28 (General elections and regional elections in Comunidad Valenciana) and on May 26 (regional elections in 12 regions and two autonomous cities, local elections and EP elections). Therefore, the 2019 EP elections were fully integrated in an electoral season of chief importance in national politics terms. This meant that some of the specificities of the EP elections as second order elections were even more acutely manifested due to their contemporaneous timing to other critical national elections. These successive electoral dates ultimately resulted in a significant recovery of the incumbent Social Democrat PSOE, a resounding defeat of the radical left coalition Unidas Podemos (UP, Podemos – Izquierda Unida), dramatic losses for the conservative PP, relevant gains for the liberal Ciudadanos party (Cs), and the entry of the radical right Vox with considerable support but far from the momentous double figures of vote percentage anticipated some months ago. Specially interesting in this context are the opposed dynamics of strengthening of the Social Democrat left and weakening of the radical left.

In line with what was anticipated by the pre-electoral survey polls, the April 28 national parliamentary (or general) elections set out the tone of this intense electoral season and their results were understandably replicated in the elections held one month later. In April the PSOE won the national elections obtaining 29% of the vote, with a swing of +6 points, and repeated a similar success, increasing its share of the vote, and likely retaining the government, in the Comunidad Valenciana regional elections of the same date. Amidst diminishing electoral returns for their Social Democrat and centre-left colleagues across Europe, the results of PSOE represent a comparatively healthy level of support. Certainly far from resounding electoral victories of the past, the percentage obtained by PSOE put nonetheless an end to their struggling electoral performances during the 2008 Great Recession aftermath. Those electoral difficulties had led some observers to mistakenly anticipate the same fate for the Spanish Social Democrats to the one experienced by their Greek counterparts. Those forecasts never were well grounded in the available empirical evidence, but the current developments, showing a recovery of the Spanish centre-left, should warn against the repetition of the same mistakes in the future through analyses that cherry-pick evidence and over-stretch data.

The Conservative PP suffered a crushing defeat of historical proportions. The PP’s 17% is the lowest level of support for the party in its entire history since 1989; it is a figure even lower than the share of support obtained by its predecessor Conservative electoral coalitions in the distant elections of 1982 and 1986. It was an electoral disaster of epochal dimensions. Its now new competitor party for the hegemony among the centre-right electorate, Ciudadanos (Cs), almost surpassed the PP. Cs got 16% of the vote, with a swing of +3 points. The bad news for the PP came also from the extreme right because the PP has to confront now the competition with a significant radical right competitor too, Vox, which obtained 10% of the vote from a previous level of less than 1% in the 2016 general elections.

The radical left – the Unidas Podemos (UP) coalition between Podemos, Izquierda Unida (IU), and Catalunya en Comú – suffered dramatic losses, with its result decreasing from 21% in 2016 to 14% in April 2019. This result can be evaluated from several points of view and, accordingly, with different levels of severity. UP certainly avoided the worst, an even slightly lower result that some surveys announced. UP’s 14% is a comparatively high level of support in the context of the European radical left. The results were translated into a number of MPs that, given the relative majority won by the PSOE in the lower chamber, might be decisive for government formation and legislative procedures. But leaving aside the positive aspects, a negative swing of 7 points and a decrease of 33% of its previous vote share can hardly be considered anything short of an electoral disaster. The outcome of the parliamentary elections resulted in many electoral districts without radical left MPs, and a parliamentary group that is not large enough to guarantee an absolute majority of a centre-left government with PSOE and to avoid an alternative agreement to the PSOE-UP one. These were the second general elections ending with a radical left decrease – after the previous 2016 general elections already resulted in a worse outcome than the one obtained in 2015 separately by the then mutually competing Podemos and IU. The huge distance between the original expectations Podemos had raised and reality all point towards a sombre evaluation of the 2019 radical left defeat.

Hence, the April 2019 General elections inaugurated a period of increased polarization (with the ideological distance among the parties in the national party system ranging now from the radical left to the radical right), higher party system fragmentation (with five significant parties not of similar size but all of them with electoral strengths of 10% or higher), and notorious electoral volatility (with voters changing preferences among parties in large contingents although mainly within the same big electoral blocks of the left and the right).

The successive regional, local en EP elections held one month later fundamentally confirmed these results with some variations and regional peculiarities. A reinvigorated Social Democrat PSOE, a fragmented right with the former all-powerful PP holding its status as the main right-wing party with some difficulty, a growing liberal Cs that seems incapable of surpassing the PP yet, a radical right party (Vox) appearing for the first time since the 1970s as a significant player in the Spanish party system but with gains below the general prospects of some months earlier, and a once-again plainly defeated radical left UP. There were no big surprises or significant unexpected results. The EP elections essentially and inescapably replicated the national parliamentary ones taking place only one month earlier. As it is to be expected in elections separated by such a short period of time, all the elections, national, regional, local and EP elections, showed a similar pattern in April and May 2019.

In the May 2019 EP elections the PSOE got again very good results, 33% of the vote, even improving its performance at the national elections of April. These results were much higher than its performance at the previous 2014 EP elections: the PSOE benefitted from a positive swing of almost 10 points and got 20 MEPs in 2019. Although this outcome is far from its own historical highs, the PSOE emerged after the 2019 EP elections as one of the main Social Democrat upholders in Europe. The right-wing parties experienced the predictable redistribution of their respective shares, although the radical right, Vox, obtained a significantly lower level of support than the one received one month earlier (6% of the vote and 3 MEPs). This is a notable electoral showing but it is worth noting that the party was suffering losses of a considerable magnitude very soon, only one month after it had entered the Spanish parliament, and in the type of elections (the EP ones) from which it should have benefitted most as an extreme and anti-mainstream party. The conservative PP reached a modest mark of 20% (a negative swing of 6 points from the 2014 EP elections) and 12 MEPs; but the liberals of Cs were only able to gain an even more modest and openly disappointing 12% of the vote (7 MEPs), a relatively poor result taking into consideration that the party informally aspired to become the largest party of the centre-right during this electoral season.

The results of the radical left deserve a closer look, and more so taking into account the success of the Social Democrat PSOE. The electoral defeat of UP during the general, regional, local and EP elections is severe and multidimensional: it comprises political or strategic, electoral, and organizational failures. The electoral setbacks are of such magnitude that they are informative about the troubles of the radical left, and consequential for its future. The retreat in electoral support, in the levels of parliamentary representation, and in the presence in local governments means that it is not simply an electoral drop. Its full analysis would require a separate piece on its own.

Let us focus on the EP elections results. In the 2014 EP elections IU and Podemos ran separately. IU got good results – 10% of the vote and 6 MEPs – improving its previous results and confirming that it had put behind a period of serious electoral crisis. Podemos – founded hardly 5 months before the elections – obtained spectacular results: 8% and 5 MEPs. The radical left was benefitting from the economic, social and political crises facing Spain at that moment, still in the context and in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession. Right after the elections, Podemos began its steadfast rise in the polls that very soon placed it around 20% of support and IU began its electoral decline, putting its survival at risk. After drastic changes in strategy, organizational weakening and multiple electoral fiascos, five years later the actors, the context, and the results of the EP elections differed dramatically for the Spanish radical left. The UP coalition (Podemos, IU, Catalunya en Comú) obtained 10% of the vote and 6 MEPs in the May 2019 EP elections. This result was evidently much lower than the one the coalition had obtained one month before in the national elections: it was a massive drop from the 2014 EP elections results that left its electoral support at the levels obtained by IU five years before. A stunning negative swing of 8 points almost halved the support for the radical left in Spain.

Jointly considered with similar, or even dramatically worse, results in the regional and local elections held on the same date, the results of the Spanish radical left in the EP elections increase their significance. The Spanish radical left, and especially Podemos, has varied its strategy throughout these years but the changes have finally concluded in a situation of electoral weakening. Very soon after the 2014 EP elections, IU proposed an agreement to Podemos, which the latter firmly rejected – given its focus on its populist strategy aimed at blurring the significance of the left-right divide, winning government, and surpassing the PSOE. At the beginning of 2016, Podemos modified its strategy after failing to achieve its goals in the 2015 general elections, and Podemos and IU started to run elections in coalition. Simultaneously, Podemos seemed to leave behind the most intense and rapidly aging tones of its populist rhetoric. The results of the joint Podemos and IU electoral lists have, however, resulted in one disappointment after another. Besides this, the radical left has experienced notable internal troubles, most dramatically within Podemos. In many regions Podemos has suffered internal crises involving key members of its leadership, ending in a visible organizational weakening and including episodes such as a very successful split led by Íñigo Errejón in the former party stronghold of Madrid, and with Podemos having to improvise also the replacement of the UP lead candidate for the 2019 EP elections.

IU has not experienced organizational problems of a similar scale to Podemos’, but it is also facing organizational weakening. The organizational problems and the dispute around strategy affected even a third partner of the coalition. The Green party Equo, member of the European Green Party, that ran together with Podemos and IU in the April 2019 general elections, was divided itself so seriously around repeating the coalition for the May EP elections that the party finally did not run at all the 2019 EP elections. In one way or another, all the groups to the left of PSOE have experienced during these five years internal turmoil to different degrees, amidst electoral defeats and strategic deadlocks.

Not even the agreement between Podemos and IU is unanimously accepted internally and in some places it was impossible to implement for the regional and local elections. This made possible a situation similar to a ‘natural experiment’, one in which Podemos and IU run together or competed in several places in the regional elections of May 2019. As a consequence, it was possible to observe the outcomes of diverging strategies. Although the results were not easy to interpret given the low number of cases and the local specificities, a pattern seemed clear: regardless of whether they ran in coalition or competed separately, Podemos and IU seemed unable to halt its electoral decline. No matter the strategy, the results were far from promising.

As it was obvious since the start of Podemos’ rise, the electoral volatility among progressive voters that enabled the electoral growth of Podemos, and the attraction of former IU and PSOE voters by Podemos, is now operating in the opposite direction. Former Podemos-IU voters prefer other options, such as the reinvigorated PSOE now in office, than voting for the radical left coalition. The electoral context is far from stable and out of place metaphors about the construction of a people, or the building of a nation, will not make disappear the considerable electoral volatility now commonplace across Western Europe.

In sum, and leaving aside for the sake of concision the success of the PSOE, the fragmentation in the right, the appearance of a radical right party, and the different fates of the peripheral nationalist parties, the struggling fortunes of the Spanish radical left was one of the most relevant outcomes brought by the 2019 EP elections. The electoral performance is at historically high levels of support for the radical left in Spain, and at high levels of support considering the European radical left. Yet, it is evidence of a downward electoral trajectory. Having tried catch-all populist strategies and having abandoned them once they proved their limits in the context of a West European society; having tried diverging electoral tactics, and suffering undeniable symptoms of organizational deinstitutionalization; the radical left confronts now a period in which its possibilities to escape from contextual determinants is very constrained. Affected by patterns of political behaviour and political attitudes well known across Europe, the Spanish radical left has been reminded about their effects harshly. In a context that was no longer so marked by economic downturn and social and political crisis, it has been unable to maintain its electoral support. Electoral volatility, differential electoral turnout among social groups, new redistributive and cultural conflicts in the globalization era, new electoral allegiances between parties and social groups in the 21st century, the limits of radical politics (and the limits of its appeal) in wealthy and highly developed societies, the contemporary challenges of high-intensity political participation in political organizations, among others, are widely known phenomena that the Spanish radical left will be forced to seriously consider in their search for political and organizational strategies for the coming years.