Social Democrats win elections amidst parliamentary fragmentation

Vera Bartolomé y Amelia Martínez Lobo

  • Neither bloc, left or right secures a majority.
  • The far-right Vox party, which had no MPs just six months ago, emerges as a third political force.
  • The spectre of a third election appears to be a possible political scenario, although the possibility of an investiture agreement and European-style grand coalition seems to be the option preferred by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who has already made it clear that he will not govern with Unidas Podemos.
  • The election campaign was marked by the Catalonia issue, the court judgement against the Catalan secessionists, the riots in Catalonia and the exhumation of General Franco.

This was Spain’s fourth general election in as many years, marked by the breakdown in negotiations between the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos. These elections leave us with a current snapshot, which looks more like the other parliaments in Europe than Spain’s traditional bipartisanship: an increasingly fragmented parliament; a PSOE embracing social liberalism; a far right with no complexes or taboos, being misogynistic, racist, xenophobic and serving the elites; a conservative neoliberal and unionist party; liberals focusing more on the union of the Spanish state than on liberal economic measures; and a transformative left with a notably higher representation than in other countries.

PSOE wins again

PSOE won the elections again, but took fewer seats in parliament, securing 120 seats, three fewer than six months ago. Unidas Podemos lost seven seats, but has many loyal voters, making it the fourth largest party in parliament. The conservative Popular Party won back some seats, benefiting from an electoral law that every government tinkers with. Vox grew exponentially, consolidating its position as the third largest force in parliament. Ciudadanos (meaning Citizens) was the big loser in these elections, punished by the electorate for joining forces with regional governments with the far-right Vox.

Public disaffection and fatigue are the general trend among large swathes of the population, who look on astonished and incredulous at the political spectacle. However, the turnout was similar to the 2015 and 2011 elections.

PSOE has made it clear that it will not enter a coalition government with Unidas Podemos within the executive. Last summer, Unidas Podemos rejected the offer of a deputy prime ministership and three ministries, while PSOE refused to renegotiate a coalition government, thereby triggering this new election.

But Pedro Sánchez miscalculated: PSOE is still not strong enough to form a government. As a result, during the campaign, which effectively began in the summer after the failed talks, Sánchez began to shift his gaze to the right, cautiously at first, appealing to the idea of national responsibility and the Catalonia issue. During the campaign, the winks and shifts to the right were already clear. In this respect, Nadia Calviño has an important role to play. Her rhetoric as Spain’s minister of economy and business is a declaration of intent: PSOE does not want to scare off the business community and will follow the dictates of Brussels, continuing along the neoliberal path of making adjustments and cuts when the economic recession starts to bite even more (October’s unemployment figures are the worst since 2012).

Transformative left suffers losses, but consolidates

Unidas Podemos lost seven seats, but ended up the fourth largest party in parliament. During the campaign, Unidas Podemos followed the same line as in the previous elections in April and during the negotiation process: become part of the government with PSOE, since that was the only way of ensuring that PSOE would adopt progressive measures benefiting working class people. Some progressive voters saw this as a tactic to gain power and seats in parliament, but others viewed it as a strategy that allowed PSOE to remove its mask and reveal that it is not as left-wing as it claims to be and feels more comfortable reaching agreements with the right. Be that as it may, Unidas Podemos is capable of holding the high electoral ground despite Catalonia, the Más País split and widespread disaffection and weariness.

Más País fails to meet expectations

Íñigo Errejón’s party, which split away from Unidas Podemos, did not stand nationwide and only managed to win seats in parliament in two of the 18 provinces where it ran. Its advertisements, in which it claimed to be a responsible, institutionally solvent party with a sense of national responsibility, did not speak to the electorate, clearly debunking its claim that it would be the key to unblocking the political impasse.

Right-wing bloc holds its ground, with internal changes

The right-wing bloc did not get the numbers to form a government, presumably via an internal transfer of votes. Divisions on the right did not help its cause either.

The Popular Party emerged as the main political force in the bloc, taking 87 seats, 21 more than in the elections held on 28 April. This increase may be due to voters abandoning the liberal Ciudadanos party. In any case, it was a poor result that the blue bloc expected, totalling around 100 seats.

Vox – in a campaign that was openly xenophobic and macho, as well as extremely neoliberal economically – saw its parliamentary representation increase exponentially from 24 to 52 seats. Its flagship issue was Spain’s unity. Polls show that the issue of Franco’s exhumation also played a role in Vox’s stellar performance. This means we face a political player with a relatively strong parliamentary base which represents the atavistic Francoism of Spanish society and which, until now, had coexisted within the conservative party. This veering to the right gives free rein to highly dangerous rhetoric.

Ciudadanos took a beating, which condemned it to parliamentary irrelevance, plummeting from 47 to 10 seats. During the campaign, it openly advocated unblocking the parliamentary situation, its preferred partner being the PP, though not ruling out supporting PSOE in the investiture. In any case, thanks to the party’s downturn, the right thinks it is impossible to form a government.

Pro-independence and nationalist parties are key

For decades now, the Catalan and Basque nationalist parties have collaborated with the bipartisan approach to promote governments, serving as the de facto lynchpin parties in Congress. However, since the outbreak of the Catalonia conflict, PSOE has been more inclined to join forces with liberals and conservatives than with Unidas Podemos, while nationalist and pro-independence forces are out of the picture.

On this occasion, both the court verdicts against the Catalan secessionist and the ensuing riots impacted the political agenda before and during the campaign. As a result, Catalonia saw an overwhelming majority of progressive representatives elected as deputies.

The CUP, an anti-capitalist pro-independence party, entered parliament with two seats; Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, pro-independence social democrats, dropped from 15 seats to 13; and Junts Per Catalunya won a further seat, taking its total to eight. This means there are now more pro-sovereignty Catalans in Congress. The Basque Nationalist Party and EH Bildu strengthened their presence, each winning one more seat.

Other regional political groups also secured parliamentary representation, many of them with recent representation from the previous election, or those such as the Galician BNG, the Aragonese Teruel Existe and the Cantabrian Regionalist Party. This shows that the national approach not only had an impact in Catalonia, but throughout the whole country.

No clear options

Pedro Sanchez’s gamble of holding another election did not fix his inability to form a government and only ended up making things more complicated. It opened the door to giving the far right a major presence in parliament.

The national approach also impacted the results, with more nationalist and regionalist votes cast on the one hand, and gains for Vox on the other.

By contrast, PP’s upswing and PSOE’s unchanged position, with minor variations, indicate that the traditional bipartisan-oriented parties are not dead, though they have been weakened.

In short, despite the European-style parliamentary fragmentation, Spanish politics is still characterised by blocs. That said, neither of the two major blocs commands a majority, so support from nationalist and pro-independence parties will be needed to reach agreements, whether on investiture, policies or the budget.

So PSOE now once again finds itself faced with the choice of trying to form a government on its own without backing from PP and Ciudadanos or attempting to reach an agreement with nationalist, pro-independence and leftist parties. A third option would be a large coalition. In any case, the correlation of forces needed to implement transformative social and gender policies, and to focus squarely on the lives and material conditions of the working class, does not exist.