Ada Colau vota en Barcelona
Ada Colau vota en BarcelonaBarcelona en Comú

Spain’s Two-Party System Is Back

María del Vigo

  • President Sanchez (PSOE) calls for advanced election on 23th, July
  • Barcelona En Comú, the flagship of transformative municipalism, failed to recapture the mayor’s office, while Podemos failed to cross the 5-percent threshold needed to enter local parliament in some major cities
  • The People´s Party will govern the majority of the Autonomous Communities with the support of the far right

The Spanish State is divided into 17 Autonomous Communities, with their respective autonomous governments, which have authority in major areas such as health, education, and specific areas within housing. Voting took place yesterday in 12 of them; Andalusia, Catalonia, Galicia, the Basque Country and Castilla y León had already held early elections at different times. In addition, the mayoral elections took place for the over 8,000 local councils in Spain

Although it will need the support of the far-right Vox to govern, the People’s Party (PP) declared itself the clear winner in yesterday’s elections in Spain. Parties to the left of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) experienced significant losses. Ada Colau, leader of Barcelona en Comú, came third. Adelante Cádiz failed to hold on to the Cádiz mayor’s office in a major setback for transformative municipalism. In the city councils of Valencia and Madrid, Podemos (UP) was left out because it did not win 5 percent of the votes, the minimum threshold necessary for gaining seats.

Podemos also failed to enter the Madrid assembly. A part of the government in the Valencian Community and the Canary Islands up to yesterday, as of today, UP has no parliamentary representation in the two localities.

The president of the government is bringing forward the general elections, scheduled for December, to 23 July in an attempt to attract the left-wing vote and stay in government. The left now has two months to reorganise itself.


Subdued political context

In a country whose economy is powered by the service sector, the consequences of the pandemic have been severe. Spain has not escaped the global inflation that came off the back of the invasion of Ukraine. The rise in energy and fuel prices has been much lower than in the rest of Europe thanks to several measures taken to intervene by a central government in the hands of a coalition formed by PSOE and Unidas Podemos. These measures notwithstanding, small and medium-sized enterprises, which account for 99.8 percent of business in Spain and represent 66 percent of total employment, have been hit by inflation.

Meanwhile, the oligopoly operated by large supermarket chains which control food prices, compounded by the drought that has been affecting Spain for months, has contributed to a generalized rise in grocery costs.

To top this off, the housing price index registered a year-on-year increase of 7.4 percent in 2022 and, despite the rise in the minimum wage, Spaniards spent on average 43 percent of their gross salary on rent – the highest it has been in the last decade.

Social mobilisation, which was already faltering from the effects of years of intense struggle, key people moving into the institutions and, above all, the ‘gag laws’ that use fines to deactivate the street as a place of protest, does not seem to have recovered from the pandemic. However, it is worth highlighting that the feminist movement recovered significant strength, as it demonstrated on 8 March, with massive demonstrations in all the provincial capitals. Madrid is a good example: on 8 March, more than half a million people turned out. Shortly before, on 12 February, more than 250,000 people took to the streets in defence of public health care and to protest against the process of privatisation carried out by the PP in the Autonomous Community of Madrid. A further 60,000 took part in the 1 May demonstration in the capital.


Fragile truce on the left

The emergence of Podemos on the left in 2014 and later of Ciudadanos (theoretically a liberal-right formation) in 2015 upset the traditional two-party system in Spain, in which the social-democratic PSOE and the conservative PP rotated in and out of government. Even so, Spain is a very bipartisan country politically, always manoeuvring in blocs of left and right, both with support from various nationalist parties. The pro-independence parties have exclusively supported the left-wing bloc up to now (with the exception of Junts per Catalunya on some occasions).

The Spanish state, for the first time in the history of its young democracy, is currently run by a left-wing coalition government formed by PSOE and Unidas Podemos in 2019. Left-wing voters have gone to the polls in the context of two major issues. The first being advances in rights and a battery of anti-crisis social measures (heavily financed by the EU), not just different from the response to the previous crisis in 2008, but notably improved. The second is the constant friction between the parties to the left of the PSOE, between the new platform called Sumar, led by the deputy prime minister Yolanda Díaz, and Podemos, led by the social rights minister Ione Belarra.

For the parties, this election was additionally significant as a prelude to the general elections that were planned to be held in December. The importance of these elections proved to be so when Spain’s president called for advanced elections just one day before, due to the results. There is a significant detail to bear in mind here: Sumar did not take part in this election, but will do so in July. These elections have seen a battle for power between Podemos and the factions that have already announced their support for Díaz’s platform. Podemos’ results were expected to determine its strength when it came to imposing or negotiating conditions in any future affiliation to Sumar.

In recent months, the more or less direct confrontations between members of these parties have marked the political agenda to the left of social democracy. Despite not running, Yolanda Díaz actively participated in the electoral campaign, supporting the UP and Izquierda Unida candidacies, but also others, such as Compromís and Más Madrid, which are competing with Podemos in some constituencies. She has even taken part in the events of opposing candidates, as is the case of Podemos and Más Madrid in the Community of Madrid. Although Díaz’s participation in the campaign was criticized by the ex-secretary general of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, the reality is that the campaign allowed for something of a respite. It remains to be seen whether today’s results facilitate future agreements or exacerbate the confrontation. With the results in hand, one might think that a union of the left in the run-up to the December elections is the only possible option for survival.

The decision to bring forward the elections comes as the left is still coming to terms with last night’s shock, and with little time to react. It is possible that the PSOE intends with this move to regain the strength of the times of pure bipartisanship. We will see if it will succeed.


Regional elections, state-wide campaign

The campaign focused on two important points for the left: the recently approved Housing Law – the application of which depends on the autonomous governments – and the defence of public services. This was joined by a strong green and feminist agenda. Local and regional proposals were put forward, but in no case can it be said that there are two distinct sets of proposals in the two previously mentioned left-wing spaces, which both find themselves in the process of change and evolution. There is, then, a de facto unity in terms of their political agenda, with very few nuances between the different factions.

Yet, although these were regional and municipal elections, the campaign was waged fought at the state level. The measures taken by Yolanda Díaz’s Ministry of Labour, such as the increase in the minimum wage, labour reform, and specific measures to protect workers, as well as the laws against gender violence and for the rights of transgender people, approved by Irene Montero’s Ministry of Equality, were used to bolster campaigns by the candidates on the PSOE’s left wing.

Spain is a plurinational country. Territorial tensions are a reality, something which the right wing also feeds. Conservative parties wave the flag of Spanish nationalism to generate a polarisation that leaves issues that benefit the transformative left out of the media agenda.

In the 2019 regional elections, the progressive bloc won in nine of the 12 Autonomous Communities whose governments are now up for renewal. Back then, the right-wing bloc had three options: the People’s Party, Ciudadanos and Vox. Over the last four years, Ciudadanos slid inexorably into a position of voter indifference, and its support was reabsorbed by the PP. This is significant, as the Spanish electoral system greatly benefits groups with consolidated votes.

In short, we can say that the right wing came into these elections restored, and that the lack of unity on the left, together with the erosion of the institutions, have taken their toll. Beyond the elections themselves, a certain political disaffection was reflected, with some exceptions, in poorly attended campaign events.


The PP sweeps Madrid

The president of the Madrid regional government, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, managed to turn the tables on the electoral campaign with her Trumpian strategy. With a weighty privatisation agenda behind her, and a notorious case of nepotism during the management of the COVID-19 health emergency, she saved the campaign while avoiding being the focus of commentary. Nor did she make any proposals. She took advantage of certain opportunities to wave the aforementioned flag of Spanish unity.

The most notable example has centred on the Basque Country. The candidate lists for municipal elections presented by Bildu, the pro-independence Basque left, included seven candidates with violent crimes in their pasts, from their time as members of the ETA terrorist group. Bildu backed down in the face of criticism, and the individuals withdrew their candidacies, but this did not stop Ayuso from insisting on the idea that ETA, which disbanded and handed its weapons in 12 years ago, is still alive, and that there is no freedom in the Basque Country. She managed to turn this into the main debate on television for days. She diverted the focus and gained power within her own party by mobilizing the most radical voters on the right. She did so both in Madrid and in the Basque Country, where the PP has not traditionally carried much weight but where, perhaps, in the face of the rise of a Bildu which is overtaking the PSOE, they intend to be the Basque National Party (PNV)‘s main ally.

It seems to have worked out well. In Madrid, the PP achieved an absolute majority: from 44.73 percent of the votes in 2021 to 47.05 percent. Más Madrid has increased slightly, from 16.97 percent to 18.50 percent, with a campaign particularly focused on the defence of public health. Its leader, Mónica García, a primary care physician, gained a lot of media exposure during the pandemic, and managed to maintain and increase her following, although she is now in third place, due to the rise of the PSOE, which has gone from 16.85 percent to 18.4 percent. Podemos, as previously stated, did not manage to get its regional leader, the lawyer from the Plataforma de Afectadas por la Hipoteca (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages), Alejandra Jacinto, into parliament.


Vanquished in Valencia

This is a traditionally conservative seat, governed from 1995 to 2015 by a PP mired in corruption scandals, and since 2015, held by a coalition between PSOE (up from 23.87 percent in 2019 to 28.39 percent) and Compromís (from 16.45 percent to 14.21 percent), with Unidas Podemos joining in 2019. UP went from 7.97 percent to 2.07 percent, thus ending up without representation.

This pact was of vital importance given that Valencia embodies the resistance of coalition government alliances, and was the example on which Unidas Podemos defended the formation of the current central government. The so-called ‘Pacto del Botànic’ was a symbol of resistance to the right for the whole state, even though it resulted in a rather moderate government.

The Popular Party (35.39 percent) will govern with the support of the far-right Vox (12.42 percent).


Ada Colau defeated

Ada Colau, leader of the flagship of transformative municipalism, failed to consolidate her position as third-time winner of the elections in Barcelona. She fell from 20.71 percent to 19.77 percent. The PSOE obtained 19.79 percent of the votes, ERC 11.22 percent and Junts per Catalunya (nationalist right) 22.42 percent, meaning that Xavier Trias will, in all likelihood, be the next mayor of Barcelona.

Colau made an alliance with the PSOE in 2019 that allowed her to be mayor for a second term despite having obtained fewer votes than ERC.

Colau’s campaign was based on highlighting innovative urban policies, such as making it compulsory to reserve a third of new housing developments for subsidized housing, the superblocks that have led to the pedestrianisation and freeing up of large urban areas, the reinforcement and improvement of municipal facilities in all districts and especially in those with the greatest poverty, the neighbourhood plans for community development, and measures to improve care in the city.

Yolanda Díaz and Ada Colau demonstrated a strong ideological and strategic alignment over the last two years, with the Catalan commons being a key alliance for the Sumar project.

In any case, at a time when municipalism is at a low ebb throughout the country, with its discourse diluted between elections and lack of sensitivity from state parties on the issue, adding to this the demobilisation of the municipalist bases themselves, Barcelona was the sole remaining vestige of a great city born out of the municipalist idea.


General retreat of the left

With the exception of the Basque Country, where the sovereigntist left of Bildu has managed to push back some of the conservative right of the Basque Nationalist Party, the victory of the right is apparent.

Podemos will not be able to form a government in any significant seat; it will lose representation and capacity for influence. Other parties to the left of the PSOE also lost ground, as did the PSOE itself, which has lost most of the Autonomous Communities it used to govern.

The question now is whether this setback will serve as a lesson for the left and whether, in two months that remains before the general elections, the parties to the left of the PSOE will be capable of devising an efficient and engaging strategy to recover lost ground and revalidate the state coalition government; or whether, on the contrary, we are facing a turn back to the bipartisanship with a solo government of the PSOE which agglutinates the progressive vote or an end of a chapter of left-wing insurgency that will give way to a phase of conservative governments, the dismantling of public services and rollback of rights.


María del Vigo works as a freelance communications consultant at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Madrid Office