Sumar, tras conocer los resultados.
Sumar, tras conocer los resultados.Sumar

The Progressive bloc wins a pyrrhic victory in Spain

María del Vigo

  • The Popular Party gains the most votes, but does not have enough support to govern.

  • Sumar obtains more than 12% of the votes and wins 31 seats, 4 fewer than Unidas Podemos in 2019.

  • Forming a government will depend on the pro-sovereignty parties.

Yesterday’s elections in Spain painted a picture of equally-matched blocs and, with one thing certain: the right-wing parties won’t be able to form a government. The Socialist Party will have to successfully negotiate agreement with six others if they want to stay in Moncloa Palace, the official residence of the Spanish prime minister. They would also have to convince the Catalan pro-independence right-wing Junts Pel Sí to abstain. Otherwise, a repeat election will be on the cards.

The Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez (PSOE), called early elections on 29 May, barely 12 hours after the municipal and regional election polling stations had closed. The results had been very close in the number of votes for both of the major representatives of the two-party system, the PSOE social democrats and the PP conservatives in those elections. In terms of institutional representation, however, UN Podemos’ disastrous results meant a significant advance for the conservatives.

Sánchez calculated that waiting until December – the date for which yesterday’s general elections were originally scheduled – would undermine his government, gifting the right an absolute majority. By bringing the date forward, he was looking to maintain the left’s momentum, and minimise internal tensions. And it has worked out well.

The way Spanish electoral law works means that taking even a small percentage of the vote can be decisive, depending on the constituency. A good example in this election is Sumar winning 31 seats with 12.30% of the vote, two fewer than the far-right VOX, which won 33 with 12.39%. It is a good result for Sumar as they only lose 4 seats with respect to those won by Unidas Podemos in 2019, despite the PSOE getting stronger, and the difficulties they had going in to the campaign.

Kicking off a campaign with unhealed wounds on the left

The election campaign can be said to have lasted almost two months. Sánchez came straight out of one election to bring on the next one, with no respite for either the parties or the public. The call caught the whole country by surprise, but it especially affected Sumar. They had 10 days to reach an agreement on the new list of candidates drawn from its various factions. The six months set aside for this process vanished into thin air when the President called the press conference on the morning of 29 May.

Transform! Europe’s Marga Ferré explained this to the Madrid office of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung a few hours after the agreement was reached in a negotiation marked by “many grudges, open wounds and painful pasts, which have made dialogue very difficult”. The fact that the Minister for Equality, Irene Montero, was not included as a candidate provoked a strong reaction among some feminist groups at the start of June. A number of online left-wing profiles went so far as to call for abstention.

The wounds have not been completely healed in these two months. Few from Podemos campaigned for Sumar, and those who did, did so with a low profile. However, individuals and groups that saw the possibility of a government including the extreme right as a threat ended up drumming up votes for the left, with a message clearly highlighting the need for responsibility, rather than any enthusiasm for the movement.

It is worth highlighting the initiative of over one hundred feminists, from a variety of standpoints, who teamed up in the last week of the campaign, with the manifesto: ‘13 Feminist reasons to vote left on 23J’. Among the signatories there are differing, even conflicting opinions on some of the most controversial issues of recent years, such as the transgender law. They appealed for responsibility, stressing that “thanks to a strong and diverse feminist movement and the involvement of the coalition government, we women have made progress in these four years in terms of equal opportunities, freedoms and social justice”.

A number of anti-racist collectives made the same move later, and signed a manifesto in which they made “a popular call for a responsible vote, to all migrants and allies, to collectives and communities, to stop the advance of the right”. In their text, they also denounced the lukewarm attitude of the left-wing parties, and of the coalition government itself, in protecting the rights of migrants and racialised people. They set out their demands once more, including the repeal of the Law on Foreigners, an end to forced deportations, and the closure of the Foreigner Detention Centres.

Sumar in the push against the right-wingers

Sumar’s campaign was marked by three phases. Back in June, the campaign started to move with the names that made up the candidacy lists. Media presence was scarce, despite some symbolic sign-ups, such as the former head of Podemos’ International Secretariat, Pablo Bustinduy; the CCOO Union economist Carlos Martín Urriza; the former Spanish ambassador to the UN, Agustín Santos Maraver; the transgender rights activist Elisabeth Dubal; and the Sahrawi activist Tesh Sidi.

Then, officially entering the election campaign period, Sumar emphasized the achievements of the Ministry of Labour under their leader, and put out a series of proposals for the future. Some of these were better understood than others. They include a gradual reduction of working hours, making redundancies more expensive, reducing the cost of the weekly grocery shop and the so-called “universal inheritance of €20,000 to everyone on their 23rd birthday.

In the final stretch, Yolanda Díaz’s electoral campaign focused on two key planks: opposing the Popular Party candidate, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, and positioning herself as the choice for tactical voters wishing to stop the far-right. Díaz recalled on many occasions that she coincided with Feijóo in the Galician parliament, when she was a member of parliament and he was president of the regional government. “I know him well”, the vice-president has said several times, not missing the opportunity to recall the photograph of the PP candidate with the drug trafficker Marcial Dorado on his yacht in 1995. Back then, Feijóo was not well known but the whole of Galicia — with a generation devastated by drug consumption, and an extraordinary mobilization of the collective Madres contra la droga (Mothers Against Drugs) — knew who Dorado was.

Feijóo’s last week of campaigning was a long one, after a journalist from TVE, the public television station, pointed out in a live interview that the candidate was providing false information about pensions. Díaz returned to the phrase “I know him well” and later stated that he is a “compulsive liar”, recalling the candidate’s actions in his time as president of Galicia. The Partido Popular candidate refused, in fact, to take part in the TVE debate together with PSOE, Sumar and VOX, his argument being that he would not take part in a debate in which the regional parties PNV, ERC and Bildu were not present. The three parties had taken part in a seven-way debate on 13 July, in which they were represented by their parliamentary spokespersons, that is to say, also without Feijóo. The PP’s Feijóo only participated in a one-on-one with Sánchez, on a private television channel, in which he again told lies, this time without any correction by the moderators.

Thus, only Pedro Sánchez, Yolanda Díaz and the ultra-right-wing Santiago Abascal (VOX) took part in the debate held on public radio and television on 19 July. The decision of the PP leader to decline the invitation is unprecedented. Sánchez and Díaz were able to take advantage of it in the debate itself to demonstrate a shared unity, positioning themselves as an alternative to the Feijóo-Abascal partnership.

Despite this apparent harmony within the progressive bloc, Díaz distanced herself from Sánchez by restating her red line on pensions: “the retirement age will not be increased”, she said. She also distanced herself on housing, which was one of Unidas Podemos’ major causes in the recent government, and which has always been blocked by a PSOE wall.

Yolanda Díaz presented Sumar as a decisive force battling VOX for third place and, therefore, as kingmaker in forming a government. She stressed her willingness to govern with Sánchez “to continue winning rights and to avoid having a government set against women and LGTBIQ+ people”.

Sanchez campaigns on Diaz’s achievements

The secretary general of the PSOE had a very good campaign in terms of communication, with excellent interviews on the most popular television programmes. The president was able to take on some of the country’s most popular journalists, who cultivate the far-right’s fake narratives on a daily basis, and refute these live on air. At the same time, he showed a friendlier, calmer and more relaxed face in various spaces which play to a generation Z audience. He came off surprisingly well.

His interviews were also widely praised on social networks, which grew increasingly animated as the campaign progressed, with the proliferation of memes reclaiming the right’s favourite insulting nickname: Perro Sánchez. In a way, Sánchez’s campaign strategy managed to break out of the mood of defeat and open a window of optimism.

However, it is noteworthy that the great strides forward that the PSOE boasted of in its campaign would not have been pushed through had it not been for Unidas Podemos. The rise in the Minimum Interprofessional Wage, which went from €735.90 to €1,080 in just one legislative term, is one of Yolanda Díaz’s achievements. The rise in pensions, bringing them into line with the consumer price index, was called for by the pensioners’ movement and became reality thanks to pressure from Díaz. Notwithstanding, they have been two of the main flags waved by the PSOE in this election campaign.

Forming a government will depend on the pro-sovereignty parties.

The main players in the election campaign were the Prime Minister and PSOE candidate, Pedro Sánchez, and the Popular Party candidate, Alberto Núñez Feijóo. The Congress of Deputies, with 350 seats, is the lower house of the Spanish parliament. A week before the elections, at the close of the latest polls, the PSOE and the PP were both hoping to win 150 seats. Both parties judged this to be a good result. They had already made it clear that forming a government would depend on alliances, even though they were counting on a much better result than what they actually got.

Sumar (on the left) and VOX (extreme right) have been rivals for third place in all the polls. The right-wingers won it, gaining two seats more than Díaz’s party. But forming a government doesn’t depend just on these two parties, but also on the pro-sovereignty, or regionalist, parties.

A progressive bloc, which would allow Pedro Sánchez to continue in government would, in addition to PSOE’s 122 seats, also incorporate Sumar’s 31. From there, Sánchez would have to negotiate the support of the Basque and Catalan left-wing pro-sovereignty parties, Bildu and ERC, who have 6 and 7 seats respectively, and who abstained in 2019. In principle, the Basque conservatives PNV (5 seats), have stated that they will not support a government with the far-right VOX, so it is likely that they will support Sánchez’s government, as they did in 2019. The same can be expected from the Bloque Nacionalista Galego, which has 1 seat. This would add up to a total of 172 seats, insufficient to keep Sánchez in Moncloa if the 7 deputies of Junts Pel Sí do not abstain, bearing in mind that PP has 136 seats, to which Vox’s 33 can be added, plus 2 from Coalición Canaria and Unión del Pueblo Navarro.

The spokesperson for Junts Pel Sí, Míriam Nogueras, said in her first speech after learning the results that they are not to be counted on to help form a left-wing government. Their leader, Carles Puigdemont, from exile after the independence referendum in 2017, sent a more hopeful message to Sánchez, closing with “we must continue to defend Catalonia against those who want to eliminate our language, our culture, our nation“.

In conclusion: Forming a progressive government is possible, but it won’t be easy. If the situation is reaches deadlock and new elections are called, what happens on the right will be crucial. On election night, the ultra-right-wing leader Santiago Abascal hit out at the Popular Party candidate, Alberto Núñez Feijóo. At the PP headquarters, supporters interrupted Feijóo’s speech to chant the name of the Madrid PP president, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, who is at the forefront of the party’s Trumpist tide.