Understanding the 2019 Spanish Elections
On 28 April, the Spanish Socialists Worker’s Part (Socialist Party) won the general elections in Spain by obtaining 123 seats at the parliament, far removed from the 176 seats needed in order to obtain the absolute majority of the chamber.
Despite winning the elections (the first time in 11 years), the victory has been quite terse and can be better understood as a result of the fragmentation of the right-wing axis of the Spanish political spectrum (conservatives and liberals), which, overall, they have obtained more votes than the left axis.
In fact, this victory has been so pyrrhic that not even with their preferred partners, Podemos, the Socialist Party can govern (the total number of seats with this combination would be 165).
It’s worth asking, to what extent can this election be considered a victory? What are the governmental possibilities currently on the table for Spain, in order to guarantee certain political stability? And what implications will the current scenario have for tackling the multiple crises that Spain suffers?
Possible Governmental Coalitions
Based on the electoral results, the arithmetically easiest government, and the one that has been encouraged by a large part of the International Community, is between the Socialist Party and Ciudadanos (C’s) due to the fact that when they’re combined, they ahve a total of 180 seats in parliament. This will lead to a government in the first voting sessions of the parliament without the need for third party agreements, for example the nationalists and independentists.
The problem is that outside Spain, where this possibility seems reasonable, there is a lack of knowledge of the conditions that make this alliance highly unlikely – if not impossible. Since 2015 there has been a gradual deterioration of both parties’ relationship as a result of the change or transformation of the ideological postulates of C’s, and its leader, Albert Rivera.
From 2015 till today, C’s has moved from a centrist and moderate position that could lead to feasible pacts both with both the socialists and the conservatives and has moved towards a more neoliberal (in economic terms) and exclusionary Spanish nationalist position. This collides with President Sanchez’s adopted measures on social and territorial policy (particularly regarding the Catalan question).
As a consequence, this is why this government is not feasible. To these reasons, we could add that C’s seems to be willing to fight for the leadership in the right-wing axis where the Partido Popular (PP) has just obtained 66 seats and C’s 57, following the electoral results.
It is also significant to point out the fact that many socialist leaders are wary of an agreement with C’s due to this party’s conception of the unity of Spain, very similar to that of Vox. So, it seems highly probable that any governmental agreement includes a nationalist party, whether Basque, Valencian, Canarian, Catalan, or Cantabrian.
Now, the investiture of the Prime Minister can be possible without the support of the Catalan independence parties, but this will not guarantee political stability for the next 4 years due to the fact that the other nationalist parties have widely differing interests and the parliamentary majority will be very scant.
Reaching an agreement with the Catalan independent parties would give Sánchez a parliamentary majority of 199 seats in order to govern, but till now the Socialist refuses to accept their demands. Sánchez has pointed out as his main condition in order to reach any governmental agreement is that those parties that are willing to reach agreements with the socialists must respect the Spanish Constitution and foster social justice.
The question here is whether the Catalan independentists, particularly the Catalan Republican Left (CRL), is willing, not to abandon their demands, but to set them aside momentarily in order to support Sánchez, and what can the Socialist Party offer them in return. Accepting this would show tactical capabilities on the part of CRL never seen before and which would encounter much internal opposition within the party, but this scenario is not unthinkable.
As well, this potential decision will be highly conditioned by the verdict of the current trial against the Catalan independentist leaders. This will lead to a far more complex conformation of government on April 28th. In fact, all parties seem to be waiting for the results of the next local and European elections (May 26th) in order to position themselves in favour or against Sanchez’s candidacy. The only party that has positioned itself in favour of Sanchez’s government has been Podemos.
Negotiations are ongoing and Pablo Iglesias, General Secretary of Podemos, aims to have a ministerial role for his party. This is something that the Socialists are not willing to accept, neither the Basque or Canarian nationalists who prefer a minority government with occasional supports from other political groups. The reasoning behind Podemos’ wish to be inside the government is because in these elections it has obtained little political return from many governmental initiatives that were proposed by it (e.g. minimum wage increase). So, it wants more presence in governmental affairs.
The Political Fragmentation and the New Party System in Spain
In 2016 elections had to be repeated as a result of the political fragmentation that took place thanks to the arrival of C’s and Podemos to the Spanish parliament. The 2019 elections confirm that we’re far from reversing this situation, the irruption of Vox in parliament and the significant increase of the Catalan independentist parties has fragmented even more the Spanish political scene than 3 years ago.
The socialist victory can’t actually be explained without Vox and its role in fostering the fragmentation of the right-wing axis, something never seen before in Spanish politics. These results confirm the consolidation of the new party system in Spain (multiparty system) and the end of the two-party system that has traditionally been ruling the country since the XIX century (with the exception of Franco’s and Primo de Rivera dictatorship).
However, this fragmentation process can’t be understood solely by the rapid expansion of Vox. What we have witnessed in these elections is a process of radicalization from two of the main political parties, PP and C’s. This has cleared the way for the socialists to capture voters who are dissatisfied with the direction that these parties took, this partly explains the increase in the number of Socialist Party votes rather than by a hypothetical transfer of votes from Podemos.
The Territorial Crisis
The key element in order to understand the electoral results and the whole electoral campaign is the territorial debate, and particularly the one surrounding Catalonia. The Catalan question has been the main topic discussed by all parties, particularly by the Socialist Party, C’s, and PP.
The Catalan independence attempt of 2017 has derived on a knock-on effect that has fostered the re-emergence of an exclusionary Spanish nationalist discourse due to the fear of a possible territorial disintegration of Spain. These discourse clashes with the current territorial conformation of Spain (de-centralised State) where linguistic and cultural heterogeneity is an everyday affair.
These elections have proven the existence of two opposite movements: the ones who seek the elimination of the current system and go back to a centralised State and those who defend the current model or even more de-centralisation and autonomy for territories with autochthonous ethnical characteristics.
The territorial debate has also been translated into a clear and significant division in the vote by territories. Parties such as PP or C’s have almost no representation in the Basque Country (where neither PP nor C’s obtained seats) and Catalonia (where C’s only obtained 5 seats and PP 1 out of 48), showing the current identitarian divide between the different territories of Spain.
Nevertheless, it is true that this territorial divide has benefited C’s and Vox in other territories where ethnical-identitarian elements are not so much present (e.g. Castile or Madrid) thanks to their defence of the illegalization of pro-independentist parties and direct intervention of certain autonomous communities governed by nationalist parties. So, it can be said that the territorial debate has been fostered and instrumentalised by these parties in order to obtain electoral benefits.
On the Catalan independent side, the strategy based on emphasising the territorial and identitarian question has also given them a greater electoral revenue, thus showing how territorial the Catalan electorate is, and how the debate or the territorial question changes depending on which territory of Spain we analyse.
This territorial divide has led in the last years to an increasing political polarisation based on a centre-periphery logic, and particularly on a Spain-Catalonia logic. In this sense, is still unclear how the Socialist victory will help or not to reduce this divide.
The European Crisis
The irruption of Vox in the Spanish parliament confirms the general trend in the whole of Europe of emerging and consolidating populist parties. Vox must not be understood as an isolated phenomenon that only concerns Spain. On the contrary, it is part of a wider process or phenomenon that is taking place all around Europe as a result of the current representation crisis.
Traditional political parties are not offering answers to their populations and that’s why they look for alternatives. In the particular case of Spain these demands are more related with identitarian elements, derived from socio-economic disparities between territories. Vox has been able to use these disparities and build-up a discourse where it defends the recovery of the Spanish identitarian elements against the other nationalities that make up Spain as it accuses them of being the ones that have deteriorated the socio-economic situation of the “real” Spaniards.
Yet, the electoral results shows that Spain is a pro-European country. But if Spain remains in this situation of political uncertainty, any aspiration it may have to play a significant role in European affairs will be an illusion, and this may have a negative repercussion in the medium term with regard to the pro-European voters.
The main conclusions that we can extract from this analysis are that the future of PP and the possibilities of the right-wing axis to govern again in the future are quite uncertain. The internal fragmentation in this bloc of parties has led to a clear loss of seats in the parliament.
Their main mistake has been to focus the political debate during the campaign on the territorial unity of Spain and identitarian issues, while the aspects that were more worrisome for the Spanish electorate (e.g. the economy, social policy, etc.) were not tackled at all by these parties.
Second, with each election it becomes more difficult to govern Spain. The discrepancies regarding the Catalan question has been one of the issues that has prevented a coalition between the Socialist Party and C’s. While the Socialists seek to engage in some way with the Catalan rulers, C’s advocates outlawing pro-independence parties and suspending Catalan autonomy until the Catalan rulers abide by the constitution.
Third, the Catalan independentist parties have entered forcefully in the parliament. This does not mean that they will act in a unified or monolithically due to the fact that both of them have opposite political interests, to become the hegemonic force in Catalonia and of the Catalan independence movement. However, we may see in the near future the adoption of opposing positions, for or against the Sanchez government, in order to obtain political benefits and achieve hegemony in the Catalan political panorama.
Finally, if Sánchez is not able to reach the necessary supports for its investiture and for a stable governmental agreement, Spain may be forced to endure new elections, as in 2016.
Manuel Herrera is an international security analyst who previously worked at the Nuclear Security Programme at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi (India) as a research assistant. He devoted his research to the Iranian nuclear file and the Indo-Pakistan conflict.
Manuel was also an intern at the Department of the Interior of the Catalan Government where he draft a report on the EU Area of Freedom, Security and Justice and its main mechanisms for exports control of sensitive nuclear materials.
He holds a master’s degree in International Security from IBEI and a master’s degree in European Union Studies from the European Institute in Bilbao. He also has a bachelor degree in International Relations from the Ramon LLull University of Barcelona.