Vox does well but Sánchez and Socialists are the winners in Spanish election

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez celebrating PSOE’s performance in Sunday’s election.
Tuesday, April 30, 2019

As xenophobic and eurosceptic parties registered large gains in elections throughout Western Europe in recent years, Spain appeared to be an exception, its voters apparently immunized from the appeals of right-wing populism both by the memory of the authoritarian regime of Francisco Franco and the presence on the right of the People’s Party (PP), a successor to the People’s Alliance (AP) founded after Franco’s death by one of his ministers.

But on Sunday, Spanish voters went to the polls in the third parliamentary election in the last four years and Spain ceased being an exception. Vox, a right-wing populist party founded by former members of the PP in 2013 and led by Santiago Abascal that is anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, and anti-Catalan independence and that received only 0.2 percent of the vote in the 2015 and 2016 elections, won 10.3 percent of the vote and 24 seats in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies, the lower house of the Cortes Generales.

In the run-up to the election, the headlines around the world focused on the anticipated increase in support for Vox (Latin for voice). But to some extent the voters surprised the prognosticators. While Vox did well, it didn’t do quite as well as the polls had suggested; building on the 11 percent it won in December’s regional election in Andalucía, it was expected to get 14-15 percent, fueled by its opposition to the recent increase in refugees coming from North Africa and the secessionist efforts in Catalonia. Last year, Spain received more than 65,000 refugees by land and sea, more than Greece received and almost three times the number Italy received, and thus far this year it has received almost 8,000, most of them by sea from Moroccan ports. The westward shift in the flow of Mediterranean migrants to Europe, coupled with the still-unresolved issue of Catalan independence, has generated anxieties about the cultural and political integrity of Spain that have attracted some voters to Vox, with its brand of xenophobic, anti-Muslim nationalism and emphatic rejection of Catalan independence. Vox, in a contemporary echo of the Reconquista, has, for example, called for the deportation of all arriving refugees, all illegal immigrants, and all those who are legally in Spain but have been convicted of a crime.

The growth in support for Vox came very largely at the expense of the People’s Party (PP) – the party created in 1989 by the re-founding of the People’s Alliance (AP) and that, led by José Maria Aznar, the prime minister between 1996 and 2004, and Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister between 2011 and 2018, was the dominant party on the center-right for most of the post-Franco era. As recently as 2011, the PP had won 45 percent of the vote. But on Sunday, it won only 16.7 percent of the vote – only half of the 33 percent it won in the 2016 election – and 66 seats in the Congress of Deputies, a loss of 71 seats. It was the PP’s worst performance ever. Moving to the right under Pablo Casado, who replaced Rajoy as leader after his retirement from politics last year, as it chased after the voters attracted to Vox, the PP barely outpolled the Citizens party (Cuidadanos or C’s), a center-right liberal market-oriented party that first came on the scene in the 2015 election, is strongly opposed to Catalan independence, and, like the PP, moved to the right in the campaign. The C’s, headed by Albert Rivera, received 15.9 percent of the vote, an increase of nearly 3 percentage points over the 13.1 percent it received in 2016, and 57 seats in the Congress of Deputies, compared with its 32 seats in the current Congress.

Some assumed before the election that the anticipated increase in support for Vox would lead to the formation of a new center-right government by the PP and the C’s, possibly, as is now the case in Andalucía, supported by Vox in parliament if not participating in it. But Sunday’s results made it clear there won’t be a center-right government, with or without Vox. The three parties together won 147 seats, almost 30 short of the 176 needed for a majority in the Congress. That being the case, and if winning is defined not just in terms of votes but also in terms of being able to form the next government, the winners of Sunday’s election were Pedro Sánchez, the current prime minister, and the party he leads, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). PSOE won 28.7 percent of the vote and 123 seats in the Congress, compared with the 22.7 percent and 85 seats it won in 2016. PSOE is obviously a long way from having a parliamentary majority. But whether it decides to form a governing coalition with other parties or, more likely, continue, as it has since last June, as a minority government that depends on the parliamentary support of other parties in ad hoc, issue-specific coalitions, the choice is now up to the PSOE leadership and Sánchez will in any event continue as prime minister.

For much of the post-Franco era, Spanish politics has been a duopoly, with the two large parties – PSOE and AP/PP – typically holding power for long stretches over several elections.  Thus, Felipe González served as prime minister of PSOE governments from 1982 to 1996 and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero served as prime minister of PSOE governments from 2004 to 2011. But PSOE, which won 44 percent of the vote in the March 2008 election, has not recovered from the catastrophic electoral consequences of the economic and financial crisis that hit Spain and much of the European Union in 2008-09. In the wake of the sharp contraction in the economy, the rate of unemployment increased from 8 percent in 2007 to more than 25 percent in 2013 and it remains at 14 percent today. Spain, like other countries, embarked, with the encouragement of the deficit hawks of the EU, on a prolonged austerity regime designed to reduce spending and the budget deficit and PSOE, as the government administering austerity, experienced a dramatic electoral contraction comparable in magnitude to the economic contraction that occurred. Although it had won 44 percent of the vote in March 2008, before the full effects of the contraction had become apparent, it soon became clear that PSOE would be turned out of office in the next election – indeed, so clear that Zapatero announced he would not stand for reelection – and in the November 2011 election PSOE’s vote dropped by 15 percentage points, to 28.8 percent, and Rajoy and the PP took power. Four years later, in the December 2015 election, PSOE continued to lose support, dropping to 22 percent, while a new left-of-PSOE populist party, Podemos (We Can), that grew out of the anti-austerity movement and was formed in early 2014, took 20.7 percent of the vote. After six months of unsuccessful negotiation over a new government, in large part because the PP in 2015 had, like PSOE in 2011, suffered a substantial loss of support, with its vote dropping from 44.6 percent in 2011 to 28.7 percent in 2015, another election took place in June 2016. PSOE’s vote remained virtually unchanged, at 22.6 percent, while Podemos, by then allied with the United Left in Unidos Podemos, won 21.2 percent.

After the June 2016 election, Rajoy and the PP formed a minority government supported in the Congress of Deputies by the C’s and the Canarian Coalition. But a series of party and financial scandals, coupled with the Catalan independence crisis in the autumn of 2017, greatly weakened Rajoy and the PP, and after a court convicted 29 businessmen and politicians and the PP last May in of a wide-ranging kickbacks-for-contracts operation that benefitted both the individuals and the party, Sánchez submitted a motion of no confidence in the government. According to parliamentary rules, as the author of the motion, he would automatically become prime minister if it were supported by a majority. The Socialists held only 85 of the 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies so it was by no means certain, or even likely, the motion would be approved by a majority, despite the fact that the court had characterized Rajoy’s sworn testimony as “implausible.” Nevertheless, on June 1 last year the motion of no confidence was approved by 180 to 169 – thanks to support from what Rajoy called a “Frankenstein coalition” that included, in addition to PSOE and Unidos Podemos, two Catalan parties that support independence, the Left Republicans (ERC) and the Catalan European Democrats (PDeCAT), and two Basque nationalist parties, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and Basque Country Unite (EH Bildu). As a result, Sánchez became prime minister, despite the fact that PSOE held less than one-quarter of the seats in the Congress of Deputies.    

Prior to the vote, Sánchez said he intended to remain in power only long enough to ensure passage of the 2019 budget and enact some reforms in social, economic and educational policy, after which he would call new elections. But before doing that – and notwithstanding the fact that he had supported the Rajoy government’s use of the powers granted under Article 155 of the Constitution to dismiss the Catalan government headed by Carles Puigdemont and call new elections in Catalonia after it declared the creation of an independent republic following the Oct. 1, 2017 referendum – he began, with the support of Unidos Podemos and the four Catalan and Basque parties, a dialogue with the new Catalan government aimed at ameliorating, if not resolving, the contentious relationship between Madrid and Catalonia. But two months ago, after Sánchez had refused to negotiate a new Catalan referendum on independence, the Catalan parties withdrew their support for the government’s 2019 budget, so he called Sunday’s election.

If PSOE opts to form a coalition in order to secure a parliamentary majority for itself, its preferred partner – indeed, the only available partner that would bring it close to a majority – would be the left-of-PSOE Unidas Podemos (United We Can), an alliance formed prior to the 2016 election between Podemos, which first came on the scene in 2015, and the further-to-the-left United Left (IU). On Sunday evening, Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Unidas Podemos, called Sánchez to congratulate him and express UP’s willingness to work with PSOE in a coalition government, despite the fact that PSOE’s gains on Sunday came largely at the expense of the UP, which saw its share of the vote drop from 21.1 percent in 2016 to 14.3 on Sunday and its number of seats from 71 to 42. Taken together, PSOE’s 123 seats and UP’s 42 would still leave the two parties 11 seats short of a majority. 

A possible additional coalition partner, should PSOE decide not to go it alone, is the Left Republicans of Catalonia (ERC), which increased its vote by 50 percent, from 2.6 percent in 2016 to 3.9 percent on Sunday in an election in which turnout increased significantly, from 69.8 percent in 2016 to 75.8 percent, especially in Catalonia. The ERC, which has five seats in the outgoing Congress, will have 15 in the new one, enough to secure a narrow majority for a PSOE-UP-ERC government. But the downside for PSOE, of course – especially in light of the falling-out over the 2019 budget that led to Sunday’s election – would be the ERC’s likely demand that cross-party talks be opened in regard to a new independence referendum in Catalonia and legislation that would end the trial of those, including the ERC’s leader, Oriol Junqueras, the former vice president of Catalonia, who have been charged with rebellion and misuse of public funds. Given what happened in February, it is quite possible – indeed likely – that PSOE will decide, at least for the time being, to go it alone as a minority government that assembles ad hoc coalitions on an issue-by-issue basis rather than seek to form a majority coalition with the UP and ERC and perhaps one or more other smaller regional parties.

The halcyon days of the 1980s and early 2000s, when PSOE won elections with more than 40 percent of the vote and formed governments that rested on its parliamentary majorities, are long gone. And even after increasing its share of the vote by six percentage points in Sunday’s election, PSOE has regained only a portion of the massive loss of support it experienced in the wake of the financial crisis and severe economic contraction that hit Spain more than a decade ago. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Pedro Sánchez and the party he leads were the big winners in Sunday’s election.


David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and director of the MacMillan Center’s Program in European Union Studies.