Election 2019: What now for Spanish politics?

Published: 22 May 2019

In the first of our new blog series, Politics in a Changing Spain, Dr Robert Liñeira (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid) looks at the recent parliamentary election and its implications for the future of Spanish politics.

The most polarised election since 1977 produced a clear outcome: there is no parliamentary majority that will not involve the Socialist Party (PSOE). A first glance at the results indicates that the PSOE is in a position of choosing: an agreement with Podemos (UP) and several regional and nationalist parties, or an agreement with Ciudadanos (Cs). After a very polarised campaign between left and right, only the first option seems feasible.

The PSOE based its victory on a very similar share of the vote to the one it obtained in 2011, its worst outcome up to then. However, the fragmentation on the right between Partido Popular (PP), Ciudadanos and Vox this year helped the Socialist Party to obtain a 12-points lead over the PP.

Mobilisation of voters was key to the outcome.  Like previous contests in which there was uncertainty in the two horse-race between the PSOE and the PP, turnout was above average and close to the 75 percent mark. However, there was more than uncertainty about the winner behind the turnout surge. The emergence of an extreme-right party like Vox that also champions the suppression of self-governing institutions fuelled an exceptional mobilisation among left voters, but also in Catalonia and the Basque Country. Actually, these two territories were key to the final outcome: here, the PSOE and UP obtained a 20-seat advantage over the PP, Cs and Vox.

Figure 1 shows that the mobilised left electorate coordinated around the PSOE, which gained more than 2 million votes, a 37% increase in the share of the vote it obtained in 2016. In contrast, the PP lost more than 3.5 million votes, with Vox and (to a lesser extent) Cs the main beneficiaries of the PP’s collapse.


Parties now face several dilemmas.

The battle for leadership of the Spanish left seems over. In the 2015 and 2016 contests, the PSOE and UP obtained similar electoral support. This resulted in a fierce competition between them that damaged their prospects to reach post-election agreement. The current balance in favor of the PSOE should facilitate their capacity to work together. However, the PSOE is going to resist coalition overtures from the UP in the forthcoming government negotiations. 

In contrast, we will now witness a battle for hegemony on the right. Cs has set the overtaking of the PP as its main goal. However, it is still unclear if this will become a long-term strategy. After all,  Vox and not Cs has been the main beneficiary of the PP’s electoral collapse. In addition, the commitment of Cs to leadership of the Spanish right damages its prospects of reaching coalition agreement with the PSOE. This alternative majority seems unlikely now, but it could re-emerge later in parliament. 

The right faces further dilemmas. The entrance of Vox into the Parliament of Andalusia in December 2018 was big news before the general election. Its surge seemed to echo the success of extreme-right parties in other European countries. However, Vox voters seem different from those of radical-right voters elsewhere. They are economically comfortable  and seem more concerned about issues of national unity than about immigration. Until now, Vox does not seem a movement to attract new voters to the right.  Rather it looks like a splinter from the PP that divides the support of the right and hinders its electoral  prospects due to the mechanics of the electoral system. It seems unlikely that the current fragmentation of the right constitutes a long-term equilibrium.

Overall, the not-so-distant era of the two-party system seems gone. Ten years ago, in the March 2008 elections, the share of the vote of the PP and the PSOE added up to 84.8 percent. The sum has constantly decreased since then to the current 46.1 percent. With these numbers, the time of single-party governments should be over. Under the current dynamics, it would look like Spain is  heading to bipolar coalition arrangements with no centrist hinge parties. However, it is probably electoral politics again that will determine these strategic decisions in the short-term. The outcome of the elections held on May 26 (local Spanish-wide elections, regional elections in 12 autonomous communities, and European elections) will be a key factor in determining the specific make-up of the next Spanish government.

After the May 26 elections, a new parliament will start work with no elections in sight (apart from possible elections in Catalonia). This and the potential majorities in parliament open up the opportunity to address some of the reforms that have been clearly needed in Spanish politics for the last decade. Party strategic considerations will determine if Spanish politics takes that route.

Professor Luis Moreno

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