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Elections in Spain: a New Deadlock in a More Polarised Parliament

Published: 12 November 2019

In 2019, we have seen two Spanish general elections, one April and another in November. Robert Liñeira, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, follows up his blog from April and analyses the November election. Arguing that the election verdict is similar to six months ago, however, this is the most polarised parliament in left and national terms since the transition to democracy.

New elections, similar results. Unable to form a majority after the April general elections, the socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez gambled on a new election to break the political deadlock. The electorate’s verdict is remarkably similar to that of the previous election six months ago. Like in April, all parliament majorities in the Spanish Congress involve the Socialist Party (PSOE). Support for the main left-of-centre parties (PSOE-UP-Mas Pais/Compromis) is virtually the same than the one emerged in the last election (43.6 vs 43.7), whereas the support for the main right-of-centre parties (PP-Vox-Cs) adds up again to 43.1 per cent of the vote. In parliamentary terms, the left block leads by a few seats (158 vs 150) but none of these combinations constitutes a parliamentary majority (set at 176 seats). While the picture may be a similar one, this is a more polarised parliament than the one elected six months ago.

Table 1. Election Results in November 2019

* Coalition between the Navarrese Union People (UPN), the PP and Ciudadanos in Navarre


Despite similarities in the support for the blocks, there have been relevant electoral changes. Some of this change is due to electoral demobilization. Turnout has been close to the 70 per cent mark. This participation level could probably be the lowest ever once the vote of Spaniards residing abroad is included in the official count later this week. The current lowest point was reached in June 2016, when an early election was called as a result of parliament not agreeing on any majority after the elections held six months before. Repeating elections clearly have a huge impact on turnout.

Figure 1 shows vote change by parties. There are two million less voters, which has resulted in most parties losing votes in absolute terms. UP (Unidas Podemos) faced the competition of the PSOE and the new party MP (Más País), losing 17 per cent of its vote, whereas the PSOE lost 10 per cent of its support. However, the main realignment occurred among the parties of the right. Ciudadanos (Cs) support has fallen by 2.5 million votes, i.e., 60 per cent of its support in April. Apart from the support for the governing party UCD in the 1982 landslide elections, there is no precedent of such a collapse in Spanish elections. The realignment within the right has resulted in the Popular Party (PP) increasing its support by 15 per cent, which has restored the party’s uncontested role as the main opposition party. However, the main beneficiary of Cs’ collapse seems to be the Vox, which has increased its support by 36 per cent.  

Figure 1. Vote Change between November and April 2019

The rise of Vox is the other big story of the election. The entrance of Vox into the Parliament of Andalusia in December 2018 affected the strategies of the PP and Cs. Its surge seemed to echo the success of far-right parties in other European countries, but the picture of Vox voters in April 2019 seemed different from those of radical-right voters elsewhere: rather than economically unprivileged and concerned about immigration, they were economically well-off and concerned about national unity.

This picture needs to be re-evaluated now that the party has reached 15 per cent of the vote, which makes them the third largest parliamentary party in the Spanish Congress. Psephologists in Spain are going to spend the following weeks assessing the nature of Vox supporters, which can affect the strategies of Spanish political parties. However, the outcome of April and November elections seems to provide some provisional conclusions.

First, Vox does not seem to add votes to the right block. This is the second consecutive election in which the right has no possibility to form a government. Though it remains to be seen, the emergence of Vox could hamper the prospects of right-wing parties to win an election due to its radical perception by ideologically moderate voters.

Second, Vox seems to have benefited from the coordination of right-wing parties in the formation of regional governments in Spain. Supporters have learnt that Vox is unlikely to prevent the formation of a right-wing government in alliance with PP and Cs, which may have facilitated vote change in its favour.

Third, Vox seems to be the champion of Spanish nationalism. In a campaign dominated by the events in Catalonia after the ruling of the Spanish Supreme Court on pro-independence political leaders, it seems that many voters see Vox as the best instrument to prevent any concessions to Catalan pro-independence parties.

The buck is now in the hands of the PSOE. There are two stable agreements to choose from. First, different confidence-and-supply concretions between the PSOE and the Popular Party. The main risk of this strategy is that both parties could alienate a share of its supporters now that they face competition from its flanks (UP and Vox respectively). Alternatively, the PSOE could reach an agreement with UP, MP, and the Catalan pro-independence parties. The main risk of this strategy is that the PSOE could alienate some voters in favour of right-wing parties. The collapse of Ciudadanos means that the PSOE has eliminated a competitor but also a possible partner: the agreement between the PSOE and Cs, a possibility that existed in April, is not available anymore. Any other option would need broad alliances that would involve right and left parties plus the support of the moderate Basque nationalists (PNV), which now seems unlikely.  

New elections have produced similar results, but the room for manoeuvre is narrower. The rise of Vox and the rise in support for pro-independence parties in Catalonia (ERC, JxCAT and CUP have increased its share of the vote in Catalonia from 36.6 to 42.6, the largest support to pro-independence parties in a general election) means that this is the most polarized parliament in left-right and national terms since transition to democracy.

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