The Spanish elections explained - Socialists come out on top

Tuesday 30th April 2019 | Jake

On Sunday evening Spain held its snap general election, hoping to draw a line under a tumultuous era of Spanish politics. Last year the conservative People’s party (PP) were ousted from office following a corruption scandal and a vote of no confidence in the Spanish parliament. PSOE replaced them, promising an election. This election was triggered after Catalan separatists in parliament helped to vote down PSOE’s 2019 budget. On Sunday evening it was confirmed that PSOE, and their leader Pedro Sánchez, had gained the most votes, but had fallen short of a majority.

The result was still a victory for PSOE, who strengthened their position, picking up 38 more seats than they won in 2016’s election, up to 123 seats in a 350-seat congress. A majority of 176 seats is required to form a government in Spain, meaning PSOE will be locked in talks with other political parties to form a coalition. One such group will almost certainly be the anti-austerity Unidas Podemos party. Podemos actually performed disappointingly in the snap election, finishing fourth overall but losing 29 seats on its 2016 total.

The election was especially significant as it marked the Spanish public’s first drift towards the far-right in a general election since the death of the fascist dictator General Franco in 1975. Since his death no far-right party had won more than a single seat in congress. On Sunday the far-right Vox party won 24. Spain had long believed it was immune to the populist, far-right wave washing over Europe’s political landscape.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal

Vox, however, put paid to that in December 2018, when they won 12 seats in Andalucía’s 109-seat parliament during regional elections. The souther region, home to the cities of Seville and Malaga, is traditionally left-wing, so December’s results shocked a nation. Vox’s snap election performance was actually underwhelming considering predictions. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias even hailed the election as having momentarily “been enough to stop the right wing”.

The election marks yet another setback for Spain’s traditional right, with both PP and the centre-right Citizens party failing to make a major impact at the polls. PP has had a disastrous year. After ruling over Spain for seven years, they were removed from office after a huge corruption scandal saw former party members convicted. The scandal led to a vote of no confidence tabled by PSOE last year, which finally brought down their beleaguered leader, Mariano Rajoy. Rajoy became the first Spanish prime minister removed by a vote of no confidence, and was also the country’s first serving prime minister to testify in a criminal case. PP collected a meagre 66 seats on Sunday, down 71 seats from 2016. Their new leader, Pablo Casado, is facing calls to resign.

Political discourse in the run-up to the election was dominated by Catalonia, specifically the secessionist and independence movement. Spain was thrown into chaos in 2017 when Catalonia, a semi-autonomous region on the east coast, declared its independence from Spain after a referendum the Spanish government called illegal. What followed was farcical. Catalan leaders were arrested for their role in the referendum, while the president, Carles Puigdemont, escaped into exile.

Pro indepence marchers in Catalonia

As Spain viewed the referendum (and a second that soon followed) as illegal, it ignored the result, meaning Catalonia was denied the independence it voted for. Resentment towards Catalonia from other Spanish regions grew, and Vox promised a hard-line approach should they reach office. It’s unclear how influential Vox’s stance on Catalonia was for their campaign. PSOE were continually accused of being soft on the Catalan independence parties in the run-up to the election, in the hope of forming a coalition government with them. Their equivocal stance didn’t harm them at the polls, though, outperforming expectations whereas Vox underwhelmed.

As things stand the political picture becomes a little clearer, if still very blurry. Sánchez and PSOE will most likely assemble a coalition with Podemos and a few regional parties, including Catalan separatists. This move will lead to fresh calls from Catalonia for a referendum, despite Sánchez’s insistence he won’t allow one. Further drama is surely on its way in next month’s European Parliament elections, but until then Spain will work out its left-wing coalition government, hopeful it has taken a step away from a tumultuous era.