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Spain Under Strain

After their triumph on Sunday, Spain’s Socialists are pondering a coalition with the neoliberal Ciudadanos. Yet with nationalist parties on the rise, a government of the center will be anything but stable.

Prime Minister of Spain Pedro Sanchez addresses supporters outside of the PSOE headquarters on April 28, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty

After a turbulent and hard-fought campaign, the Spanish elections on April 28 offered few definite answers for the country’s future. The most obvious conclusion from the result is that the center-left Socialists (PSOE) were the big winners and the conservative Popular Party (PP) the big losers. Yet the results for forces outside the two traditional parties point to the ongoing climate of instability. While the center-right Ciudadanos did better than it had in 2016, Podemos slipped back; reflecting a mounting polarization over the national question, the Spanish-nationalist Vox made a historic breakthrough, while the Catalan independence parties achieved their highest ever result in any Spanish-wide election.

As moves to create a new government continue in the hours and days after Sunday night’s result, we face a quickly moving scenario. Almost any of the preelection forecasts could still be realized, though the combined forces of the Right (the liberal-nationalist Ciudadanos together with the PP and far-right Vox) fell short of the numbers they would need to create a government. This has widely been seen as a win for PSOE and even for Podemos, whose fall from 21 to 14 percent was not as bad as many expected. Yet if this was a victory, it was a Pyrrhic one. Creating a left-wing government on the basis of these results looks like a titanic challenge, and the danger of PSOE making a pact with Ciudadanos also looms.

Points Mean Prizes

Though falling far short of a majority (with about 29 percent of the vote), the PSOE won the elections in terms of both vote and seat numbers. Indeed, Premier Pedro Sánchez’s party came first in almost all provinces except for the Basque Country, Navarra, and three provinces in Catalunya. Not since 1986 had the traditional party of the center-left secured such a clear victory over the Partido Popular, when the PSOE defeated former Francoite minister Manuel Fraga’s party (then known as the Alianza Popular). Sánchez managed to rally voters’ fears of a radicalized right, posing as the most reliable means of stopping it in its tracks. His discourse was light on policy, and moreover kept the PSOE in a position as critical of the Catalan independence parties as it was of the Right. He avoided practically any dialogue with Podemos, allowing him to pose as the most secure, “moderate” option.

The PP, for its part, lost almost half of its support, reaching a historic low of 4 million votes and just 66 seats in the 350-member Congress. It did not prevail in any province except Navarra, where it stood together with Ciudadanos in the Navarra+ coalition. The PP’s party president Pablo Casado, elected as a hard-line leader who could stop it bleeding votes to the more nationalist Ciudadanos and the far-right Vox, in fact proved unable to do this. As Casado’s own team put it, “the Vox effect was devastating” for the conservative party.

Ciudadanos was one of the best-performing parties in Sunday’s vote. Piling on around 1 million extra votes, it placed third nationally (just 0.8 percent behind the PP). It managed to place itself as a key element in the formation of a government and indeed as central to the new space that the moderate right seeks to hegemonize. In Catalunya, where the party pushed hard to send one of its most charismatic leaders — Inés Arrimadas — to Congress, it did not manage to improve its results, its Spanish-nationalist discourse probably having already reached its natural ceiling in this region.

Unidas Podemos and its various allies lost twenty-nine MPs and 7 percent of its votes, following years of internal disputes, erratic strategic choices, and major indecision over key questions of Spanish politics. If its defeat also owed to the dirty campaign waged by the state and the mass media, these former causes were much more important than the latter among a Podemos electorate who did not so much opt for abstention as for a turn to the Socialists.

Splits and the end of former alliances in the Valencia region, Galicia, and Madrid generated a lack of trust in Podemos, tarnishing the party’s image. Pablo Iglesias reached polling day utterly exhausted, for want of supporting acts or anyone else to fill in for him. If Podemos once seemed a hope for the Spanish state and for Europe, a measure of disillusionment has doubtless set in. The loss of MPs especially owes to the PSOE’s success in mobilizing a large part of the left-wing electorate across Spain behind itself, in a campaign focused on the threat of the far right.

Indeed, the Vox party established in late 2013 represents the first time the far right has broken from the PP and entered Congress on its own account. With 2,667,313 votes it surpassed 10 percent, winning some twenty-four seats in parliament. Unlike other far-right forces in Europe, Vox lacks a “social” hue, instead being a party of traditionalist and ultranationalist elites with a strong hostility toward Catalunya, feminism, foreigners, and LGBT people. Its base is among former PP voters and some who previously did not vote, but it has not managed — like other European far-right parties — to win over traditionally left-wing working-class populations. It continues to represent the radical wing of the Spanish right as united by former prime minister José María Aznar.

Regional Differences

The vote in Catalunya was particularly remarkable for the fact that several of the two main Catalan independence parties’ candidates are currently in jail, on trial at the Supreme Court for sedition and rebellion. In a state supposedly based on law, such a way of holding elections is a democratic anomaly, but in fact the results for the pro-independence parties were good. Oriol Junqueras, jailed leader of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, center-left), secured the best ever results for his party — over 1 million votes and fifteen seats — while imprisoned civil-society activist Jordi Sánchez, standing for Junts per Catalunya (liberal) managed to achieve practically the same result as in the 2016 general election. In this general election Catalan independence parties were stronger than ever, especially if we also consider the over 100,000 votes for Front Republicà (a split from the CUP; anticapitalist), which did not elect any MPs.

These results will themselves have a key effect on the formation of a new government in Spain, or indeed for torpedoing the administration’s very functioning, in a battle against state repression and the lack of democratic political solutions to the Catalan conflict. Meanwhile the radical-left En Comú-Podem slipped from first to third place as its voters split along national lines, heading either to Junqueras’s pro-independence ERC or the unionist PSC (the local ally of the PSOE). Overall, however, the pro-Spanish right fragmented and lost support; whereas the PP had six MPs elected in Catalunya in 2016, this time around both it and Vox secured one seat each. Hence while an element of Spanish unionism radicalized behind neofascist positions, overall the harshest anti-Catalan positions proved costly.

Even more remarkable was the situation in the Basque Country, where the Spanish right disappeared from the map entirely as the pro-independence Left doubled its score. With neither the PP, Ciudadanos, nor Vox electing any MPs in this region, the only right-wing force to win representation here were the more conservative Basque nationalists. Meanwhile the pro-independence Left was rewarded for its straightforward and powerful defense of social rights as well as national autonomy.

Much worse for the Left was the result in the Comunidad de Madrid, where the three right-wing parties were the winners. They together lost just one seat in the capital compared to 2016, thus avoiding the kind of defeat they saw on the nationwide scale. This also augurs badly for the May 26 local, regional, and European elections, where the space represented by Unidas Podemos has broken into two after the split by Íñigo Errejón and Manuela Carmena, who is mayor in the capital.

The Agreements to Come

The party leaders who have already spoken of possible coalitions have most of all insisted on how difficult — and time-consuming — it may be to form one. It is quite possible that there will be no agreement before the May 26 elections, and indeed Sánchez, Rivera, Casado, and some Unidas Podemos leaders have deferred the question until this point. The municipal, regional, and European contests in four weeks’ time will be a test of the atmosphere resulting from April 28. The most likely solutions, however, are an alliance between the PSOE and Podemos or between the PSOE and Ciudadanos.

The only solution through which Sánchez’s center-left can govern together with Iglesias’s party would rely on the Catalan ERC either backing the coalition (in the first round of the confidence vote) or abstaining (in the second such vote). And even if it were formed, a left-wing government would confront not only the domestic opposition within the Congress of Deputies, but also budgetary pressure from European authorities in Brussels — a question that neither the candidates nor the media gave due attention during the campaign. Sánchez has told Europe that “we will form a pro-European government,” further remarking that “there is still the task of winning on May 26” in the elections for the Brussels parliament.

For their part, PSOE supporters and activists seem to oppose any deal with Albert Rivera’s center-right Ciudadanos, one solution that the parliamentary arithmetic does allow. At the election night celebrations outside the Socialists’ offices on Calle Ferraz, they chanted “With Rivera, no,” “No pasaràn,s” and “No means no,” to which Sánchez responded “I think that’s been clear enough all along, no?” In fact, this is anything but true. His remark that he would set up no “cordon sanitaire” limiting his potential government partners made his intentions in this regard anything but clear.

Indeed, there are particular grounds to fear a pact between Sánchez and Rivera when we consider that an attempt to form such a coalition was already made in February 2016, after a previous indecisive election result. The negotiations produced a never-implemented Agreement for a Reformist and Progressive Government, with over two hundred measures to be adopted by a hypothetical PSOE-Ciudadanos administration. Nonetheless, there is a clear stumbling block to such a deal, coming from Andalusia — Spain’s biggest region and a traditional PSOE fiefdom. There, after December’s regional election, the PP and Ciudadanos formed a government with Vox support, and Sánchez would very probably demand an end to this arrangement — something difficult for the Ciudadanos leader to concede. Defending his own center-right credentials, already on election night Rivera painted the PSOE as in bed with the radical left and independence parties, commenting “the bad news is that Sánchez and Iglesias will govern with the [Catalan and Basque] nationalists.” It may be that the Ciudadanos leader prefers to become the hegemonic force on the Right, in expectation of the next elections, rather than become a junior ally to the PSOE.

Without doubt the markets, the Troika, and those who obsess about deficit ceilings and repaying debts would prefer a PSOE-Ciudadanos administration to steady the ship of state. We can only hope that they fail to do so. Spanish politics promises to continue navigating troubled waters for some time to come. For the Left, the result demand reflection, looking to the outside forces that weakened it but also its own failures. It is not enough to find excuses by blaming our enemies, but to fill the spirit of “no pasarán” with programmatic content, concrete action, and material force. Interesting times are doubtless on the horizon. We just have to be prepared for them.