Spain’s Socialists Lose Their Electoral Gamble, as the Far-Right Vox Gains

Artículo
World Politics Review, 12.11.2019
Alana Moceri, analista internacional, escritor y profesor (European University of Madrid)

A man reads a newspaper with the headline “More Difficult,” following the recent elections, Barcelona, Spain, Nov. 11, 2019 (AP photo by Emilio Morenatti).

Spain returned to the polls Sunday for the fourth time in four years, and just six months since its last election. After giving the center-left Socialist Party, the leftist Podemos party and center-right party Ciudadanos, or Citizens, the opportunity to form a government in April, voters punished them this time around for failing to do so. The Socialists lost three seats in parliament, again falling short of a majority despite winning the most seats. Podemos lost seven seats and Ciudadanos a jaw-dropping 47, the biggest setback yet for the centrist upstarts. While voter turnout was about 5 percent less than in April, those that did vote gave the biggest boosts to the traditionally conservative Popular Party, which gained 22 more parliamentary seats, and the far-right Vox party, which more than doubled its seats from 24 to 52, making it the third-largest party in parliament.

Voters may have given the Socialist Party the most votes and therefore a second chance at governing, but this hollow victory came with an even more fractured and polarized party system and a much more complicated path to forming a government. No one can say that there won’t be another election in six months.

Three possible scenarios are currently getting the most attention in Madrid. The first and most favored by the Socialists would be the Popular Party abstaining from the second vote in parliament on forming a government, which would allow the Socialists to govern from the minority. A second possibility would be a grand coalition of the Popular Party and the Socialists. Both of these options are tough to envision, though, given that these two parties, which once dominated Spain’s formerly two-party landscape, have rivaled each other for decades. And as Pablo Casado, the Popular Party’s leader, noted Sunday night, they don’t have much common ground in terms of policy. In fact, Casado went so far as to suggest that Sanchez should step down.

If they were able to work together, it would represent a step back to that two-party era that was broken apart as new parties, starting with Podemos, entered the system over the past five years. A newly empowered Vox party also complicates these two options, since it will take every chance it gets to attack the Popular Party, especially for anything that cedes any ground whatsoever to the left.

A third possibility is a so-called “Frankenstein” government made up of the Socialists in coalition with what’s left of Podemos, Ciudadanos and a smattering of the non-separatist or even separatist regional parties, in order to get to the necessary 176 votes for an absolute majority in parliament. This is much less palatable to Sanchez, who found the idea of a government with Podemos detestable, given their rivalries within Spain’s left and sense of mutual distrust between him and Podemos’ leader, Pablo Iglesias. But it might just be the road to salvation for Ciudadanos, whose leader, Albert Rivera, resigned Monday. “As a moderate, a liberal, a constitutionalist, I, like millions of Spaniards, am worried about the country that has to be governed now,” he said in stepping down. Rivera could have been deputy prime minister had he taken the opportunity to form a stable and centrist government with the Socialists after his party won a robust 57 parliament seats in April.

With the dramatic weakening of the left along with the sharp rise for the far right, the results should serve as a cautionary tale for any political party or leader who imagines that the grass might be greener on the other side of an election. Polls in June and July were looking very good for the Socialists: Voters thought the party was in the process of forming a government and hopefully putting an end to a drawn-out period of political instability. In mid-July, polls showed the Socialists topping out at a tantalizing 32 percent of the vote, compared to the 28 percent they won Sunday and the 28.7 percent they won in April. While party insiders insist that Sanchez was well-informed by polling experts about the volatility of these numbers, they say it was his top adviser, Ivan Redondo, who pushed for an early second election, predicting that the Socialists could get as many as 135 seats in parliament on a second try—a dozen more than they had in April.

That strategy clearly failed. But some analysts and observers speculate that the Socialists may have had another goal in mind: to take out a rival in Ciudadanos and return to a two-party system. That is far from assured, though, and this whole ordeal has handed Vox a huge victory, much to the delight of Marie Le Pen, Matteo Salvini and other far-right populists across Europe.

The Socialists’ strategy also failed to take into account what unfolded in the run-up to Nov. 10 and the electoral implications. In mid-October, the Supreme Court handed out prison sentences to nine leaders in Catalonia who had organized the 2017 independence referendum, which sparked more protests in Catalonia. The restive region continues to loom large in Spanish politics, with pro-independence demonstrations stirring up right-wing anxiety over maintaining a unified Spain. These same voters were also deeply unhappy about exhuming and reburying the body of former dictator Francisco Franco, which the caretaker Socialist government pledged to do, in order to “bring an end to the moral insult that is the exaltation of a dictator in a public space,” as Sanchez put it. In late October, Franco’s body was moved from its elaborate mausoleum outside Madrid to a small grave near his former home, the Royal Palace of El Pardo.

To make matters worse, Spaniards can’t help but wonder what role this government instability is playing in the economy, which seems to be faltering. The economy is forecast to grow this year at its lowest rate since 2014.

Redondo, Sanchez’s adviser, will likely take the brunt of any blame for this election debacle, rather than Sanchez himself. Traditionally, only the party faithful moved up the ranks and called the shots in Spain’s political parties. But Redondo, who has also worked with the Popular Party in the past, is part of a new generation of political consultants in Spain revered by the Spanish media as American-style “gurus” or even “spin doctors.” Unsurprisingly, he has few friends inside the Socialist Party apparatus, which was deeply skeptical of his approach.

Whether this could be spun as a win wasn’t entirely clear on Sunday night at the Socialist Party’s headquarters in the heart of Madrid. A cheer went up when the first numbers came out and it looked like they had won 124 seats in parliament. But as the numbers were adjusted down, then down again to the final count of 120, all cheers faded. Staffers then scrambled to stage Sanchez’s speech in the auditorium in the building’s basement—rather than outside, a more typical location for victory speeches to a street usually crowded with supporters—where they could count on a packed room of party faithful dutifully waving red party flags.

Just as the speech was about to start, there was an announcement that everyone needed to head outside, where there were just enough people to give a good show for the cameras. Sanchez finally emerged to give a victory speech calling on all parties to “act with generosity and responsibility in order to unblock the political situation in Spain.” In contrast with April 28—when the crowd of party supporters rallied against any deal with Ciudadanos, chanting “With Rivera, no!”—there were a few handmade signs in the crowd and calls for a coalition with Podemos instead, with chants of “With Iglesias, yes!”

Sanchez is going to have to take this message to heart if he’s going to finally form a government and give Spain the political stability it needs.

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