Spanish General Election: Another Step Forward for the Far Right?

by Pablo Castaño

24 April 2019

Contando Estrelas /Wikimedia Commons

In the 2016 Spanish general election, the big question was whether Unidos Podemos – the electoral alliance led by Podemos and United Left – would overcome the Socialist party (PSOE). It didn’t. Just three years later, a snap election on 28 April could see a far-right party enter government for the first time since the end of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.

What happened?

Much has changed since the June 2016 campaign, when a charismatic professor called Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos, appeared to be the main source of hope for the European radical left.

The 2017 self-determination referendum in Catalonia, declared illegal by the Spanish constitutional court and violently repressed by the police, put the territorial conflict at the heart of political discussion across the country, fuelling right-wing Spanish nationalism. Podemos and its allies in Catalonia have had a hard time trying to explain their proposal of a binding referendum whilst advocating for a permanent place for Catalonia in the Spanish state.

Since then, Iglesias’s former right-hand man, Íñigo Errejón, has split from Podemos in the Madrid region, founding a more moderate left party. Disappointment has spread among Podemos’s militants, and the party’s popularity has dropped among voters. Even so, Iglesias played a key role in last year’s no-confidence motion against the conservative former prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, led by the Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez following Rajoy’s involvement in an outrageous corruption scheme, and in the last three months Unidas Podemos (rebranded ahead of the 2019 election) has forced PSOE’s government to pass a number of social measures.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the disobedient turn of the Catalan independence movement has been received with disguised joy by Pablo Casado (Popular party), Albert Rivera (Ciudadanos) and Santiago Abascal (Vox), the three most visible faces of the Spanish right.

Far-right Vox obtained 11% of the vote in the Andalusian regional election in December 2018, and an alliance between the three parties expelled PSOE from the regional government for the first time in decades. Ever since, Vox has experienced a sharp rise in polls, which predict that Abascal’s party could obtain around 13% of the vote on Sunday, perhaps surpassing Unidas Podemos. Moreover, Vox’s electoral surge has prompted the radicalisation of the Popular party and Ciudadanos, both eager to form a coalition with Vox after the national election.

Everything seems possible in the rough waters of Spanish politics, but as things stand a right-wing coalition is not the most likely outcome of the election. According to polls, PSOE will win the election but fall short of a majority. Sánchez’s slight turn to the left and the modern and optimistic political communication of his ten months in government has allowed him to attract many former Podemos voters. Two possible coalitions would keep Sánchez in power: an agreement with Ciudadanos, or a left coalition with Podemos, which would also need the support of Catalan and Basque nationalist and pro-independence parties.

The first option would be a step back from PSOE’s mild progressive turn, and would prevent any solution to the Catalan conflict. A PSOE-Unidas Podemos coalition supported by Catalans and Basques would provoke the wrath of the right and the most conservative sections of PSOE, but would be good news for Spain. Podemos members could enter government for the first time, the Socialists would be forced to abandon or at least soften austerity, as in the case of their Portuguese counterparts, and real negotiations on the future of Catalonia could take place.

An unexpected snap election.

An early snap election was unforeseeable just a few months ago.

When Pedro Sánchez was elected by parliament to replace Mariano Rajoy in June 2018, many expected him to immediately hold elections because he had a very weak majority which relied on Catalan pro-independence parties with whom PSOE has maintained very bad relations since 2017. He instead clung to power and, with Unidas Podemos’s support, passed several executive decrees on issues such as the minimum wage, gender equality and housing. These decrees did little to either seriously threaten the privileges of the Spanish oligarchies or meet Unidas Podemos’s demands, but they were enough to infuriate the right.

Sánchez’s plan to stay in power until the end of the parliamentary term (2020) came to an end in February, when his annual budget proposal was rejected in parliament. PSOE’s politicking and Catalan independentists’ stubbornness ruined nascent negotiations on the future of the region – which were already extremely difficult due to the concurrent political trial of several Catalan politicians and activists in the supreme court. As a result, both Catalan MPs and the Spanish right voted against the government’s budget – labelled the most left-wing budget in Spain’s recent democratic history – and it was defeated in parliament despite Unidas Podemos’s support.

Having decided to hold elections as soon as possible, PSOE is effectively capitalising the popular support for its social decrees with an optimistic and low-key campaign, while Unidas Podemos is struggling to remind the electorate that none of these advancements would have been possible without pressure from Iglesias’s party and its allies, who together account for 71 out of 350 MPs.

Yet, the discovery of a plot involving politicians, police and journalists to spy on and slander Podemos’s leaders under Rajoy’s government has allowed Iglesias to recover his populist rhetoric – he is claiming that this conspiracy proves that only Podemos can really defy the Spanish oligarchy and defend the people. While polls suggest the party has experienced a slight rise in recent weeks, no major recovery should be expected.

For their part, the three parties of the right are highly mobilised, conducting a campaign focused on an intransigent defence of national unity and the will to heavily punish Catalan rebels. Indeed, the conflict over Catalonia has provoked a conservative shift in the Spanish electorate, which only a few years ago seemed prepared to carry anti-austerity Podemos to power. As a result, the right appears certain to gather more combined votes than PSOE and Unidas Podemos together, but the distribution of conservative voters across the Popular party, Ciudadanos and Vox nonetheless makes it unlikely that a right-wing majority will be able to form a government due to the peculiarities of the electoral system.

Spain is facing a contradictory situation indicative of the polarised trends sweeping European politics. A far-right party will have a relevant presence in parliament for the first time in the country’s democratic history, provoking the radicalisation of the traditional right – as Marine Le Pen is doing in France. But, simultaneously, PSOE has been forced to an unseen turn to the left due to pressure from Podemos – as with the Portuguese Socialists since 2015.

On Sunday, a few votes in some key districts could decide the fate of Spain: a left-leaning government that could overcome austerity and launch negotiations to solve the Catalan conflict, or a reactionary executive which would deepen neoliberal policies and fuel national tensions across the country.

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