Since the 2016 election, when conservative Mariano Rajoy managed to stay in power against the odds, Spanish politics has been deeply shaken by a four-part sequence of events.
First, the two main left parties (the centre-left PSOE and Podemos) descended into in-fighting, prompting a realignment of their electorates, to the detriment of Podemos. Second, the eruption of the Catalan revolt in October 2017, in the form of a unilateral referendum of secession amid violent clashes with Spanish security forces, was followed by the suspension of Catalan self-government and the arrest of the regional government. Third, the arrival of a damning corruption sentence for Rajoy’s Popular party prompted a parliamentary vote of no-confidence that toppled the conservative government in the summer of 2018. And finally, after avoiding the spectre of the far-right for a decade, the country witnessed the unexpected breakthrough of a new right-wing populist party during the Andalusian regional election of December 2018.
Yesterday’s general election – the third in only three years – marks yet another turning point in the country’s unfolding constitutional crisis. The next chapter opens with a decisive victory of the parliamentary left, though it comes at the expense of the advance of Podemos.
Old right, new right and the new old right.
The most remarkable development of this election has been the fragmentation of the right. Since the 1990s, the Spanish right has derived its strength from the concentration of its vote in the conservative Popular party (PP). Under the neoconservative guidance of José María Aznar, since the mid-1990s the party had boasted an electoral base that ranged from centrist liberals to Francoist nostalgics. However, in the late 2000s Aznar’s highly ideological rhetoric (Catholic moralism, Spanish nationalism, neoliberal radicalism) was toned down by the leadership of Mariano Rajoy, a grey bureaucrat.
Rajoy rose to power in 2011, but his austerity measures – which included raising taxes – were perceived to be insufficiently liberal by sections of his base. In the meantime, prominent neoconservative figures abandoned the party over its lack of ideological integrity. Moreover, between 2011 and 2016, the party’s vote shrank in the face of ever more outrageous corruption scandals, as well as the government’s seeming inaction toward the Catalan bid for self-determination.
The main beneficiary of this process has been Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’), a centrist party propped up by finance capital in 2015-6 in response to the rise of Podemos. Putting forward a cocktail of Thatcherite populism (marketisation against a self-serving political elite) and a liberal strand of Spanish nationalism (combatting regional nationalisms in the name of individualism), the party soared in the wake of the Catalan revolt and the fall of Rajoy.
Late in 2018, however, PP and Ciudadanos met a new formidable rival: the far-right Vox. A splinter of the neoconservative faction of PP, the party made an unexpected breakthrough in Andalusia whilst charging against the ‘cowardice’ of the old right. Pushing an unapologetically xenophobic, chauvinist and ultra-neoliberal line, Vox is more akin to the old Ukip than to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly National Front), though with a heavy dose of Catholic moralism.
Coupled with the takeover of PP by its neoconservative wing under the leadership of Pablo Casado, all of this set the stage for an intense competition over the conservative middle class electorate. The result has been an embarrassingly strident electoral campaign, in which the three right-wing parties have recruited aristocrats, bullfighters and soldiers to make their case for who was going to lower taxes to the middle classes the most or be harshest to Catalonia. Despite all the machismo, all three contemplated forming a government coalition together.
Failure to overtake the Socialist party (PSOE) in 2016 caused Podemos to break ranks, unleashing multi-layered factional struggles that resulted in a series of splits ahead of this election. These tensions were best represented by the irreversible rupture between the party’s figurehead, Pablo Iglesias, and strategist, Íñigo Errejón, resulting in the latter’s departure. The fallout has been a steady decline in support. However, the party has found some oxygen in the outbreak of new corruption scandals during the campaign (nothing less than the existence of ‘patriotic’ police brigade dedicated to spy on Podemos), as well as Iglesias’s good performance in televised debates, both of which allowed the electoral pact Unidas Podemos to recover some strength at the last minute.
Podemos’s losses have largely been to the benefit of PSOE. After acquiescing to Rajoy’s re-election in 2016, a gulf opened up between the Socialists’ centrist old guard and the membership, more left-wing and open to the idea of joining forces with Catalan nationalists to oust Rajoy with a no-confidence motion. The membership emerged victorious, spearheaded by its champion, Pedro Sánchez – until then a rather vacuous political figure.
Unlike in Podemos, PSOE’s internal strife galvanised an otherwise demoralised base and allowed Sánchez to overthrow Rajoy in 2018. Once in power, Sánchez and Podemos proceeded to strike important deals together, such as raising the minimum wage by 22%. Almost immediately, Sánchez returned an air of dignity and vigour to a party that was left highly disoriented in the wake of the global financial crisis. This, compounded by the radicalisation of the right, has resulted in PSOE attracting droves of voters, both to its left and right, without much effort.
The election has had a clear winner: with 123 seats, twice as many as the second-placed party, PSOE has had its best result in a decade, a dramatic reversal from what seemed like a process of ‘pasokification’ only a couple years ago. In doing so, PSOE is following Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in avoiding the meltdown of European social democracy. Meanwhile, Podemos has abandoned its aspiration to ‘take heaven by storm’, or even to challenge the present constitutional regime, instead running a campaign content to forcing the hand of PSOE toward improved social measures. The party has lost 40% of its seats – falling back to 42 – but has saved face in a context of regional dismemberment and internal strife (some polls had envisioned as few as 27 seats).
The biggest loser, unquestionably, is PP – this result being the worst in party history. Before the election, PP’s treasurers had calculated that securing anything less than 80 seats would place the party on the verge of bankruptcy: it has secured 66 (down from 137). Vox has made a notable breakthrough into national politics with 23 seats, however its impact has been far from what some had imagined. One scenario was that it might receive 50 seats or more, making it the third largest party. Ciudadanos, meanwhile, emerges as the relative victor of the civil war within the right: the party has secured 57 seats, almost twice as many as in 2016, falling short of surpassing PP by less than 1% of the popular vote.
In terms of forming a government, the right bloc does not stack up to a majority by any stretch, and this election has been a decisive defeat for the right as a whole. A centrist bloc (PSOE and Ciudadanos) does stack up, and is certainly the preferred choice of the PSOE officialdom. However, this would likely be deemed a declaration of war by the membership, reigniting internal strife. The most likely result, therefore, remains a PSOE and Podemos coalition with a confidence and supply agreement with Catalan left-wing nationalists, likely at the price of renewed talks of self-determination. Given the options on the table, this was always the best case scenario. The far right is at the gates, but their onslaught has been resisted – for now.