Ben Wray: Spain heads to a snap General Election with the right-wing ascendant

The Prime Minister responded to disappointing local election results yesterday by calling a snap General Election, the result of which is highly unpredictable

Ben Wray is a freelance journalist based in the Basque Country, and co-ordinates BRAVE NEW EUROPE’s Gig Economy Project. He is co-author of ‘Scotland After Britain: The Two Souls of Scottish Independence‘ (Verso, 2022).

As soon as the Spanish local elections were over, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez took the stage to announce a surprise move. The leader of centre-left PSOE said that he was bringing forward Spain’s General Election, due to take place in December, to 23 July. 

Sánchez told the press that the party’s disappointing results meant “a clarification on the political forces that must lead this phase” was now necessary. The real reasons are likely to be more about tactics than principles.

Right-wing on the march

The local elections were a very good night for Spain’s right-wing. The centre-right Popular Party (PP) won a string of important autonomous communities across the country and increased their vote share substantially to 31.5%, from 22.6% in the last local elections in 2019. In the Andalucía region in the south, the poorest part of Spain, almost all of the municipalities went to PP. Add to that the vote of far-right Vox, which more than tripled its number of seats from 2019 and won over 7% of the vote. PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo will think he is heading for power.

Having said that, the result doesn’t point to a clear majority for PP and Vox in a General Election. If it were to be replicated in July, a combined 38% between the two right-wing parties is about the same as PSOE and left-wing Podemos had when they became a minority coalition government after the December 2019 General Election. Any government involving Vox would also have fewer allies to count on in the Spanish Congress than the PSOE-Podemos coalition had to get over the 50% mark. The road to a PP-Vox government is narrow.

PSOE were just over 3% behind PP in the local elections, on 28.1%, and saw their vote share fall by just 1% on the 2019 local elections. Usually parties in government suffer at local elections; it does not mean it will be replicated at a General Election, when the stakes are higher. Sánchez may have called the election because he believes the current gap to PP can be reined in, whereas waiting six months could allow Feijóo to build momentum.

Another thing that Sánchez may have in mind is that the next six weeks will see the PP negotiating with Vox in several autonomous communities to form majorities so they can govern (only in the Madrid and La Rioja regions does the PP have an absolute majority). Having the media spotlight on Vox making demands to enter regional governments across Spain may focus the minds of PSOE’s base and get them to turnout to avoid a right-far right coalition being replicated at national level. 

Turnout explains many of the local election results, and will be decisive in a General Election. In a country where the memory of fascism is less than half a century old, the spectre of neo-fascist Vox entering power is not a small issue. They have never been as close to power as they are now.

Podemos down, and possibly out

For Podemos, the minority partner in Spain’s coalition government, the election could not have gone much worse. They have gone backwards in every region, with particularly bad losses in Valencia and Madrid.

Podemos’ failure puts the party in a weak negotiating position with Yolanda Díaz, labour minister in the coalition government who has initiated her own political project for the General Election, Sumar. The local elections were a test case of Podemos’ enduring strength, and having failed they have little weight in which to ensure their demands for joining the Sumar coalition, which included open primaries for selecting candidates, are met.

The premature development of Sumar is probably part of Sánchez’ calculation for calling the election. Díaz polls as the most popular politician in the country and Sumar is competing for a similar set of voters as PSOE. By ripping up Díaz’ timeline for bringing the Spanish left in behind Sumar, Sánchez may be able to catch Sumar cold and eat up the Spanish left’s vote. 

Podemos and Sumar now have only until 9 June to reach an agreement on a coalition to be able to run together for the General Election. That’s not a lot of time, considering talks have been going on since the start of the year, with a conclusion always appearing to be some way off. What little leverage Podemos had in the negotiations with Díaz is slipping away.

The party’s slide goes back well before their time in coalition government with PSOE since 2020. Podemos launched in 2014 on the back of the ’15-M’ anti-austerity, anti-establishment movement, and the party’s vote peaked not long after, in 2016. Coalition government in 2020 was meant to save it from a steady decline of votes and relevance. 

Díaz, who has only become a major public figure due to her role as labour minister since 2020, was supposed to be the figure head of Podemos’ new ‘insider’ era, with founder Pablo Iglesias (who was always more comfortable in an ‘outsider’ role) stepping down as leader and vice-president in 2021 and announcing that she would be his successor. But Díaz had other ideas. 

The Labour minister initiated a new project in Sumar that seeks to have a broader appeal than Podemos, and has bagged the support of numerous high profile leftist figures, including from previous splits from Podemos. Iglesias has sought to emphasise difference between Podemos and Sumar, and certainly on the war in Ukraine, Díaz seem to be a lot more comfortable with towing PSOE’s pro-NATO, militarist line. 

However, there is not enough which separates these two left-reformist projects to justify them standing separately at a General Election, and it’s now clear that outcome would mean electoral oblivion for Podemos. It now looks inevitable that they will have to concede leadership of the Spanish left to Díaz. Whether Sumar  – with little name recognition and little time to change that – proves a significantly more popular choice for voters than Podemos remains to be seen.

Catalan independence bloc shrinks

In Catalonia, the independence bloc has shrunk, with Esquerra Republicana (ERC) – the centre-left government in the Catalan Parliament – by far the biggest loser of the three independence parties, falling from 23.5% of the vote in 2019 to 17.3%. 

ERC is paying the price for a failure to provide a way forward for the Catalan independence movement post-2017 referendum, engaging in a constitutional ‘dialogue table’ for years with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez that has predictably gone nowhere. The only real success ERC has achieved on the constitutional front is getting the referendum’s leaders out of jail.

Centre-right Junts Per Catalunya and far-left CUP also saw their vote share fall, in what was the worst election performance for Catalan independence parties since the 2017 referendum. PSOE, which was the largest party, and PP – which doubled its vote share from 4 to 8 per cent – were the main beneficiaries. 

READ MORE – Ben Wray: Are Europe’s independence movements dead?

It would be too soon to say that the Catalan independence movement is buried. A PP-Vox Government in July could be the trigger for a revival. However, the decline of electoral force comes after the demoralisation of the movement, a bad combination that bears similarities to Scotland, another country where the main independence party (the SNP) has been incapable of finding any answers to the strong ‘No’ of the central state on the right to national self-determination.

In the Catalan capital of Barcelona, the eight-year era of Ada Colau, leftist housing activist turned mayor, has come to an end, although the vote of ‘Barcelona en Comun’ held up much better than most Podemos-affiliated candidates. PSOE will now take the mayoralty, with Barcelona en Comun in the supporting role.

EH Bildu rising

The main bright spot for the left across the Spanish state was in the Basque Country, where pro-independence left party Euskal Herria Bildu won its best ever result in a local election since it was formed in 2011, becoming the largest party by seats. Their main rival, the centrist Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), lost almost 100,000 votes and 50 seats.

EH Bildu’s success came in the context of a demonisation campaign by the Spanish right-wing over 44 Bildu candidates who had served prison sentences for activities associated with ETA, the pro-independence militia which laid down its arms more than a decade ago and ceased to exist in 2018. PP and Vox were primarily aiming their scaremongering at voters beyond the Basque Country, but Bildu’s victory goes to show that Basques won’t be bullied by alarmist fear tactics that are as hypocritical as they are dishonest. 

In Galicia, the leftist Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG) also enjoyed a decent election, winning 17.25% of the vote, 4.5% more than in 2019 but lower than their vote share in the 2020 Galician parliamentary elections (23.79%). 


There are signs from recent elections in Greece and Italy that Southern European politics may be trending to the right. Spain’s local election results suggest it could follow, but take a step back and the country’s political map remains much more polarised and fragmented than Greece or Italy. Neither Spanish left or right look close to getting over 50% of the vote.

That could potentially make the independence parties king-makers once again, and all of them will block any government which involves Vox. ‘Stop Vox’ will be a key theme of these elections, but the left will also have to offer something more appealing to the public than fear of the far-right. 

Despite the fact that Spain has just had an election, it is still highly unpredictable how the next one will go in seven weeks time.

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