Sebastian Balfour – Spain’s Elections: What’s at Stake and What’s the Likely Outcome?

A look ahead to the Spanish elections on April 28th. The issue of Catalan separatism looms large, while the right appears more fragmented than the left. A wild card could be the populist Vox party.

Sebastian Balfour is Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science

Cross-posted from the LSE’s blog EUROPP

These are volatile times in Spain as the general elections of 28 April approach. Their results could not be more uncertain. One of the main sources of the turbulence is the continued challenge of Catalan separatism after the failed bid for independence in October 2017 in defiance of the Spanish Constitution and legal system. Its leaders and main protagonists are either in exile or jailed and undergoing trial at the High Court on charges ranging from sedition and rebellion to the misuse of public funds. But the new government that replaced them in the December 2017 Catalan elections is still committed to achieving independence, though divisions are widening in its parliamentary majority over what policies to pursue to achieve this end, ranging from unilateralism to negotiation.

The upsurge of Catalan nationalism has stirred up a latent and not so latent Spanish nationalism. Political discourse on the right has been transformed and the traditional parliamentary and media pronouncements of Spanish conservatism seem sedate in comparison. The language of the right mimics the populist rhetoric that has swept across Europe and the US. One of the most important markers of this new populism in Spain is competition between the parties of the right and centre-right over which can best confront the Catalan separatist challenge and which can reverse the liberal reforms of the last decades.

Underlying these preoccupations lie the popular grievances that have accumulated over the failure of successive governments to deal with the socio-economic crisis that began in 2008. The appeal of the Popular Party (PP) (in power between 2011 and 2018 under PM Mariano Rajoy), has been further undermined by the corruption scandals that have enveloped the party for some years. Both these issues have led to a reconfiguration of the party system on the right.

The PP’s most important rival on the right is the Ciudadanos (Citizens) party, which first emerged in 2006 as a social liberal party contesting Catalan elections and opposed to Catalan nationalism. By 2015, the party had transformed itself into a national party, winning almost 14% of the national vote in the general elections that year. Since then it has placed anti-Catalan separatism at the centre of its campaigns, vying with the PP in the defence of national unity. It has progressively eaten into the centre ground originally shared between the PP and the Socialists.

The new wild card on the Spanish right is Vox, a populist party created by a few disaffected PP politicians in 2013, with links to Steve Bannon and the new populist right in Europe. Vox represents yet another challenge to the PP’s hegemony over the conservative and right-wing vote. Its ability to win votes from the PP was manifest in the results of the autonomous elections in Andalusia in 2018, where the combined right was able to wrest control of the Andalusian government from the Socialists for the first time since post-Francoist democracy. Their success was due in part to a demobilisation of the left after almost 40 years of Socialist control of the autonomous government and also to the relatively declining challenge of the left populist party Podemos to replace the Socialist party (PSOE) as the leading party of the left. Vox showed its potential not only to win over PP voters but also to mobilise disaffected youth as well as the far right fringe of the electorate whose reference-point is Francoism and who may have voted only fitfully before.

The fragmentation of the right, a reality despite their combined demonstration in Madrid in early February, will have a significant bearing on the results of the general elections of 28 April. The electoral system of Spanish democracy was devised under the first PM of Spain’s new democracy in 1977, Adolfo Suárez, to ensure the consolidation of his centre-right party, the Unión de Centro Democrático. It assigns seats to those parties that win the greater number of votes in each province (the province being the electoral constituency), the effect of which is to exclude smaller parties from parliamentary representation. At the same time it assigns a proportionally greater number of seats to those provinces of Spain’s interior which have fewer voters and where the conservative vote tends to be stronger. Because of the centrifugal effects of modernisation, this ‘interior’ or in the language of the present elections this ‘empty Spain’, has become relatively denuded of population, intensifying the disproportionality of the vote.

After it was first promulgated, the effect of the electoral law was to consolidate a bipartisan electoral system which presided over Spanish politics for decades, dominated by the PP and the PSOE, with a quite limited representation of regional parties. Since the rise of Podemos and the emergence of new parties of the right over the last few years that bipartisanship has given way to a multiparty system.

The consequence for the coming general elections is that the conservative/right-wing vote will be split three ways, however unevenly, and this will be reflected in the number of seats one or more of the parties obtain. That is, the three parties of the right will be competing separately for seats with parties of the centre-left and left dominated by the Socialists (and, in some areas, by regional parties). As the astute Deputy Director of the Catalan daily La Vanguardia, Enric Juliana, points out, this represents a historical inversion of the early days of the democracy when it was the left that was split several ways.

The latest opinion poll conducted in early April by the authoritative Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas suggests that the Socialists will be the main beneficiaries of the divisions on the right. Another more recent poll published on 14 April in La Vanguardia and carried out by the GAD3 consultancy also indicates that voting intentions are shifting in favour of the Socialists. On the basis of both these polls, the PSOE is projected to win a majority of seats but not an absolute majority and may form a new minority government with the parliamentary support of Podemos (now known as Unidas Podemos) and its regional components, as well as the Basque nationalist party PNV (which have supported the present government since it took power) and the Valencian left party Compromís.

These projections suggest that the PSOE would no longer require the support of the Catalan nationalist parties which, having backed the Socialist motion of no confidence that defenestrated the PP government of Mariano Rajoy in 2018, have been reluctant to back the minority government of Pedro Sánchez without significant concessions towards their aim of self-determination. It was above all their opposition to his 2019 budget proposals that left his government in a minority and forced him to call for elections in the first place. Nevertheless, leading members of both parties, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya and Junts per Catalunya, in prison and on trial, have recently expressed their willingness to soften their position and support a new government led by the Socialists without demanding a price. Clearly their aim is to encourage tactical voting to prevent the victory of a right-wing coalition whose policy towards Catalonia would be hard-line.

The opinion polls, however, also find that a large number of voters questioned, 41.6% in the case of the CIS poll, are undecided about which way they will vote. To add to the uncertainty, nobody can easily predict the extent to which Vox can reproduce at a national level the success it registered in the Andalusian elections, where it won 12 seats accounting for almost 11% of all votes. The CIS poll suggests it might do slightly better in the general elections winning 11.9% of the vote (11.2% in the GAD3 poll). Is Vox merely the new flavour on the right, with its relatively young faces and adept social media skills, or will it make inroads into both conservative and low income votes of left and right on the basis of its anti-immigrant, anti-Catalan, anti-feminist and pro-centralist platform?

A right-wing parliamentary majority, however, is unlikely, not only on the basis of the opinion polls but also of the competing interests of the parties of the right. Ciudadanos are loath to share the same platform as Vox because they are seeking to present themselves as a party of moderation. The PP, still leading the centre-right and right-wing vote, compete with Vox in the hope they can reassert their erstwhile hegemony over the right.

At the same time, a ‘transversal’ outcome most favoured by the arithmetic of the polls, a coalition government of the PSOE and Ciudadanos, also seems unlikely. Although he has ruled out any deal with the Catalan nationalists beyond the promise of further dialogue, Sánchez does not want to be associated with Ciudadanos’ intransigence over the Catalan question, while Ciudadanos, fearful of losing its more Spanish nationalist components, has ruled out any coalition with the Socialists.

Sánchez himself has played a shrewd game ever since he forged the parliamentary coalition that ousted the PP government of Rajoy. His latest ploy was to agree to appear, alongside the leader of Podemos, on only one televised national debate with the leaders of the three parties of the right, the PP, Cuidadanos and Vox, on a private channel of Atresmedia, Antena 3. Vox have no seats in the present national parliament and their share of the national vote is less than 5%. According to the rules of the electoral commission in Spain, the Junta Electoral Central (JEC), they therefore have no right thereby to appear in televised debates on public channels. Appearing on the Antena 3 debate would have given Sánchez the opportunity to put all three parties of the right into the same basket with himself as defender of moderation. However, the new ruling of the JEC excludes them from private channels as well so Sánchez has pulled out of the Altresmedia debate and agreed to appear on a debate with the three other main parties on a public channel.

Sánchez’ strategy seems to be to position the PSOE in the moderate, social-democratic centre ground. He is helped by the more or less Trump-like vituperation of the three right parties competing to mobilise the right-wing voter. He is also likely to benefit more than the three other main parties from tactical voting and the undecided voter.

In the newly polarised political environment, the choice facing voters might appear a binary one of right or left. In fact, the issues at play are far more complex and cross-cut traditional ideologies. They encompass identity, democracy, inequalities of class and geography, historical legacies, questions such as gender violence and much more. The stakes are high and the outcome of the elections is crucial to the future of Spanish politics, more so perhaps than in recent years.

[Note: I am indebted to the London correspondent of the Catalan daily newspaper Ara, Quim Aranda, for his perceptive comments on the first draft of this blog.]

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