On the Spanish elections: Ça commence aujourd’hui

Spaniards voted on Sunday primarily against a right-wing coalition and for moderation regarding the territorial conflict.

The most important question about these Spanish elections was whether or not the right would get enough support to form a government. The right in Spain is now fragmented in three parties: the traditional conservative Popular Party PP (in power until the vote of no confidence held in May 2018 led and won by the socialist Pedro Sánchez), the new center-right party Ciudadanos, C (which was first represented in the national parliament only in 2015), and the brand new far right party Vox.

The PP and C had just reached an agreement with Vox to govern in Andalucía after the recent regional elections, and during the campaign there were explicit statements regarding the feasibility of this right-wing coalition at the national level. In Spain, the mainstream right never even considered to exclude the far right from a potential government. It was clear that if they won the necessary seats, they would form a government. The polls gave an uncertain scenario regarding the likelihood of such a coalition, so even if the PSOE was expected to win, voters went to the polls without knowing what kind of government could come out of the elections.

Spanish citizens have very clearly voted against this right-wing coalition in massive numbers. Turnout has been one of the largest in our recent democratic history reaching over 76% of the census. The parliament has now 186 out of 350 seats belonging to parties of the left, including PSOE, Podemos and several left-wing regional parties mostly from Galicia, Basque Country and Catalonia.

In a context of increasing polarization,the Spaniards have voted for moderation. The socialist party PSOE has clearly won the election with 123 seats and 29% of the vote. This is a remarkable increase with respect to the historical minimum of 85 seats that PSOE won in 2016. The large distance from the next party (PP, 66 seats and only 17% of the vote, worst result since 1979) should facilitate PSOE’s task of forming a government. This result can be attributed to several factors, the weight of which will have to be evaluated once we have post-election survey data: the threat of the right-wing coalition, the ability to present the policies carried out in the past few months they had been in power, and the support of women.

Podemos, a left-wing political party created in 2014 paid the price of this socialist victory keeping only 45 of the 71 seats they got in 2016 together with its regional allies. Podemos has also been punished by the electoral system which under-represent small and mid-sized parties with territorially spread support, but still remains an important party with an ability to condition government formation.

Moderation has also won in another dimension of the election result which is fundamental for the mid-term future of Spanish politics. In Catalunya, ERC has been the most voted party in a general election for the first time 1977. ERC is a left-wing pro-independence party that after taking a leading role in the events of autumn 2017 (celebration of a referendum of independence declared void by the Spanish Constitutional Court, unilateral declaration of independence), has taken a more pragmatic stand in favor of dialogue and negotiation with the Spanish government. In a press conference from jail, its leader Oriol Junqueras declared that ERC would do anything in its hand to avoid a government including the far right.

In Catalunya electoral turnout was 17 percentage points higher in 2019 than in 2016. Even considering that participation was very low in the previous general elections, this is a huge unprecedented increase in mobilization. Catalans knew that the right-wing coalition was a particularly dangerous threat to Catalan self-government. Interestingly, the second party in Cataluña has been the Socialist Party, and not Ciudadanos. The two more moderate actors in the two sides of the Catalan conflict are the two most voted. The PP has almost disappeared keeping only one seat of the 48 that correspond to the Catalan districts. The hard discourse of Ciudananos and PP (and of course Vox) regarding Catalunya has not paid off this time, not only in Catalunya, but also in the Basque country where neither PP, nor C nor Vox win any seats. Such harsh discourse is maybe unnecessary when Catalan pro-independence leaders are being judged in Madrid, deprived of their political rights during the campaign -some were candidates-, and held in preventive prison for over one year now. The voters seem to be more interested in seeking for potential future solutions to the territorial crisis than in leaders that continue to dig in their heels.

Voters have massively abandoned the PP, who has lost half of its seats to both Cs (more moderate than PP in socioeconomic issues but not in the territorial question) and Vox (far right on all dimensions). The magnitude of the PP defeat is only similar to the one suffered by the extinct UCD (the center-right party that led the Spanish transition to democracy in the 1970s) before it disappeared. Part of the reasons for it may be related to the widespread the corruption that has plagued the party in the past years. But neither C nor Vox are born in response to corruption. Both are primarily the result of the territorial conflict.

In my opinion the PP has been a victim of its own strategy. It has used the territorial conflict (particularly in its Catalan version after the Basque terrorist organization ETA declared a cease of violence in 2011) as an electoral strategy to gain votes in other parts of Spain. By bringing to the Spanish Constitutional Court an appeal to the Catalan constitution (estatut d’autonomia, already amended and limited by the Spanish parliament but approved by Catalan citizens in referendum) in 2006, the PP set the seed of a problem that it then refused to address politically. For years, this strategy seemed to work, and during the great recession it diverted attention from other more uncomfortable issues such as the economic crisis or widespread corruption (to be sure, the strategy of focusing on the process towards independence also worked for the Catalan pro-independence parties, some of which also had attention to divert from corruption scandals and poor economic performance).

This harsh and aggressive PP discourse against the territorial minorities that seek more self-government, and the permanent emphasis on the Catalan pro-independence leaders as the source of all evil set the frame of the conversation that was then made available for everyone else. Other parties without government responsibilities and constraints carried the arguments further to the extremes. Like the toothpaste out of the tube, what had been unleashed become difficult to control. The recent move towards even more conservative positions of the PP accentuated with the new leadership of Pablo Casado. While Rajoy had managed to keep the most extreme faction within the party while keeping also a relatively moderate look, Casado, in the few months he has been leader of the party – and before Vox was a relevant actor – has gone all the way to the right, including bringing back the questioning of women’s reproductive rights in the age of #Metoo and the 8M. He is already correcting this course with a view in the European, regional and local elections of May 26.

Spain is a peculiar case in that the radicalization of the moderate right with government responsibilities precedes and has created the opportunity for the appearance of the far right. The economic crisis, systemic corruption and the fact of having to deal with the 1O referendum and the declaration of independence has made things easier first for C in 2015 and then for Vox. Both C and VOX have done fairly well in 2019. But not quite enough.

Moving away from the polarization dynamics and high levels of hostility that have characterized Spanish politics in the past years will be difficult. Any attempt to bring dialogue around the territorial question will be criticized by the right and its media environment. There will be strong pressures for a government with PSOE and Ciudadanos. Those prone to distention and dialogue will have to endure the yelling of those that base their strategy on demonization and the denial of the diverse and plural nature of Spain, now not only in the media but also in parliament. But votes give reasons and strength, and they are signaling a change in direction. Let’s hope they will be heard and used.