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The Center Wins in Spain, but the Extremes Hold the Power
After last month’s inconclusive general election results, Spain is stumbling its way toward a new government. The fate of the nation may rest on the Catalan independence parties.
In the leadup to Spain’s general election last month, pundits predicted a win for the center-right People’s Party (PP), which would have been able to form a majority coalition in the Congress of Deputies with the help of hard-right Vox. This would have put Vox in a ruling coalition for the first time in the party’s ten-year history and mirrored recent victories for nationalist-populist parties in Italy, Hungary, Poland, Sweden, and Finland.
But a right-wing majority failed to materialize. PP, indeed, received the most votes (33%) and gained an impressive 48 seats in the Congress of Deputies for a total of 137. But Vox performed worse than expected. Its vote share slid from the 15% it received in 2019 to 12%, and its seats fell from 52 to 33. Together, with 170 seats, PP and Vox fell short of the 176 seats necessary for an absolute majority. Their left-wing opponents, as expected, also fell short: the Socialists (PSOE) and Sumar garnered 152 seats.
With neither the right nor left winning a majority, both blocs will need to secure the support of seven smaller parties in order to form a government. If neither bloc cobbles together a majority within two months of the first investiture vote in parliament, which will take place in late September, then Spain will hold new elections.
Looking only at the numbers, the right (PP and Vox) appears closer to victory. Unfortunately, this coalition has little support among any of the seven small parties whose deputies they need to woo to their side.
Only one of these parties (with only one seat) has thus far agreed to join the conservative coalition: This is the anti-Basque UPN party based in Navarre, the tiny mountainous region that once sheltered the Carlists and supported the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. Two others are politically centrist and could in theory join the PP-Vox coalition: the Canary Island coalition CC (also with one seat) and the Basque Nationalist PNV (with 5 seats). However, both the CC and the PNV recently announced that they will not join a coalition that includes Vox. That leaves four other regional or separatist parties that typically affiliate with the left: two pro-Catalonia parties (ERC and Junts, with 14 seats); a second pro-Basque party (Bildu, with 6 seats); and one pro-Galicia party (BNG, with one seat).
Bottom line: The PP-Vox coalition is unlikely to gather enough support from these splinter parties to gain a majority. And the main reason is their refusal to share power with Vox. All of these seven parties are regional and most are supportive (in the case of Junts, passionately supportive) of greater regional autonomy. Vox, on the other hand—in addition to being strongly conservative on social and cultural issues—is just as passionately outspoken in its opposition to regional autonomy. So long as the PP is cannot win a majority on its own and is forced to be wed to Vox’s positions, only the left has a hope of assembling a majority.
What does all of this mean for Spain and for European politics more generally? Let’s take a step back to answer the two biggest post-election questions.
Why did Vox break the streak of hard-right successes in Europe?
Prior to the election, Vox appeared to be riding high. It had received endorsements from some of Europe’s highest-profile nationalist leaders: Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, and Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki. Its platform is similar to those of other new-right parties like France’s National Rally and Germany’s Alternative for Germany. Vox is strongly conservative across most social issues—for example, anti-immigration, pro-law and order, and pro-religion. And Vox ties its platform to a populist contempt for elites. “Only the rich can afford the luxury of not having a homeland,” says the party’s leader, Santiago Abascal.
Like the other European upstarts, Vox has vaulted from the political fringe to the mainstream in recent years. It entered the Congress of Deputies for the first time in 2019 after winning 24 seats, and later doubled that to 52 in the next general election held later that year, becoming the third-largest party.
Yet there’s one key difference between Vox and other hard-right European parties. And that’s its anti-regionalism stance, which is specific to Spain. Vox’s rise was supercharged by the 2017 conflict over Catalan secession. That year, Spain was plunged into turmoil after Catalonia voted to declare independence, a move that triggered a constitutional crisis.
The threat of Catalan secession tapped into longstanding tensions and unleashed a new strain of Spanish nationalism, and not just among conservatives. This instability created an opening for Vox, which has long championed the unitary supremacy of the “Estado Español” based in Madrid—as did Francisco Franco during his long decades in power. One of the strongest predictors of Vox support is an individual’s level of identification with the Spanish state. Vox voters disproportionately live in poorer, rural regions in south and central Spain; speak Castilian Spanish; and express reverence for the nation’s 2,000-year-old Catholic Church. (As in Italy, Spain’s wealthiest, most urban, and most separatist-prone regions are in the north.)
In the years since, the furor over the independence movement has died down. Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez attempted to mend fences (and win back Catalonian voters) by pardoning all nine instigators of the secession movement in 2021. As the movement has faded from the headlines, so has Vox. Instead, it’s the party’s conservative values that set it apart—and, unlike elsewhere in Europe, these haven’t proven to be as attractive to Spanish voters. In an Ipsos poll conducted shortly before the election, fully 60% of Spaniards said that they were worried about Vox being part of a coalition government.
Vox’s underperformance thus may not point to any weakening trend in right-wing populism elsewhere in Europe. It may simply reflect waning tensions over the peculiarly Spanish issue of regional autonomy.
Vox, moreover, isn’t the only populist party in Spain that has been losing momentum. Podemos, a hard-left party that rose to prominence after the Great Recession, had to join forces with Sumar this time around to survive the election. The combined vote share of the two big-tent parties, PP on the center-right and Socialists on the center-left, jumped from 45% in the 2019 general election to 65% today. Spanish voters, in short, are moving to the center. And in this respect Spain is also exceptional, since mainstream parties continue to weaken elsewhere in Europe.
Will the left partner with the separatists?
With a right-wing majority coalition now highly unlikely, attention has turned to the left. For the Socialists to gain a majority, they need enough fringe party support to give them 24 new seats. Can they do it?
The most realistic prospect for a majority coalition is between the Socialist-Sumar coalition and both Catalonian independence parties (the ERC and the hardline Junts, for 14 new seats), at least one Basque party (probably Bildu, for another 6), and then some perfect combination of the remaining splinter parties. If they do it right, they can get themselves past the 176 mark.
Needless to say, this would be an awkward alliance. The leader of Junts, the self-exiled former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, has demanded that in exchange for its support Sánchez must offer amnesty to the hundreds of separatists who are still facing legal action for their involvement in the secession bid and allow for a new referendum on independence. Amnesty would outrage many Spaniards, and a referendum would violate the constitution.
Yet Sánchez has already begun making other concessions to the separatists. After the new parliament convened on August 17, lawmakers elected Socialist and Sánchez ally Francina Armengol as speaker, thanks to backing from Junts and ERC. The separatist parties agreed to support her on the condition that Catalan, Galician, and Basque be allowed to be spoken in parliament and that all three be recognized as official EU languages.
The real moment of truth will come when Sánchez calls for the investiture vote that allows him to form a government. Last week, it was announced that the opposition leader—PP’s Alberto Núñez Feijóo—has been given the first chance at an investiture vote on September 26 and 27 since his party won the most seats. If he fails, Sánchez’s turn will come in November.
Even if he is able to make a deal, it’s clear that any coalition Sánchez may forge is fragile. Both mainstream parties are stuck. The right has few, if any, options to win because of Vox. The left only wins by teaming up with, well, fugitives.
And Junts knows it. They are refusing to budge. After the election, Junts lawmaker Míriam Nogueras declared that the party is “not here to save the kingdom of Spain but to serve Catalonia. We will not make Sánchez prime minister in exchange for nothing.” Or as Ramon Tremosa, another Junts lawmaker, put it bluntly to Reuters: “It’s filet mignon or elections.”
Sánchez and his fellow leaders on the left have a white-knuckle decision to make. Will they risk unleashing an escalation of separatist demands—and be later be rejected and vilified by the majority of voters for presiding over the unraveling of the Spanish nation? (Vox may be secretly hoping for this outcome.) Or will they be better off refusing to make concessions to the regional parties and send Spain back to another general election? Sánchez is already all too aware that he angered many voters with his 2021 pardons and that giving more would further discredit the Socialists. But maybe he sees even greater danger in losing power to the right.
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