The Right-Wing Takeover in Andalusia Shows That Spain’s Government Is Floundering

Last Sunday’s elections in Spain’s Andalusia region saw conservatives and the far right hit historic highs. The left-wing parties in the national government each fared poorly — they need to do more to bring material benefits to working-class voters.

The president of the Andalusian Partido Popular (PP) and president-elect of the Junta de Andalucía, Juan Manuel Moreno (left), and the president of the national PP, Alberto Núñez Feijóo (right), pose at a meeting of the National Board of Directors of the PP on June 21, 2022, in Madrid, Spain. (Gustavo Valiente / Europa Press via Getty Images)

“A very hard blow.” Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez couldn’t mask his disappointment at the resounding defeat for his Socialist Party (PSOE) in its traditional stronghold of Andalusia last Sunday. In a seismic shift in the country’s electoral politics, the conservative Partido Popular (PP) swept to victory in Spain’s most populous region, winning an absolute majority of seats in the Andalusian parliament for the first time. The overall right-wing bloc (which includes the PP and the far-right Vox) won nearly twice as many seats as the broad left, while the PSOE also suffered a symbolically important defeat in the regional capital, Seville, losing the hometown of its historic leader Felipe González for the first time during the post–Francisco Franco era.

PSOE’s national coalition partners also suffered humiliation. The joint electoral platform uniting radical-left forces Unidas Podemos, Izquierda Unida, and Más País slumped to less than 8 percent of the vote. “Like the PSOE, we took a beating, but we added to our own miseries with our divisions and infighting,” Unidas Podemos MP Txema Guijarro told Jacobin. Indeed, the radical left ran rival lists. Teresa Rodríguez, Podemos’s former leader in the region, ran an effective and combative campaign, but ultimately this split the left-wing vote, helping contribute to the collapse in its seat share from seventeen in 2018 to just seven on Sunday.

Various factors contributed to the realignment, but the vote has to be read, at least in part, as a rebuke of the PSOE–Unidas Podemos coalition at the national level, which has failed to respond with measures capable of protecting working people’s living standards as inflation has hit nearly 9 percent in recent months. But even before the cost-of-living crisis exploded, there was mounting frustration at the pace and depth of the broad-left government’s reform program — with Prime Minister Sánchez repeatedly shying away from measures that would impose losses on corporate and state elites. Polling from January showed the majority of the governing parties’ own voters believed its policies were more beneficial to big business and high earners than the working class.

Eighteen months out from a general election, the Spanish left’s new leader, deputy prime minister, Yolanda Díaz finds herself with her back against the wall. Her public interventions are hitting the right note, with her emphasis on bread-and-butter material issues, while her progressive labor reform has been the coalition’s standout legislation thus far. Yet she must now secure substantive redistributive measures from a PSOE leader who is coming under increasing pressure from the right flank of his own party to hold to a “moderate” path — with some in the party’s hierarchy even calling on Sánchez to eject Unidas Podemos from his cabinet.

A Conservative Turn

In part, this strict centrist line being pushed by elements within PSOE is a response to a shift in public opinion to the right across much of Spain’s interior and southern heartland, of which the results in Andalusia are only the latest indication. Four years ago, when PSOE first lost control of the region (though it remained the largest single party), this largely owed to a failure to mobilize its own base. This month’s rout saw not only mass abstention among leftish voters but, complementing this, an increased transfer of votes from PSOE to the PP — potentially as high as 15 percent. Polling prior to Election Day showed voter self-identification on the ideological scale as further to the right in Andalusia than at any other time over the last quarter-century.

This ideological realignment in the electorate can be seen as “the last victory of [the liberal-rightist] Ciudadanos,” according to journalist Daniel Bernabé. He tells Jacobin:

That party itself has disappeared, failing to win any seats this time around. But as a political project, it was established to shift the ideological center to the right. It has created new right-wing constituencies by appealing to the aspirational middle classes along individualistic lines whereas before such nonpoliticized sectors tended to vote PSOE out of loyalty and family tradition.

Ciudadanos’s collapse combined with a relentless media campaign to discredit the national government, as a “coalition of chaos” in bed with extremists and Catalan independentists. The PP’s incumbent premier in the region, Juan Manuel Moreno, instead claimed the center ground in Andalusia as he won 43 percent of the vote. Projecting an image of moderate conservatism at a moment of economic uncertainty, his campaign combined positively with the apocalyptic culture-war rhetoric of Vox to mobilize the broadest possible electorate for the right-wing bloc, ranging from neofascists to the center. Furthermore, Vox’s incendiary campaign also played to the PP’s advantage, functioning, above all, to whitewash its vicious neoliberalism and systemic corruption as a legitimate option — a safe alternative to the neo-Francoite party.

Vox’s own result was hardly a disaster, with a 2.5 percent increase on its 2018 share taking it to 13.5 percent. But this also fell short of its earlier expectations of 20-plus percent support, as many of its potential voters opted for continuity in government and an opportunity to inflict a historic defeat on PSOE. With the conflict around Catalan independence having now lost much of its saliency, the party sought to model its electoral strategy on that of Italy’s postfascist Fratell d’Italia. That party’s leader, Giorgia Meloni, made a viral intervention at a Vox campaign rally in Marbella with a speech, in Spanish, drenched in anti-feminist and openly racist rhetoric.

Yet this mix of violent “clash of civilization” rhetoric, Catholic traditionalism, and femonationalism failed to connect with mainstream-right voters, in a poll dominated by the question of steady government. Bernabé notes, however, that “it is also clear from the result that the party has a stable base level of support, which will be essential for any future right-wing majority at a national level.” The weakness of the Spanish right in Catalonia and the Basque Country means there is no chance of the PP’s new leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, replicating Moreno’s absolute majority for the conservative party at a national level. Instead, the conservative party’s path to power in 2023 looks likely to involve Vox’s leader, Santiago Abascal, as deputy prime minister and possibly interior minister.

Advance or Perish

Faced with the prospect of such a hard-right victory, the coalition “has two options” after its defeat in Andalusia, political scientist Mario Ríos tells Jacobin:

It can accelerate its reform agenda so as to provide people with meaningful solutions to the crisis in living standards, or it can limit itself to the everyday management of government in the hope that the hypermobilized conservative sectors will stand down.

The first option would center on offering voters certainty and a concrete horizon out of the crisis and implies substantial redistributive policies, while the latter follows a purely defensive logic: if these sectors have nothing to fear from the government, they won’t vote en masse against us.”

“The PSOE thinks that to hang in there and avoid alienating moderates is enough, but that is not where the wider social mood is right now,” Guijarro, the chairperson of the Spanish Parliament’s budgetary committee and a close ally of Yolanda Díaz, adds. He insists:

People don’t want to simply survive but to be given reassurances that things can get and are getting better. To give just one example, we have been pushing for a €10 monthly public transport pass (to be financed through a windfall tax on energy companies’ profits) as an anti-inflationary measure. But the political benefit of such a policy would be that every morning people would be reminded of how the government’s actions were helping them — that before they had always had to pay €70 and now they are only paying €10.

Ríos agrees, insisting that the best way to immediately re-engage the Left’s demoralized base is to pick a fight with the country’s energy giants, which have experienced record profits while electricity prices have quadrupled in Spain since the onset of the pandemic:

BWhat battle is going to be more popular than curbing their profits, even in terms of gaining the attention of very depoliticized voters? We are not even talking about nationalizations but, at the very least, PSOE accepting the type of windfall tax that Boris Johnson and Italy’s Mario Draghi have implemented, before it is too late.

After days of tough negotiations, the government came to a less than ambitious compromise, announcing plans for such a tax but shelving its implementation until next year. In the week leading up to the election, it also voted down Podemos’s proposal for a wealth tax. Instead Sánchez’s anti-inflation plan has focused on a partial cap on electricity prices while also subsidizing petrol prices, the cost of which is being borne by the Spanish state’s treasury in the absence of any measures to recoup the money from the energy sector — and, moreover, with only limited results.

For Unidas Podemos, such a mix of intransigence and lack of ambition from its senior partner has been a constant issue since it took office in January 2020. The PSOE have stalled on and watered down policies agreed to in the program for government, for instance those relating to rent controls, progressive tax reform, and democratic reforms like repealing the authoritarian “gag law,” which hands police broad powers to stifle dissent and protests.  In this respect, it is true that in Andalusia the radical left’s campaign struck a different note from Pablo Iglesias’s May 2021 run for the Madrid regional presidency, which was heavily criticized for its “left identitarianism” and defensive anti-fascist framing. Yet it ended in an equally disastrous result, as candidate Inma Nieto’s more pragmatic focus on social policy and problem-solving rang hollow for an electorate that did not feel it had benefited from the Left in office.

Under the effects of soaring inflation, even the clear advances contained in Díaz’s flagship labor reform, as well as the moderate minimum wage hikes she negotiated, have been diluted. Hundreds of thousands of workers have swapped the trap of consecutive fixed-term temporary contracts for permanent ones under Díaz’s legislation — but just as the cost-of-living crisis hit. In Andalusia, six out of ten people said in the run-up to the election that they were unable to make the end of the month, or could only just make it, on their existing income.

The Post-Podemos Left

Against this background, Yolanda Díaz is also proceeding with her refoundation of the fragmented Spanish left with the launch of her new platform “Sumar” (or Join Together) scheduled for July 8. A former labor lawyer from the northwestern Galicia region, Díaz was nominated to Unidas Podemos’s only major ministerial post by Iglesias in 2020, raising her to prominence. Her negotiation of the Spanish state’s massive furlough scheme at the height of the pandemic especially fostered her reputation as a strong institutional leader.

A former rank-and-filer from the Spanish Communist Party rather than from Podemos itself, she has sought to chart a new course for the Left since taking over from Iglesias as head of the Unidas Podemos alliance last year. In her first interventions as the Spanish left’s new figurehead last fall, Díaz changed its emphases: there is more on left unity through dialogue, a less macho politics, and a proud identification with labor and trade unionism. This has been accompanied, however, by increased tensions between her and Podemos’s leadership, as she has distanced herself from that formation in order to be able to reach out to other left-wing forces such as Íñigo Errejón’s breakaway Más País.

Díaz also wanted greater independence from Iglesias, who, though stepping back from frontline politics, was also positioning himself to play a decisive role from the background. These tensions came to a head around the government’s changing position on the Ukraine war. When Sánchez U-turned on his initial line and acquiesced to send offensive weapons to Kyiv, Podemos ministers publicly opposed this; but Díaz, as deputy prime minister, could not follow suit without causing a governmental crisis. The ensuing debate across the Left mixed tactical and strategic questions with pointed factionalism and personal recriminations, in a very public display of disunity.

In terms of charting a path forward for the Left, the ideological and tactical differences between Díaz and Iglesias are far from irreconcilable. But the question is what role Podemos should play within a left space that it no longer leads but that also cannot function without it.

Bernabé insists that the defining axis of Díaz’s new platform has to be a strategic alliance with the labor movement — above all with the Communist-affiliated Comisiones Obreras (CCOO), Spain’s largest union, of which Díaz’s father was a founding figure in Galicia. Bernabé argues:

Controlling prices within the EU context is very difficult. It took Sánchez months of hard negotiations to secure an exception from Brussels allowing Spain to cap the cost of gas in electricity production. The other option, however, is to increase salaries, and the unions are fighting hard right now for such rises. We can see this with the 20,000 metal workers on strike in Cantabria [who won a 14 percent pay increase after a nearly twenty-day stoppage], and we will see many more mobilizations in other sectors in the coming months.

This could be an opportunity for the political left if it can accompany the unions with audacity and construct a political alternative. Yolanda Díaz has to fully embrace this “labourist moment” and run with it.

Guijarro also sees Spain heading into months of industrial and social unrest, with “a lot going to happen next fall and winter.” He insists Díaz will increasingly “raise tensions with” and “differentiate” herself from PSOE as she seeks to delineate her political profile ahead of elections at the end of 2023. Whether these elements can enable Díaz and the Left to gain more leverage at cabinet remains to be seen; Sánchez has shown himself willing to tack left before when his political survival has been on the line. Right now, however, he remains firmly wedded to displays of centrism, even as the Right continues to advance toward an absolute majority.