- Interview by
- Eoghan Gilmartin
“¡No pasarán!,” chanted supporters of Spain’s center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) as they celebrated an unexpected comeback for their party in last Sunday’s general election. Faced with widespread predictions that the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and far-right Vox were about to sweep into government, left-wing voters mobilized en masse. The results vindicated Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez’s wager on an anti-fascist campaign strategy, as the right-wing parties failed to win a working majority.
The disappointment of the Right’s plans was mainly owed to heavy losses for Vox, as the far-right party fell from fifty-two MPs in 2019 to thirty-three on Sunday. The PP topped the polls, with 32 percent and 136 seats. This increased its vote share by over half, mainly by eating up the support of the now-defunct Ciudadanos, a Spanish-unionist and doggedly neoliberal party that rose to prominence in the 2010s but did not run in this election. Yet, overall the PP-Vox pair remained seven seats short of being able to form a government — and, having alienated regionalist forces with its aggressive Spanish nationalism, the pair now has no path to power.
After an unbroken series of conservative/far-right coalitions had been elected across Europe over the last year, Spain halted the continent’s turn to the right — not least because of a massive turnout in Catalonia in favor of the current left-leaning government.
Yet a second term for such a government remains in the balance and will require the construction of a difficult parliamentary majority. The PSOE scored its best election result in percentage terms since 2008 (winning 31.7 percent and 122 seats), while the new left-unity platform Sumar, headed by labor minister Yolanda Díaz, secured 12.3 percent and thirty-one seats. To secure a working majority, it will need to reach agreements with five regional parties. These include the center-right, pro-independence Catalan Junts, headed by the exiled former Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont — who faces criminal charges in Spain relating to the 2017 illegal Catalan independence referendum.
In an interview with Jacobin’s Eoghan Gilmartin, political scientist Mario Ríos emphasizes the centrality of Catalonia both to understanding the results of last Sunday’s elections and in finding a progressive path forward for Spain. For Ríos, ultimately the PP’s inability to come to terms with the country’s “plurinational” character was what cost it the election.
The Right Falls Short
After a heavy defeat in May’s local and regional elections, the Left’s prospects did not look good heading into the general election campaign. Most polling had the right-wing bloc either very close to or winning an absolute majority of seats. So, what explains this result, and the Left’s stronger than expected performance?
There are two major factors that can explain last Sunday’s results. The first is the increased turnout of left-wing voters, especially among those who voted for Sumar. If you compare the results in local elections of the various left parties that subsequently integrated into the Sumar unity platform, not just Podemos and its allies but also [regional left-wing forces] Más Madrid, Compromís, etc., they went from a combined 1.5 million votes running separately in May to three million in this general election. In reality, the PSOE vote share saw a moderate increase compared to that in May, but it was the radical left that saw the largest gains.
The other fact was a certain demobilization of the center. In particular, PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo’s disastrous performance during the last week of the campaign — when he was publicly caught lying about pension figures in a television interview and was forced on the defensive about his friendship with the convicted drug trafficker Marcial Dorado — turned off certain floating voters who had previous backed defunct liberal Ciudadanos, as did the possibility of Vox entering government. So, we had a context in which the Left went to the polls in large numbers to defend itself against fascism while the center was more demobilized because of fears around what Vox and its leader Santiago Abascal’s extremist discourse would mean for the country.
How many centrist voters stayed at home?
Postelection analysis suggests as many as half a million ex-Ciudadanos voters nationally. These are voters whom all the polling had expected to come out for the PP, but on election day they didn’t and this was clearly decisive.
A further element, here, was the vote in Catalonia, which reinforced the high left-wing turnout elsewhere. A majority of Catalans voted for the two parties in the incumbent coalition government — PSOE and Sumar — while there was a substantive drop in support for the pro-independence parties. The anti-capitalist Candidatura d’Unitat Popular was left without representation, and both the Catalan Republican Left and Junts lost support.
Catalans came out to both support the broad-left government coalition against the right-wing bloc and to reject any return to a confrontation over independence. The huge gains for the coalition parties mean that a lot of Republican Left and Junts voters chose to switch to the Catalan Socialist Party as well as to Sumar. The coalition might not have been able to offer a definitive solution to the Catalan conflict. But it has defused tensions, and many voters who previously backed pro-independence forces have moved on now, and have other priorities.
How would you evaluate Sánchez’s campaign?
No one expected his latest comeback — and it was a surprise, given the polls. He and his party’s campaign were very successful in confronting the Right’s discourse and reappropriating the term “Sanchismo,” the label used by the Right to paint Sánchez as a threat to the Spanish nation. In this respect, you had the famous “Perro Sanxe” meme [similar to Biden’s Dark Brandon persona]. The PSOE’s campaign centered on the fear of a PP-Vox government and in particular pointed to the threat that advances won under the current coalition (a mix of social democratic policies and civil-rights gains) would now be endangered — especially those linked to the LGBTQ community and women. This served to mobilize the party’s base against the ticket formed by the PP’s Feijóo and Vox’s Abascal.
As you mentioned, Feijóo had a very poor final week of the campaign, proving once again to be a mediocre political leader. But where does the PP go from here? One argument is that its route back to power has to involve eating into Vox’s vote and that it needs to concentrate on the battle on its right flank with a hard-line candidate like Madrid’s Trumpian governor Isabel Díaz Ayuso. The PP and Vox’s combined vote share was 45.5 percent, one point higher than that when the PP won its two absolute majorities in 2011 and 2000. But, divided between two right-wing parties, this latest share translated into fewer seats. Yet, you are saying that losses among less politicized swing voters was also a major issue. So where does the PP go from here?
The PP faces a very complicated dilemma for the next general election, but in my opinion that will not come soon. I don’t think we will have repeat elections in a few months’ time, but rather a new progressive coalition will, in the end, be formed, and a deal will be made with Junts.
Surely, Junts is a divided political space, with different factions: the more radical, which is closer to Puigdemont, is pushing for forcing repeat elections, but there is another part that wants to negotiate with Sánchez and maybe secure certain concessions. Obviously, its stated demands of an independence referendum and full amnesty [for Catalan leaders subject to criminal charges following the unauthorized independence vote in 2017] are not realistic. But ultimately, Junts is bound to be punished if fresh elections are held, so instead it will try to sell some symbolic concession as a victory to the Catalan public.
But to return to the PP: it faces two closely related dilemmas. The first is, as you said, whether it should position itself further to the right or more toward the center. The second is its lack of a territorial model for Spain. In particular, it is very difficult for the PP to win a general election without getting a much stronger result in Catalonia. It needs to be able to offer the Catalan people an agreement on how to move forward on the territorial issue.
The Spanish right in general is too Madrid-centric, and its vision of Spanish society draws heavily on the forms of ideological polarization pushed by Madrid-based media. I am thinking of newspapers such as ABC, El Mundo, and La Razón, which pushed a strategy of delegitimizing Sánchez through his links to nationalist parties in the Basque Country and Catalonia. Clearly this has worked for governor Ayuso in the capital, but Madrid is not Spain. In their attacks on Sánchez, there was very little difference between the PP and Vox — maybe in the tone, but the message was the same, i.e. that he is not a democratically legitimate leader because of these alliances.
The Spanish right is now realizing that Vox represents an obstacle for the PP to govern — that it helps mobilize more votes on the Left than extra ones on the Right. We are now going to see a concerted right-wing media campaign against it, with the hope of marginalizing it. The issue is that it has a consolidated voter base of 10 to 12 percent, and I don’t see that changing in the next elections. In this respect, there is no easy way for the PP to solve these dilemmas. To win a general election, it needs to move to the center electorally and to develop a more inclusive discourse around Catalonia. The question is how to do that with Vox on its right flank.
Indeed, while Vox lost a lot of seats due to the way Spain’s electoral system penalizes smaller parties, in percentage terms, it only lost 2.5 percent of its vote from 2019. Where does it go from here? Its campaign was run by its most extremist leading figure, Jorge Buxadé, who pushed a hard line not just around the anti-Spanish “internal enemies,” i.e. Catalan and Basque nationalists, but also importing alt-right conspiracy theories from the United States.
Yes, Buxadé is a fascist. I don’t know if Abascal is actually a fascist or just an ultraconservative populist, but Buxadé is one.
Having read his book, you can see his origins in the Falange — for one thing, his essentialist conception of Spain as an expression of an “irrevocable historical will” that no generation or part of the nation has the right to question.
Exactly — Spain as an evangelical mission, tied to religion and Catholicism. In this sense, Vox is the democratic metabolization of Francoism. It is a pre-system party as opposed to an anti-system one. It is against the current 1978 constitution [established after dictator Francisco Franco’s death] and its state model of autonomous regions, but from a pre-system perspective — and out of nostalgia for the oppressive centralism of the dictatorship.
More generally, I see Vox as likely going further in an extremist direction as it seeks to consolidate its voter base. It will double down on its hard-line strategy from this campaign and continue to engage in these types of conspiracy theories around the UN development goals [deemed an “elite plot”], etc., as means to clearly differentiate itself from the PP.
A Plurinational Alternative
These elections were also seen as key for the balance of power in the European Union, with the head of the European People’s Party Manfred Weber contemplating an alliance between his grouping and Giorgia Meloni’s far-right European Conservatives and Reformists. Is this a major setback to such a realignment?
Yes, the Spanish election results halted the trend of Europe’s right turn in the wake of the Ukraine war. For the first time over the last year, there was a heterogenous alliance of progressive forces capable of stopping this reactionary wave and outperforming the alliance between conservatives and the far right. Part of Sánchez’s campaign in confronting the right bloc was to heavily emphasize that the European mainstream would not be comfortable with a Feijóo/Abascal government — that it would leave Spain in a weaker position in the EU. Spain is one of the most pro-European countries, particularly in comparison with France or Italy, and so this also was a powerful mobilizing factor.
Beyond that, the results also confirm that Spain can only move forward in democratic and social terms if the bloc consisting of the center left, the alternative left, and regional nationalist parties work together. There are only two possibilities of forming a political majority right now: the conservative/far right alliance or the Left with plurinational allies. Moreover, PSOE voters have accepted this. The party’s leadership had been afraid that its cooperation with the Basque EH Bildu and Catalan Republican Left would hurt it in places like Andalusia [where there is stronger Spanish nationalist sentiment], but this did not happen. Voters there know that if the PSOE is to govern, it must make deals with Basque and Catalan allies — and that the alternative to this is Vox sitting at cabinet.
Looking forward, you said you thought that a new progressive government will ultimately be formed. But what are its prospects with such complicated parliamentary arithmetic?
Junts knows that there is no appetite in Catalan society for repeat elections right now, and that it will be punished for reigniting the prospect of a PP/Vox coalition. The incentives are clear, but the negotiations will be difficult. Furthermore, with such a difficult parliamentary majority to work with, any new coalition will probably reach agreements around territorial and institutional reforms more easily than around social and economic ones. The Basque Nationalist Party and Junts are right-wing forces, and so while the progressive coalition’s previous term centered on social and economic issues (such as improving workers’ rights, housing, and wages), this term will probably have to focus more on democratic reforms of state institutions, for example around the country’s politicized judicial power, and on advances on territorial autonomy.
This is probably the only way that the new majority can be made to work. The regional nationalist parties are going to have more leverage than in the last parliament.
Sumar and the Future of the Spanish Left
Sumar’s alliance with Podemos had to be reached against the clock after Sánchez called early elections. The negotiations were a traumatic experience for both sides. But in the end, under difficult conditions, the Left’s vote held up quite well compared to 2019 and was a huge improvement compared to the local and regional elections in May. How do you rate its campaign?
In reality, Sumar had two campaigns, or two very distinct stages to its campaign. The initial stage was still unable to escape the fallout from its fractious negotiations with Podemos and the Irene Montero affair [with Podemos’s deputy leader having been excluded as an election candidate on the Sumar unity list]. In this early stage, Sumar tried to focus on its program, announcing new measures every day and talking primarily about policy. But this did not suit the emotional tone of this election. Its campaign only gained traction when Yolanda Díaz went on the offensive, targeting the PP, Vox, and the rich.
If Sumar had had this more confrontational messaging from the beginning, its result probably would have been better. Yet what it achieved in a difficult context is impressive. It is not an amazing result compared to where the radical left was four or eight years ago, but we are in a different moment now. It doubled the left-wing vote compared to the local elections, and without Yolanda Díaz and Sumar, the radical left would have ended up with only a handful of seats.
What further steps are now necessary to take to turn Sumar into a more consolidated political organization after its hasty rollout for these elections?
It needs to be able to work like a unified actor. Fifteen political parties have been incorporated into the Sumar platform. Moving forward, it will have to develop an agreed-upon internal structure. The project can only succeed if all the parties demonstrate generosity and remember that they have only survived because of Sumar — that otherwise they were facing electoral wipeout. From a recognition of this fact, we can build a new organization, as well as renew the Left’s front bench.
In particular, Sumar’s project is centered on building a new historic coalition between left-wing and green forces, and this is where I see the future of the alternative left. Díaz has defined her project as offering a new green laborism, i.e. an agenda of new improved working conditions, progressive tax reform, and economic democracy that also seeks ambitious action on climate change. Furthermore, Sumar has a close relationship with organized labor. The unions have supported it both directly and indirectly. A number of Sumar’s leading candidates in the election came from the Comisiones Obreras union, and its head, Unai Sordo, has been a very good ally to Yolanda Díaz.
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