Spain Teaches Us That We Can Defeat the Right

Before Sunday’s election, Spain looked set to be the next country with the far right in office. But the left-wing parties’ warnings of the reactionary threat worked, mobilizing voters to defend the gains they have made for working-class Spaniards.

Pedro Sánchez (C), Finance Minister María Jesús Montero (L), and PSOE president Cristina Narbona (R) celebrate the good election results on July 23, 2023, in Madrid, Spain. (Alberto Gardin / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Spain’s election results this past Sunday night brought a sigh of relief. The right-wing parties did not achieve an absolute majority and Santiago Abascal’s far-right Vox will not enter national government. This is no small feat, considering the left-wing parties’ defeat in local elections just eight weeks ago and the climate of opinion created by polls predicting a right-wing tsunami.

The result in Spain can be seen as a major victory in a Europe today engulfed by a dark reactionary wave. After Rome, Stockholm, and Helsinki, the conquest of Madrid was meant to be the next stage in an operation promoted by far-right Italian premier Giorgia Meloni and European People’s Party leader Manfred Weber, who sought to create the conditions for a stable alliance between their wings of the Right in the European parliament. The silence of both figures, the day after the vote, was symptomatic — as were the satisfied smiles of many in the corridors of power in Brussels. The Spanish result marks an important, perhaps decisive, setback for this operation ahead of next year’s EU elections.

Left-Wing Successes

The real winner of the Spanish elections is, without a doubt, Pedro Sánchez. Almost everyone had taken the Socialist leader — prime minister for the last five years — for dead politically. Yet, the decision to call surprise snap elections in midsummer proved successful. Faced with right-wingers who thought they had the elections as good as won, Sánchez managed to mobilize the left-wing electorate, worried at the prospect of the far right entering national government for the first time since the end of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.

The agreements signed in recent weeks by the Partido Popular (PP) and Vox in several regions and over a hundred municipalities showed Spaniards that the far right was not just an election-campaign bogeyman, but a real danger. The first measures taken by these new ultraconservative governments marked a clear regression compared to the gains won in recent years: from denying gender violence and the consequences of climate change to questioning the right to abortion, from attacking the country’s linguistic pluralism to censoring plays and films. Even Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Disney’s Lightyear were deemed contrary to traditional morality.

Against all expectations, then, Sánchez’s Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) gained one million supporters and two MPs compared to 2019, taking 31.7 percent (or 7.7 million votes) and 122 seats. Sánchez’s feat would not have been possible without the support of the coalition led by Labor Minister Yolanda Díaz, who managed, after months of tensions and disagreements, to unite the space that had been represented by Unidas Podemos and radical-left municipalist forces. Despite losing some six hundred thousand votes and seven seats, Sumar took over 12 percent support and elected thirty-one MPs, consolidating itself as a political camp uniting over three million voters.

There is no doubt that the cycle that began with the Indignados movement during the Great Recession is over. But unlike in other countries, the Left in Spain has not been broken by its experience in government. On the contrary, the progressive coalition has demonstrated its ability to govern well in a highly complex international conjuncture marked by the pandemic, the energy crisis, and the war in Ukraine.

The macroeconomic data are more than positive: GDP is growing more than the European average, inflation has been brought back down below 2 percent, and unemployment is at its lowest level since 2008. The promises made before the last elections in 2019 have materialized in government action. We see this in social policies — increasing the minimum wage and pensions, the minimum living income, fighting the precarization of labor — and in world-leading laws on feminism, LGBTQ rights, euthanasia, climate change, and Spain’s “democratic memory.”

Radicalized Right

This does not take away from the fact that there is part of Spain that utterly rejects the left-wingers’ efforts. For some time, the degree of polarization has raised alarm signals. The Right has sought to capitalize on this with campaigns seeking to delegitimize their opponents, riddled with fake news and conspiracy theories in perfect Trumpian style, to the point of alleging that absentee ballots will be used to steal elections.

The main themes of the election campaign, in fact, were not the economy or the war in Ukraine, but Sánchez’s agreements with Catalan and Basque independence parties and the classic culture wars so dear to the far right around the world. The Left could, however, counter this, defending both its record in government and a model of a plural country that looks to the future. The slogan of both Vox leader Abascal and the conservative Partido Popular’s candidate Alberto Núñez Feijóo was simply “to abolish Sanchismo.” This meant ousting Sánchez — considered a traitor to the nation — and repealing all laws passed by a government that has been branded “illegitimate” since its establishment in early 2020.

Backed up by numerous media outlets close to these parties, this framing hyperenergized right-wing voters, who were also galvanized by poll predictions of success. With 33 percent and 136 MPs, the Partido Popular was indeed the most-voted party, taking back the support that had over the past decade drifted toward now-defunct center-right party Ciudadanos. The Partido Popular surpassed eight million votes, helped in part by a campaign for “pragmatic voting” that rewarded both the two main rival parties. While in 2019, the Partido Popular and the Socialists’ combined vote shares had added up to under 50 percent, this time their total was 65 percent.

Yet, Feijóo’s Partido Popular won only a Pyrrhic victory. Not only did it fall far short of an absolute majority (which requires 176 seats in the Congress of Deputies) but it doesn’t get there even with Vox’s help. In fact, Abascal’s far-right party comes out badly defeated from these elections: while maintaining a base of three million voters, it had expected much more. With 12.4 percent, it lost more than six hundred thousand votes and dropped from fifty-two to thirty-three MPs.

More importantly, it is irrelevant in the new parliament where the remaining seats go to a mix of nationalist and regionalist parties. None of these could ever come to an agreement with Vox, which advocates not only a sharp recentralization of Spain’s government structures, but even the elimination of regional autonomy — stipulated in the Constitution — and the banning of pro-independence parties.

Catalan Puzzle

If the reading of the July 23 vote is quite clear, the puzzle of forming a new government is not so easy to solve. The result allows us to rule out any prospect of a broad-right government, and nor is there any possibility of the Socialists abstaining in order to let the Partido Popular head a minority administration. Grand Coalitions and “national unity governments” have never existed in Spain. Much less will they arise now, faced with a country split into two irreconcilable blocs. While Feijóo still insists on this possibility, it is nothing more than a way of buying time and stopping his party replacing him with the president of the Madrid region, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the rising star of Iberian Trumpism. The only option is a minority progressive government led by Sánchez and formed by PSOE and Sumar, as in the last four years.

But, there is one perhaps crucial difference: these parties dropped five seats compared to 2019 and need the external support not only of the Basque and Galician parties and the Catalan Republican left, but also the abstention of Junts per Catalunya. A right-wing force for Catalan independence — led by former president Carles Puigdemont, who took refuge in Belgium after a frustrated attempt to declare the region’s independence in fall 2017 — Junts has always voted against the Sánchez government and has repeatedly stated that it will never help the formation of an executive in Madrid.

So far, its strategy has been “the worse things get, the better,” i.e., it would prefer a right-wing government in Madrid, because its uncompromising line would have the effect of building social support for the Catalan cause. The seven Junts MPs are now decisive: in short, it is up to them whether Spain will have a progressive government for another four years. The alternative is a repeat election within the next six months. This would not be so unusual in Spain: it happened already in both 2016 and 2019.

The party of Puigdemont — a member of the European Parliament, but, according to the Spanish justice system, a fugitive from the law — is likely to demand a referendum on self-determination in Catalonia and amnesty for all Catalan independentists who have faced criminal proceedings. These are unacceptable conditions for Sánchez, who has in recent years managed to mend fractures between Barcelona and Madrid by defending dialogue within the framework of respect for the laws and the Constitution.

Although harshly attacked by the Spanish right and the most intransigent sectors of the Catalan independence movement itself, the progressive executive has in fact granted a pardon to leaders convicted in 2019 and amended the penal code, eliminating the anachronistic crime of sedition, used by the judiciary to impose harsh prison sentences on Catalan leaders who had attempted unilateral secession. The courage of Sánchez and his government partners was rewarded by Catalan voters: the Socialists were the leading party in the region and Sumar the second, while pro-independence formations suffered a major setback, losing nearly half of their votes. This would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Room for Maneuver

With the election campaign over, it is now time for politics. It will be a month of negotiations — and lobbying. Some will want to scuttle any possibility of an agreement; others, to try to iron out differences and give Spain a new government. To see what room for maneuver Sánchez will have, however, we will have to wait until August 17, when the new parliament meets. In the following days, the party leaders will be received by King Felipe VI, and so the investiture vote will not come before September.

That said, even if Sánchez does succeed in forming a new government, the next legislature is bound to be a pressure cooker. Passing each law is going to require vast efforts to piece a majority together. And the right-wing parties, which control the Senate and most regions, would lay siege to the executive, using all means, lawful and otherwise, with the backing of a media network that looks rather like the Spanish version of Fox News and Breitbart.

In short, it will not be easy. And the risk of a repeat election is just around the corner. But we shouldn’t overlook the significance of the Spanish vote: the Right has been defeated and the battle in Madrid has been won. It will now take the intelligence and common sense of everyone to come together and give Spain another four years with a left-wing government. If it does, it can offer all of Europe a successful model — as well as the hope that yes, the Right can be defeated.