Spain: General Election Left No Clear Majority

Politics - March 18, 2024

Last Sunday, Spaniards went to the polls for the 16th general election in the post-1977 democratic period. After 5 years of the Pedro Sanchez-led socialist coalition government, there was much anticipation about these elections. There were also very high expectations for the conservative parties to do away with Prime Minister Sánchez.

However, it yielded a surprising result. Far from the comfortable right-wing majority that most of the (usually reliable) polling firms predicted, the elections have instead produced a highly fragmented Parliament, where neither the left-wing nor the right-wing blocs have a clear majority to be able to govern.

Instead, as has become the norm in Spanish politics, the kingmakers will be the minority regional-nationalist and separatist parties who, ironically, resent those same Spanish institutions from which they want to secede.

Summarising the provisional results (pending the recount of overseas votes from Friday onwards), the clear winner, in a conventional sense, was the centre-right People’s Party (PP, EPP).

The centre-right party won 33.05% of the vote and 136 out of 350 seats in Congress. This is a massive increase of 12.24 percentage points and 47 seats from the 2019 elections when the PP was undergoing a profound crisis.

In the case of the Senate (the upper chamber), the PP secured 122 out of 208 seats. That gives them an absolute majority that will give the right some margin to block legislation in the—likely—event that Sánchez stays in power.

Nonetheless, the PP’s is a pyrrhic victory. In the run-up to the elections, the most reliable pollsters had consistently claimed that the right was hyper-mobilised, and that the PP would be a magnet for centrist (centre-left and right-wing voters alike).

The PP was set to surpass 37% of the vote and secure 150 seats. It underperformed.

The most likely scenario is that its leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo will fail to form a new government. Four more years of Sánchez as Prime Minister are very possible.

The runner-up was the Socialist Party (PSOE, S&D) led by incumbent Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. PSOE secured 31.7% of the vote and 122 seats in Congress.

Despite coming out second, the socialists euphorically celebrated their result. Notwithstanding 5 years of government-encouraged polarisation and unsavory pacts with separatists, Sánchez substantially improved his 2019 results by gobbling up much of the far-left vote, by making massive inroads in Catalonia (the second most populous region), and the Basque Country at the expense of the separatist parties.

Overall, PSOE increased by 3,7 percentage points and 2 seats compared to 2019.

In third place came VOX (ECR) which won 12,39% of the vote and 33 seats. This is a disappointing result for Spanish and European conservatives.

Although it only lost 2.69 percentage points compared to 2019, Vox incurred a heavy loss of 19 seats. Media vilification, the PP’s negative campaign of attacks, and pollsters’ irrational insistence that voters vote “tactically” for the PP likely played a role in this outcome. The party will need to analyze these results and act accordingly ahead of a possible repeat election before the end of 2023.

The clear loser, besides the pollsters themselves, was Sumar, which is the umpteenth attempt at rebranding by the old Communist Party, until recently “Unidas Podemos”.

There were high expectations that Galician communist and Vice President of the Government, Yolanda Díaz, would mobilise the left due to her popularity in the polls.

But her party came fourth with 12.31% of the vote and 31 seats. Sumar’s performance has been notably worse than its predecessor’s, Podemos, dropping by 3.03 points and 7 seats

As for the regional nationalist and separatist parties, they lost a substantial number of votes and seats at the expense of the Socialists, only managing to hold onto only 28 seats in Congress (12 less than in 2019).

In fact, for the first time, the Socialist Party managed to win in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Navarre. This is likely due to anti-right tactical voting in these regions, similar to the one that favoured former Prime Minister Zapatero in 2008.

Election night was especially tough for the Catalan separatist ERC and Junts parties. The former lost 6 seats, and the latter 1.

The picture is more complex in the Basque Country. The up-to-now hegemonic Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) lost 1 seat and ceased to be the most-voted party in the region. That spot goes to the far-left separatist EH Bildu party, many of whose members were part of the political branch of the terrorist group ETA. For the first time in history, Bildu has surpassed the PNV and become the most-voted Basque nationalist party in the Basque Country and Navarra; winning 1.36% of the vote and 6 seats versus 1.12% and 5 seats in the case of the PNV.

In terms of government coalitions, the situation is uncertain due to the highly complicated parliamentary arithmetic. The right-wing and left-wing blocs have 169 and 153 seats respectively, well short of the 176 needed for a majority. If we add centre-right regionalists Coalición Canaria (CC) and Unión del Pueblo Navarro (UPN) to the right-wing bloc, and the nationalist parties who have supported Sánchez during the last legislature to the left-wing bloc (PNV, Bildu, ERC, and BNG) then the blocs would be almost tied, with 171 and 172 seats respectively

This would leave the radical Catalan separatist party Junts as kingmaker, though they have pledged not to make Sánchez Prime Minister unless he concedes a self-determination referendum and amnesty for those involved in the illegal 2017 coup attempt. In light of this parliamentary arithmetic, there are three possible scenarios: a deadlocked Parliament and the repetition of the general election, a Sánchez premiership with the support of the separatists, or a Feijóo premiership with the support of PNV (which they have declined to offer).