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Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez shocked the country last week by calling a snap general election on the back of bruising local and regional results for his ruling Socialist Party (PSOE).
As pundits were still penning their post-election columns and declaring a new political cycle, Sánchez appeared outside La Moncloa Palace and announced the need for a “clarification of the will of the Spanish people regarding the policies and political forces that should lead this [next] phase.” For some, this seemed bold. For many, it was a mistake. For all Spaniards, it came as a surprise.
This was an election that was supposed to be held in December, not July – everybody in Spain knew that. And it was not a question of when or if the centre-right Partido Popular (PP) would win, but whether it would rely on the far-right Vox to gain a governable majority.
Polling, as well as the recent regional and local results, seemed to confirm this. On May 28th, the PP stole governments in PSOE heartlands and now controls 30 of 52 provincial capitals. Vox, a Meloni and Orban-aligned party and political home of Franco apologia, tripled its number of local councillors and doubled its vote share. In several regions, the PP now governs with the support of Vox.
Perhaps most crucially, Unidas Podemos, the far-left junior coalition partner in Sánchez’s government, collapsed in the polls and lost two-thirds of its regional deputies. In Madrid and Valencia, areas where the party focused its campaign, it failed to gain representation at all. Podemos’ popularity has plummeted in recent months, most notably following a botched sexual consent law that inadvertently reduced the sentences of thousands of convicted sex offenders.
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So why would Sánchez call an election after such an electoral drubbing, and with his coalition partner nearing electoral extinction?
Politically counterintuitive though it may seem, the decision was rational – his least worst option. By putting the Social PSOE on the front foot, he seized the narrative and denied the right an opportunity to savour victory.
A closer inspection of the results paints a more complex electoral landscape, too. The PP undeniably made gains, but rather than persuading PSOE voters it absorbed almost 2 million votes from Ciudadanos, a now obsolete centrist party. Despite losing symbolic Socialist regions and capitals, PSOE still polled 28% – just 3% less than the centre-right PP.
In many local election results, left-wing candidates split the vote between them and handed seats to the hard-right Vox party. July’s general election, therefore, essentially boils down to a two-tiered vote: the first, between PSOE and PP; and the second, between far-left and far-right forces. Winners of the second will become political kingmakers and tip the Congressional arithmetic in favour of the first.
Yet as Vox ascends, the far-left is entangled in fratricidal spats and score-settling. In April, Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz, Communist party member and Spain’s most popular politician, launched the ‘Sumar’ (Unite) coalition that aims to hold together 15 progressive groups. The Podemos leadership has been reluctant to relinquish its grip on the Spanish left, even after its electoral pummeling, while some in Sumar fear that the toxicity of the Podemos brand will burn them at the polls. Negotiations are ongoing, but any pact must be finalised by 9 June.
Part of the logic behind Sánchez’s election gamble, then, is to give the parties to his left a dose of shock treatment: by bringing the election forward, he hopes to jolt the far-left squabblers into action before it is too late.
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There are small signs of encouragement for Sánchez. His government, despite managing the pandemic and a period of painful inflation, has a solid economic record. Díaz’s structural reforms to the labour market have reaped record employment figures, and Spain now has one of the lowest inflation levels in Europe. If Senate debates are anything to go by, Sánchez has the political savvy to outperform the untested PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo. In terms of public speaking, weathering media scrutiny and debating skills, Sánchez will fancy his chances against the stiff, gaffe-prone Galician.
But try as Sánchez might to make the material case for his government, more often than not it is drowned out by the right’s culture war rhetoric. Part of the PP’s ‘anti-Sánchismo’ campaign plays on PSOE’s alliance with Podemos, but also regional groups, particularly EH Bildu, the political wing of defunct Basque separatist terror group ETA.
According to the Spanish right and its sympathetic media, Sánchez is propped up by communists and terrorists. Yet this line of attack could prove internally incoherent for Feijóo. If the PP comes to rely on Vox in July it would be him in bed with extremists, and one of his main soundbites would suddenly sound rather hollow. Sánchez understands this and is framing the election as a now or never, progressive versus far-right vote to warn wavering centrist voters.
Nonetheless, it still seems likely that the Spanish right will return to government and that the far-right will prop it up in coalition. But it is not a foregone conclusion. If the parties to the left of PSOE can put pride aside and become the all-important third electoral force instead of Vox, while Sánchez dispatches Feijóo on the campaign trail and convinces Spaniards of his government’s record, maybe, just maybe, he can pull Spain back from its rightward turn – but time is running out.