Spain elections: As the right splinters, regionalists and the center-left gain

Despite gains by the PSOE, Pedro Sánchez will still have to govern from one of the weakest positions in Spain’s recent democratic history. Few would envy his daunting charge of navigating the contradictory challenges of growing nationalism and regionalism in the years to come.


Amid massive turnout (75.8 percent), Spaniards took to the polls on Sunday, April 28 in a vote that, more than anything, demonstrates the extent of the collapse of Spain’s once-stable two party system. In addition to the typical slew of regional parties, five national parties—two on the left and three on the right—will hold more than 20 seats in Spain’s 350 seat Congress of Deputies.

Incumbent Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), which won 123 seats on Sunday, has proclaimed his desire to lead a minority government without forming a coalition, but his chances of doing so seem unlikely, as Pablo Iglesias, the leader of left-wing Podemos, seems hesitant to offer free support to a would-be minority government. Instead, Iglesias has said that he would like to form a coalition, but that would also require the support of regionalist parties from Catalonia and the Basque Country.

Regardless of how the political jockeying plays out over the next few months, Sunday’s vote brought clarity in a few areas (at least by the standards of politics in Spain, which just held its third national election in less than five years). First, Sánchez has strengthened his position and now has a clearer mandate to lead Spain going forward. Second, the problem of regional discontent isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, especially in Catalonia. And finally, the Spanish right is as fragmented as it’s been since the years following the transition to democracy in the 1970s, and it’s up in the air which, if any, of the three major right-of-center parties will establish itself as the main opposition to Sánchez’s leadership.

Sánchez’s work will have just started after he navigates the potentially lengthy process of forming a governing coalition. As he cobbles together his government and policy agenda, Sánchez will have to contend not just with the ever-present issue of regional tension, but with emerging right-wing nationalism in the Spanish heartland.

The thorn in Madrid’s side: regionalism in Catalonia (and elsewhere)

As the hyper-centralized state that defined autocratic Spain under Francisco Franco (the mere speaking of regional languages such as Catalan, Basque, and Galician was outlawed for almost half a century) crumbled in the 1970s, the leaders of the democratization process saw ceding select powers to region’s as the key for holding Spain together. Today, Spain is one of the most decentralized developed nations in the world; for example, Spain’s seventeen autonomous communities have control of over 50 percent of all income tax collected in the country.

While decentralization has been crucial for the development and survival of modern Spanish democracy, it’s also led to the gravest contemporary threat to the Spanish nation: resurgent Catalonian nationalism. Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions; while Catalonia accounts for 16 percent of the Spanish population, it contributes to well over one-fifth of Spanish GDP. In recent years, separatist tensions with Madrid came to a head in October 2017, when the Spanish government responded to a resolution by the Parliament of Catalonia declaring independence by removing regional authorities, enforcing direct rule and charging leaders of the independence movement with sedition, rebellion and misuse of funds.

Sunday’s results show that Catalonian separatism isn’t going anywhere and will remain an issue for Sánchez as he forms his governing coalition and beyond. The pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia-Sovereigntists coalition (ERC- Sobiranistes), led by the imprisoned independence leader Oriol Junqueras, won fifteen of the 47 Catalonian seats in the Congress of Deputies, a six-seat improvement from 2016 that could see the party form an integral part of Sánchez’s eventual governing coalition. In addition, the more radical Junts per Catalunya, led by exiled President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont, won seven seats. 

Regionalism isn’t just prevalent in Catalonia. In total, eight regional parties will sit in the next Congress of Deputies, including parties from the Basque Country, Valencia, the Canary Islands, Navarre, and Cantabria.

Fragmentation on the right amid resurgent nationalism

Despite the fact that the much-hyped rise of the far-right nationalist party Vox dominated headlines in the build-up to the election, Sunday’s results show that the emergence of the party has been most damaging on the right, especially for the Partido Popular (PP), long the dominant right-wing party in Spain.

In the build-up to regional elections in Andalucía in December, the PP and their center-right counterparts, Ciudadanos, moved sharply to the right and worked with Vox in a successful effort to flip what has historically been a PSOE stronghold. Five months later, the rightward shift of the PP seems to have backfired; the 66 seats won by the PP on Sunday are the party’s worst ever result.

Still, in a country where the common wisdom has long been that the wounds of Franco’s brutal 40-year dictatorship were fresh enough that the wave of right-wing populism crashing across Western democracies would spare Spain, the emergence of Vox should be a wakeup call.

The struggle for the soul of the Spanish right is now a three-party affair. After cozying up to Vox in the run-up to Sunday’s election, this week, PP leader Pablo Casado has sought to distance his party from both Vox, which he termed “ultra-right-wing” for the first time, and the “social democrats” from the center-right Ciudadanos.

As the right regroups, policymakers across the political spectrum will have to work to address the factors that have led to the rise of Vox, chief among them dissatisfaction across central, western, and southern Spain with the ongoing Catalonia crisis and growing anti-immigrant sentiment.

What’s next 

Since the collapse of the Spanish two-party system began with the anti-austerity 15-M movement in 2011, unpredictability has become the new norm in Spanish politics. In the months and years to come, Pedro Sánchez will have to navigate a series of challenges, some of them contradictory, including the delicate process of building a coalition; a fragile economy; the re-emergence of far-right Spanish nationalism; and the ever-present specter of the Catalonian independence movement.

Despite the fact that he unquestionably has a stronger mandate than he did when he took office after leading a successful no-confidence vote against PP Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy last summer, Sánchez must still govern from one of the weakest positions in Spain’s recent democratic history. Few would envy his seemingly impossible task of navigating the contradictory challenges of growing nationalism and regionalism in the years to come.

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