The Spanish election ends in a shutdown
FOR THE last week the observers of the Spanish election have focused on the hard right to enter the government, for the first time since the return of democracy in 1978. It was not, as it turned out, the main story. Experts in Spain and elsewhere have failed to account for the main artist of Spain’s comeback: Pedro Sánchez, the Socialist prime minister (pictured, left). As the final votes were counted on Sunday night, the right and left blocs were almost tied – and neither had a clear path to amassing a majority and installing a government. The right-wing bloc, led by the People’s Party in the center (PP), came first as expected. The PP He took 136 of 350 seats. But opinion polls had predicted it would grow to almost 150. Apart from the 33 seats of the hard-right party Vox, that was short of the 176 needed for a majority.
The great surprise was the performance of Mr. Sánchez’s Socialists. Rather than being penalized as polls had predicted, the party looked poised to pick up a couple of seats, finishing with 122. Its preferred coalition partner, the party Sum on the left, 31. That left them well short of a majority as well. Four regional parties, including Basque and Catalan separatists, may be willing to vote to support a Socialist-Sumar minority government. But even with their help, the Socialists and Sumar would be just short of the required numbers.
The PP has made a big comeback over the past few years, getting 47 seats after a poor result in 2019. But its result will be measured by recent expectations. Here it is clear that the party did not perform too well, raising questions about its strategy. Its leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo (pictured, right), had seen the campaign’s first debate win – a two-way tie against Mr Sánchez – and chose to sit out the next two meetings, in the there were more parties. This seemed like a conservative move to protect his lead. Perhaps he also wanted to avoid being seen on stage next to Vox: throughout the campaign he refused to accept or reject a coalition with the hard right, although ‘ was always his most likely choice.
The party seemed to be losing momentum in the last week of the campaign. Mr. Feijóo made factual errors about pensions in a television interview. An old photo of him with a man who was later convicted of drug trafficking resurfaced in the media, and he took a break from the campaign trail due to back pain. None of these things should be guaranteed. But the momentum with which the party entered the election had dissipated.
Vox was the biggest loser of the night. Spain’s electoral system punishes parties that are thinly spread across the map. Vox’s vote share only fell from about 15.2% to 12.4%, but the party fell from 52 deputies to 33. PP some voters may have scared away the latter, as well as encouraging voters for the Socialists and Sumar. With the results coming in, Vox leader Santiago Abascal complained about “clearly rigged elections” lowering his party’s vote. But he admitted that he will not join the government this time.
The other loser on the night was Esquerra Republicana, one of the two main separatist parties in Catalonia. The Socialists won in Catalonia and Esquerra lost six vice presidents. This seemed to confirm Mr. Sánchez’s strategy for resolving the Catalan conflict. He pardoned the leaders of the unconstitutional unconstitutional referendum in 2017 and removed the crime of “disruption” from the criminal code, replacing it with a milder crime. This angered his enemies, but it seems to have paid off in Catalonia itself. The leader of Esquerra in Madrid, Gabriel Rufián, promised that in exchange for supporting any new Socialist-led government, he would ask any participants in Madrid to “respect our country”.
The last significant group in parliament is the other main Catalan separatist party, Junts per Catalunya. The more hard-line of the two separatist groups, it quit the Catalan government last year, and has been trying to restore its fortunes. He opposed Esquerra’s strategy of gradually repairing ties with the government in Madrid. It came only in fifth place, by votes, in Catalonia. Its de facto leader remains Carles Puigdemont, in exile in Belgium since the illegal 2017 referendum, which he led. He has said that “Sánchez will not be prime minister with the Junts’ votes,” calling the prime minister “a man you wouldn’t even buy a used car from”. It is a difficult position to reverse.
None of the other people are notPP parties will support a government that includes Vox. Junts will not join Mr. Sánchez’s rainbow group. That leaves two options. Mr. Feijóo called on all parties to communicate about whether they could give permission to the PP to rule, perhaps in a minority government. He gave a special warning to the Socialists not to prevent this, noting that Spain had never been led by a prime minister who had not come first in the election. But the country has no tradition of grand coalitions. And it is difficult to see Mr. Sánchez agreeing to abstain until the PP he could govern alone when he is 40 seats short of a majority.
The king of Spain will now invite one of the candidates (apparently Mr. Feijóo) to try to form a coalition. In the meantime Mr. Sánchez will remain as prime minister. If no one succeeds in forming a government, the country will have to hold new elections, which no one wants. But to avoid them, one of the objects that cannot be moved at the moment must move. This was the first time in Spain’s modern democratic history that it held a vote in the hottest part of the summer. Now, instead of a much-needed vacation and then returning to work in the fall, he is likely to do it again.■
Correction (July 24): A previous version of this article said Junts per Catalunya came fourth in votes in Catalonia, not fifth. Sorry.