What Do the Spanish Election Results Mean for Europe?

Angelos Chryssogelos speaks to Lyndsey Jefferson about Spain’s general election and what to expect for the upcoming European elections.

Expert comment Published 30 April 2019 Updated 13 August 2019 4 minute READ

Dr Angelos Chryssogelos

Former Associate Fellow, Europe Programme

Pedro Sánchez delivers a speech during an election night rally in Madrid after Spain held general elections on 28 April, 2019. Photo: Getty Images

Pedro Sánchez delivers a speech during an election night rally in Madrid after Spain held general elections on 28 April, 2019. Photo: Getty Images

As predicted, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) won the most seats (29%) and is likely to form a coalition with the far-left Podemos in order to govern. Given that Spanish politics has become increasingly fragmented in recent years, do you think this alliance will be able to deliver a functioning government?

It’s probably going to be very difficult not least because PSOE and Podemos currently don’t have a majority on their own – they will need further support from some of the regionalist parties. The danger here is that if they do get support from regionalist parties, this will further galvanize the opposition of the right-wing parties.

Of course, the results showed the socialists coming very much ahead of the other parties. If you add up all the scores of the two broad blocs, so the centre-left and the far-left on the one hand and all the right-wing parties on the other hand, they are pretty close to each other. There will probably be a minority government…but I don’t see this lasting for too long.

I would expect Sánchez to remain prime minister for a while given that all the other opposition parties are in disarray right now. But I fail to see how this or any other stable Spanish government will be formed to carry the country forward for a full term in the foreseeable future.

It seemed that Spain was relatively immune to the rise of the far-right compared to other European countries. This changed in December of 2018 when the anti-immigration, anti-feminist Vox party won more seats than expected in the Andalusian regional elections. In this election, Vox won 24 seats, or 10% of the vote, marking the first time a far-right party has representation in the Spanish parliament since the Franco dictatorship. In light of this election outcome, do you think the far-right has staying power in Spain?

Overall, the Spanish result has been framed in terms of these pan-European tendencies, so the rise of the far-right, the collapse of the centre-right or the unexpected resurgence of the centre-left and social democracy. If you add up the numbers, the fundamentals of the Spanish political system are not really that different to the way they were even before the financial crisis of 2008. Seven or eight years ago, there was one big centre-left party that won around 40% of the vote and one big centre-right party that won around 40% of the vote.

Now, both blocs pretty much still have the same number of votes, but within those blocs you have a rearrangement of votes between newer actors. In this sense, Vox probably reflects voices that already existed in Spanish society, but used to vote for the centre-right party. So, the idea that Spain was always immune to the far-right was probably a bit of an illusion in the sense that those votes always existed there.

On the other hand, Vox seems to, at least for now, be a bit different to other far-right parties in Europe in that it is less Eurosceptic and anti-establishment. It wants to function as the far-right appendix of a broader centre-right coalition, which is also what happened in Andalusia.

Although of course it’s dramatic that a far-right party gained representation in the Spanish parliament, the dynamics are different to the rest of Europe. Even though Vox is quite radical in certain respects, I don’t know whether Vox is really the major problem in Spain the way the far-right is in other European countries. The major problem is that the country is severely polarized and there are two roughly equal blocs confronting each other, while neither can form a government on its own independently.

Tensions with Catalan separatists led to Pedro Sánchez calling this election after his budget failed to pass earlier this year and Spanish identity questions have dominated this election cycle. There is a possibility that Sánchez will form a coalition with the smaller separatist parties to govern. Where do you see the Catalan and Basque separatists’ role in this new government?

That’s an interesting question. One of the important results of the election was the rearrangement of forces within Catalonia as well. We saw the victory of the centre-left regionalist party which replaced the centre-right regionalist party as the main force of Catalan separatism.

This could open the door to them supporting a centre-left coalition government in Madrid, but they will pay a high price with regards to gaining further constitutional rights for Catalonia. At the same time, Catalonia is a very fluid political situation. National election results don’t necessarily align with regional election results and each one has their own dynamics.

One potential for Sánchez is that his party did pretty well in Catalonia. That may be a way to force other centre-left parties in Catalonia to support his government, but that’s hard to predict right now.

What concerns of the Spanish public will challenge the new government the most? Do you think this new government will be successful at addressing those concerns?

Honestly, even after the election results, I’m not sure whether we can say that the Spanish society has crystalized any concrete demands. I think one demand that exists generally is the demand for political renewal. We have seen this in recent years with the emergence of Ciudadanos, Podemos, and now with Vox. So, political renewal is one thing that Spanish society clearly wants.

Spain also remains overwhelmingly oriented toward Europe and the EU. Even Vox is less Eurosceptic than other far-right parties in Europe. So, in this broader framework of renewal and orientation towards Europe, Spanish society is polarized and very much divided. This is reflected in the fact that no stable government easily be formed. I think that’s the message of the election.

It’s interesting that you say that given the high turnout (75%) on election day, which was far higher than in previous elections.

Obviously, high turnout is good for democracy. But high turnout may also be because newer parties generate interest – and some of those newer parties may be extremist. So, it’s really a trade-off of what you want from a democracy.

The ideal of democracy is very much a part of Spanish identity after 40 years of dictatorship. Having such a high turnout is good, but this came at the expense of fragmentation and stability in the party system. Overall, the way parties are organized right now seems to show strong polarization and division in Spanish society.

The European elections are approaching on 26 May. What does Spain’s election mean for Europe more broadly?

The polarization we see in many European national systems may be reflected in the European Parliament after the European elections. We should expect an even better score for the socialists. The centre-right is demoralized, and we should expect them to perform even worse in the European elections.

This is important because Spain is the fifth biggest member of the EU in terms of MEPs. So, this is bad news for the centre-right and the European People’s Party (EPP). It’s also bad news for the overall stability of the European Parliament, which has over the last 15 years depended on a strong EPP to make decisions.

Another pan-European effect is that the success of Vox will probably increase in the European elections, which is good news for those trying to create a Eurosceptic alliance. Matteo Salvini was already flirting with Vox, so this result strengthens him on the pan-European stage.

Interestingly, these election results are also good for Emmanuel Macron. Spanish socialists and the centre-left across the Mediterranean are some of the biggest supporters of Macron’s plans for a more centralized and redistributive eurozone.

In terms of social democratic parties in Europe, Sánchez’s success represents the success of a more intermediate course of action. When it comes to the European debate, most socialist parties of the European south are very much pro-EU. These parties tend to look at France for leadership because France usually reflects the preferences of the south.

So, to the extent that Macron has an ambitious agenda for changing the EU, the socialists winning an election in Spain is good news for him because it positions a strong ally in a large EU member state.