By Joe Healy
The Spanish are renowned for making a bit of a racket – perhaps an unfair stereotype, although it has certainly held true over the last couple of months, to the extent that the political issues currently at stake in Spain can be summed up by examining the Spaniards’ shouting, or, more specifically, their chanting. The snappy slogans screamed at rallies and demonstrations from Seville to Santander throughout the general election campaign exposed an electorate which has spent the recent past grappling with its beliefs, values and identity as a country.
As the results were announced, the centre-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) was seen to have far more support than any other single party. The jubilant PSOE activists who gathered in Madrid on the evening of Sunday 28th of April produced a familiar sound: ‘¡No pasarán!’, that famous anti-fascist battle cry, which has its origins in Spain’s civil war and resistance to the old dictatorship, rang out as Pedro Sánchez, leader of the PSOE, proclaimed that “the future has won and the past has lost.”
The context of this is that, for the first time since Spain’s return to democracy (following dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975), a party of the extreme right seemed to be within reach of power. Vox, which had its first major electoral breakthrough in regional elections in Andalucía only a few months ago, advocates a rolling back of rights for women and homosexuals, tough regulations on immigration and an uncompromising stance on issues of what it calls ‘the national unity’, i.e. defending Spain’s territorial integrity against the independence movement in Catalonia, a topic which has dominated this election campaign and Spanish politics more generally in recent years. At Vox’s rallies, it is common to hear chants encouraging the jailing of Catalan politicians and, of course, the imaginative ‘¡Yo soy español!’ (‘I am Spanish!’).
Prior to the election, polling suggested that Vox might be able to rise to power in a coalition (as they have in Andalucía) with the other two parties of the right: Ciudadanos, a liberal party which takes a hardline stance on the Catalonia issue, and the Partido Popular (PP), the traditional party of the old Spanish right. It was theorised that, like other far right movements across Europe, it could garner the support of working-class voters who have suffered since the 2008 financial crisis, thus grabbing votes from the parties of the left. On the day, however, it managed only 10% of the vote and 24 seats in parliament, and almost all of this support came from ex-PP voters. The PP had moved significantly to the right to try to deal with this threat, but still suffered the worst election result in its history, with just 17% of the vote and 66 seats, massively down from 137 seats at the previous election in 2016. Ciudadanos, for its part, attained 16% of the vote and 57 seats.
Whilst Spain now loses its status as the only major country in mainland Europe without far-right parliamentarians, it is clear that a right-wing coalition will not be possible: they don’t get near the 176 seats needed for a majority, and so cannot form a government. On the opposite side, however, options are open to the PSOE to try to do so: their 28% of the vote got them 123 seats. Their natural ally for a coalition is Unidas Podemos (UP), a radical left party which formed out of the so-called 15-M anti-austerity movement at the height of Spain’s financial crisis. At their meetings, ‘¡Sí se puede!’ (Yes, we can!) was a common feature, and at one stage, they looked as though they could threaten the traditional parties, but they have been rocked by internal spats which have damaged their reputation. Voters approached this election knowing that the only likely outcomes were a coalition of the left or a coalition of the right, so many ex-UP voters opted for the more moderate PSOE, but the threat of the far right, along with UP’s strategy of encouraging young people to go out and vote, resulted in a phenomenal voter turnout (over 75%, up 9% on 2016) and meant that UP outperformed their polling predictions and returned 14% of the vote – 42 seats.
The PSOE and UP are 11 seats off a majority, but they are hoping to be able to join with regional progressive parties to make up the difference. Importantly, though, it looks like they will be able to govern without relying on the support of the pro-independence Catalan parties. This election only came about in the first instance because the previous PSOE-led government relied on separatist support in parliament and collapsed when it could not get its budget through: the separatists, whose raucous cries of ‘Independència!’ had been broadly ignored for several years under conservative governments, refused to back Sánchez when he would not grant them a referendum on the matter, giving him no choice but to call a general election. He will be glad if he does not need their backing again now, but problems in the region will undoubtedly persist, especially given the ongoing trial of Catalan politicians involved in the organisation of 2017’s attempted independence referendum.
For Spain as a whole, the rise of the far right threatens to challenge the fragile progress made since the restoration of its democracy. For progressives, this result is about as good as could have been hoped for, but parliamentary arithmetic and the handling of the Catalan issue, among others, will be key in nullifying this threat. If an agreement cannot be reached, Spaniards will have to vote again in a few months and Vox and its allies will have another opportunity to make their voices heard. For the moment, at least, they are being drowned out, but Sánchez’s job now is to stop shouting and start talking.