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Spanish Elections: main parties regain ground but face uncertain coalitions

Almost 37 million Spanish citizens will head to the ballot box on April 26 to elect a new Parliament. This is less than a year after the vote of no confidence against PM Rajoy (PP-EPP) and more than a year before the present term was supposed to end, illustrating the current difficulties in consolidating stable governments in Spain. PM Sánchez (PSOE-S&D) opted for this snap election after the Congress of Deputies voted against his budget in February, with his only additional support coming from left-wing UP (GUE-NGL) and Basque regionalist PNV (ALDE). The opposition of other regionalist and pro-independence parties denied Sánchez the same majority that granted him presidency in June 2018, inevitably leading to an even more fragile government or a snap election.

Voters will determine the new composition of the two legislative chambers, the Congress of Deputies and the Senate, only a month before a Super Sunday that might prove equally crucial: on May 26, elections will be held at the local, regional (for 12 of the 17 regions) and European level.

Looking at the recent polling trends for the possible coalitions, the inherent instability of the past two legislative terms will most likely not disappear after the April election. First, an alliance of left-wing Podemos and centre-left PSOE, which has materialized during the last 10 months, will most certainly have to depend on regional parties to achieve an absolute majority. A second possibility would be PSOE entering a coalition with the centre/centre-right Cs (ALDE), which might not achieve the threshold of 176 seats either. Finally, a right-wing coalition between Cs, liberal conservative PP (EPP) would also require VOX (ENF), as Cs and PP by themselves would by no means reach an absolute majority.

A win by PSOE seems likely, and the extent of its victory will greatly determine its capacity to form government with either Cs (preferred by many of PSOE’s regional and national leaders, though publicly opposed by Cs) or Podemos (the favourite option for the Spanish electorate). Finally, another element to factor in is the particular Spanish electoral law, which benefits regionalist parties and performance in the rural provinces, where PSOE and PP have traditionally been strong.

Source: EE Senior Data Analyst Filip Van Laenen

Another striking takeaway from the recent polls is the persistence of the PSOE and PP dominance over the rising forces of UP and Cs. In the period 2010-2015, the economic, financial and housing crises in Spain led to the emergence of powerful civil society movements that seemed to announce the end of the (if imperfect) two-party system in Spain. But even if the heyday of the two major parties, when they consistently gathered between 70 and 85% of the votes, is ancient history, their support has stabilized at levels between 50 and 55% during the past few months. As a proof, the only combination of two parties that would be guaranteed a majority in the new Congress according to the totality of the polls is one made up of PSOE and PP. An agreement of this sort allowed Rajoy to be elected for a second term in 2016, with the vocal opposition by a Pedro Sánchez that would be ousted from leadership only to win the primaries again in 2017. However, their policy positions seem too far away at the present time for another Grand Coalition to take place, especially in some of the most salient voting issues, such as the territorial and constitutional crisis in Catalonia and the fiscal and tax policy reform proposed by Pablo Casado, PP’s candidate for PM.

On the other hand, UP and Cs have lost ground after reaching their respective peaks in polls between 2016-2018. UP, under Pablo Iglesias, threatened PSOE’s reign among centre-left electorate in the run-up to the 2016 election, but eventually came behind the party led by Pedro Sánchez. As a result, when the vote of no confidence took place in June 2018, UP was unable to put forward its own candidate, a movement that could have led to the first non-PP or PSOE PM since 1982 in Spain.

During his months of government, Sánchez has managed to increase his popularity greatly and is now seen as a “useful vote” in the left-wing electorate, leaving little prospects for UP to even keep its strongholds in the Basque Country or Catalonia. Similarly, Cs appeared in mid-2018 as the strongest party in many opinion polls, but the electorate seems to have progressively moved to either PSOE or PP. This might be a product of the increased fragmentation of Spanish politics, which does not allow for Cs, and its candidate Albert Rivera, to make gains as the unique centrist option. As time has passed, Cs has moved closer to the centre-right in the political spectrum and opted for PP as its preferential partner, as the tripartite PP-Cs-VOX agreement in Andalusia shows.

As the chart above illustrates, the emergence of VOX has divided the concentration of right-wing votes in Spain. After their surprising result in the region of Andalusia last December, VOX has gained increased public attention and has been regarded as a possible member of a right bloc coalition to achieve a majority in the next parliament. Unlike other right-wing parties in Europe, however, VOX has risen with votes from the traditional right-wing Spanish electorate. This phenomenon has led to a stagnation of the support for a right coalition and penalizes its options to reach a majority due to the Spanish electoral system. According to the latest Celeste Tel poll, VOX would now be the choice of 14% of PP and 11.2% of Cs voters in the 2016 general elections. Similarly, NC Report sees 1.5m votes going from these two parties to VOX. As a result, as the last 40dB poll shows, the biggest probabilities of vote change before the general election exist within the right bloc, rather than between left and right blocs.

The last unknown to be solved in this general election is the role that regional parties will play. Whereas ERC (G/EFA) and PNV (ALDE) will likely grow stronger in Catalonia and the Basque Country, Compromís (G/EFA), JxCAT (formerly ALDE), Bildu and En Marea (both GUE/NGL) will lose a fair share of their support. These parties face dilemmas in whether cooperating or blocking a central government, and the outcome will depend on two factors: the stance towards the conflict in Catalonia, amid the trial of leaders of the independence movement, and the degree to which the new government advances socially progressive measures. Whereas a PSOE-UP government could achieve the necessary support from these parties for a second Sánchez cabinet, a PSOE-Cs agreement will be seen in a much more sceptical way, and would thus require an absolute majority by the two parties themselves. A tripartite agreement PP-Cs-VOX is unlikely to earn support from regional parties beyond NA+, the coalition of PP, Cs and UPN in Navarra.

Ignasi is a data analyst for Europe Elects and an expert in Spanish politics.