Spain’s right-wing bloc fell short of winning a majority at the country’s general election on 23 July. David Cutts and Paul Kennedy write that the Spanish political system retains its capacity to surprise. The country’s polarisation into equally balanced left and right blocs now continues in the absence of an overall majority for either.
The morning after local and regional elections on 28 May, Spain’s Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, caught just about everyone by surprise by bringing forward the general election scheduled to take place towards the end of the year. Given the success enjoyed by the centre-right People’s Party (PP) at the May elections, Sánchez’s surprise move appeared a gamble destined to fail to prevent the PP from obtaining, with the support of the far-right Vox, an overall majority of at least 176 of the 350 seats in Spain’s lower house, the Congress of Deputies.
The consensus was that the PSOE, together with the left alliance Sumar, comprised of several parties to the left of the PSOE, would be incapable of generating the electoral traction required to cause an upset. The reality was otherwise as the PSOE proved to be unexpectedly resilient, obtaining almost a million more votes than at the previous general election held in November 2019. Although this increase translated into just a single additional seat, the PSOE was quietly relieved with the result.
The PP gained an additional 48 seats, leaving it with 137 seats to the PSOE’s 121, well short of expectations. Moreover, the PP’s putative coalition partner, Vox, obtained just 33 seats, 22 fewer than in November 2019, although still edging the PSOE’s partner, Sumar, which won two fewer seats than Vox, into fourth place. With the combined PP/Vox total number of seats falling six short of the elusive 176 and only the conservative Navarra Patriotic Union prepared to offer the additional support of its single seat, the PP was forced to accept that its dependence on Vox, with its unequivocally anti-regionalist stance, effectively deterred the additional parliamentary support necessary for the PP’s leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, to become prime minister.
For its part, the left bloc, with the very same total of 171 seats, comprising the PSOE, Sumar and several small regional parties – the Basque PNV and Bildu, together with the Catalan ERC and Galician BNG – have obtained the requisite parliamentary support for Pedro Sánchez’s continuation as prime minister provided Carles Puigdemont, exiled leader of the pro-Catalan independence Junts, offers the backing of his party’s seven deputies. Should Puigdemont demur, a further general election will have to be held later this year.
When party leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo appeared on the balcony of the PP’s headquarters on election night, accompanied by the president of the Madrid region, Isabel Ayuso, it was notable that the latter was greeted more warmly by party supporters. It remains to be seen whether such a Pyrrhic victory will be sufficient to consolidate Feijóo’s leadership – or curb Ayuso’s own ambitions. The sombre tone made a sharp contrast with scenes of rejoicing at the PSOE’s headquarters across town, as Pedro Sánchez effectively laid claim to the role of de facto victor.
Explaining the results
How are we to account for a result which took so many by surprise? Commentators largely failed to pick up on clues provided by the local and regional elections held in May. A nuanced analysis of those elections would have noted the resilience of the PSOE vote: 28% matched the party’s performance at the November 2019 general election, while it also performed well in traditional strongholds such as Extremadura and Valencia. Insufficient attention was given to data suggesting that the PSOE retained a solid base on which to build, together with an effective, focused campaign.
Furthermore, although Sánchez has polarised opinion, he has consistently enjoyed higher personal poll ratings than his PP opponent. A general election was always going to place more focus on the prime minister than local and regional elections, serving to benefit the PSOE. In short, Sánchez was a vote winner.
In the event, the difference between the PSOE and the PP was just 1.35% (PP: 33.5%; PSOE: 31.7%), or 330,000 votes. Overall, in terms of votes, the right bloc (PP + Vox) obtained 45.44%, while the left bloc (PSOE + Sumar) won 44.01%. Turnout was 4.2% higher than at the November 2019 election (and the highest since 2008), with the successful mobilisation of the left bloc’s vote during the final week of the campaign proving decisive in preventing the unambiguous victory expected by the right bloc.
It is noteworthy that the vote share of the two main parties, the PP and the PSOE – 64.75% – was the highest since the 2011 general election, prior to the subsequent fragmentation which has since characterised the Spanish party system. Neither the political force to the PSOE’s left (Sumar) nor the populist right (Vox) advanced in terms of vote share and seats.
Regionalist parties in Catalonia also fared poorly, with the pro-independence ERC and Junts obtaining just seven seats each, compared to the PSOE’s nineteen. The coalition government therefore appears to have effectively neutralised the Catalan independence movement, reducing the tensions in the region which characterised the PP’s final years in office under Mariano Rajoy. It is therefore somewhat ironic that Pedro Sánchez’s continuation as prime minister is dependent on the blessing of the pro-Catalan independence Junts.
The PSOE obtained its highest share of the vote since 2008 and its highest number of seats since the same year, aside from in April 2019 when it obtained two more seats than in 2023. The party retained a large proportion of its past vote and was able to compensate for any transfer of its vote to the PP via support obtained by Sumar and regionalist parties. Mobilisation of the PSOE vote was also largely successful, as indicated by regional turnout figures where the PSOE was strongest. This mobilisation enabled the party to match the PP overall in terms of seats.
As for the PP’s recovery, Feijóo successfully mobilised and maintained the party´s core vote from the low base achieved at the two 2019 general election, while cannibalising the vote of the near-extinct Ciudadanos (which did not field candidates at the election). Feijóo also ate into Vox’s vote while attracting a small transfer of support from the PSOE.
The general election was essentially a political battle between the right and the left, or what might otherwise be characterised as a clash between social democracy and identity politics. Despite a global pandemic and the knock-on effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Sánchez-led coalition government secured notable achievements, most particularly in the economic sphere: inflation fell to 2%; growth was among the highest in the EU; and unemployment fell steadily (the 21 million people in work contributing to the social security system constituted a record high).
The labour reforms engineered by Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz, leader of Sumar, contributed to this increase in employment as the proportion of open-ended contracts rose while the number of temporary contracts fell. Social reforms, including a significant increase in the minimum wage and state pension, as well as measures aimed at mitigating the combined economic impact of the pandemic and the effects of the war in Ukraine, including a 30% discount on all public transport and a reduction in VAT on fuel bills, are also worthy of note.
In addition to this emphasis on the coalition government´s practical achievements, accompanied by a warning that a change of government would place in jeopardy a consolidation and enhancement of the reforms going forward, the left bloc hammered home the likelihood that the PP would require the support of Santiago Abascal’s far-right Vox. The ambiguous, if not awkward, relationship between the PP and Vox throughout the campaign also gave undecided voters pause for thought.
The PP and Vox nevertheless had considerable success in characterising the PSOE’s period in office as “Sanchismo”, a determination to cling on to power without regard to the cost, even if that meant forging cynical and self-serving alliances with Basque and Catalan extremists, placing at risk national unity. Poorly drafted sexual consent legislation and the enhancement of LGBT+ rights were also depicted as constituting an attack on Spanish cultural identity. Taxes on businesses were portrayed as frustrating economic growth, even though growth remained above the EU average.
The election campaign itself had an appreciable influence on the result, although things did not go entirely to plan for either of the main parties. Early in the campaign, Feijóo’s uncharacteristically aggressive approach in the only televised debate he agreed to have with Sánchez took the latter by surprise, placing him on the back foot and providing Feijóo with momentum he nevertheless squandered during the final week of campaigning.
Challenged to correct an inaccurate statement on the record of previous PP governments on pensions in an interview on state TV, Feijóo dug in, only to issue a subsequent clarification. Disparaging comments about Sumar leader Yolanda Díaz’s makeup were also ill-advised and provided her with the opportunity to retaliate by drawing attention to Feijóo’s relationship decades before with a convicted Galician smuggler and drugs trafficker.
Díaz played a prominent role in regaining the initiative for the left bloc as the campaign drew to a close, while Sánchez managed to place his poor performance in the debate with Feijóo behind him. The PP leader’s refusal to participate in a televised debate alongside Abascal, Sánchez and Díaz also appeared to be an opportunity wasted rather than a risk averted. Feijóo was keen not to appear on the same platform as Abascal, who pointedly – and angrily – referred to the PP leader’s absence in his address at Vox’s headquarters on election night.
The formation of any government following the 23 July general election is by no means straightforward. Feijóo’s ambitions are hampered by the reluctance of smaller regional parties to provide the requisite support, which they know will also facilitate the return of the far-right to office for the first time in almost half a century. Sánchez, for his part, has acquired a reputation as a gambler capable of consistently beating the odds.
The left bloc’s continuation in office depends on an agreement being reached with a pro-Catalan independence party, Junts, whose defiance of constitutional arrangements led to the leader of that party, Carles Puigdemont, going into exile five years ago. Whether Sánchez can square the circle of remaining within constitutional parameters while cutting a deal with Puigdemont – at the risk of becoming a busted flush – remains to be seen. The coming months will put to the test the axiom of politics being the art of the possible. Another general election later this year cannot be ruled out.