Much like Italy last year, Spain is now heading for an early general election.But are the two countries now on similar political trajectories? Davide Vampa suggests that while both Italy and Spain have shifted to the right in recent years, their political landscapes are likely to remain distinct.
Local and regional elections were held in Spain on 28 May, resulting in a defeat for the Socialist Party (PSOE) led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, and a surge in support for its traditional centre-right competitor, the People’s Party (PP). In comparison to the 2019 local election, the PSOE lost 1,500 municipal councillors, while the PP gained more than 3,000.
The PP also achieved a resounding victory in the Autonomous Community of Madrid, securing an absolute majority of seats. Additionally, they triumphed in Rioja and became the largest party in Murcia, the Valencian Community, Cantabria, Aragon and the Balearic Islands. On the other hand, the PSOE managed to retain overall control of Castile La Mancha and won a relative majority of the seats in Asturias, Extremadura and the Canary Islands. However, in the last two regions, centre and right-wing parties could form coalitions to remove the Socialists from government.
A few hours after it became clear that the governing parties had lost the elections, Sánchez took responsibility for the poor election results and called for a snap general election, scheduled to take place on 23 July. He explained that it was important for the Spaniards to have their say in determining the country’s political direction.
Since 2015, Spain has held four general elections. The political landscape of the country has become more fragmented and volatile, with the emergence of populist parties on both the left and the right and ongoing territorial divisions. The question now arises whether Spain is heading down a similar path as Italy, the other major southern European country that held an early election last year, resulting in a victory for the populist radical right led by Giorgia Meloni.
The resilience of Spain’s established parties
Several factors indicate that the two countries are likely to take different paths. It is true that, like Italy, Spain is experiencing a shift to the right, and the rise of Vox, a party ideologically very similar to Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), clearly demonstrates that.
However, the recent local and regional elections have also shown a certain level of resilience for both the centre-left and centre-right established parties. For instance, while the PSOE lost many representatives in the municipalities and regions, its overall share of the vote remained very close to that of 2019 (around 28-29%). At the same time, the PP saw an increase of almost ten percentage points in its support, winning more than 31% of the vote.
Therefore, the electoral campaign for the Spanish snap election begins with a return to competition between the two main national parties, PP and PSOE, after a decade of increasing fragmentation and polarisation. Despite significant growth in recent years, Vox has not surpassed the PP as the dominant right-wing party.
Similarly, the PSOE has been successful in containing the electoral expansion of Podemos and other left-wing competitors, engaging them in the first coalition government in 80 years and reclaiming clear dominance on the progressive side of the political spectrum. It can be expected that competition between the two main parties will intensify in the next weeks, further strengthening their position in relation to smaller parties.
In Italy, the situation is quite different.Since 2008, the combined share of the traditional centre-left and centre-right parties has drastically declined from around 70% to less than 30%, showing no signs of recovery. On the right, Silvio Berlusconi’s party, which had positioned itself as a ‘moderate’ member of the European People’s Party, was initially surpassed by the populist radical right League led by Matteo Salvini in 2018. Subsequently, it faced another populist wave that propelled Meloni to the forefront of Italian politics.
On the left, the Democratic Party (PD) is struggling to gather enough support to build a competitive progressive bloc. Unlike the PSOE’s coalition with Podemos in Spain, the PD has been unable to forge a stable alliance with another populist competitor, the Five Star Movement (M5S).
Thus, Spain appears to have partially returned to the ‘classic’ two-party competition that characterised its political system until the early 2000s. In contrast, Italy has not yet reached a stable equilibrium and seems to be heading towards a different configuration of political actors compared to the 1990s and 2000s. Even in terms of territorial politics, Spain’s current situation seems to be less polarised than it was in the late 2010s and the pro-independence Catalan parties appear more divided than in the past.
Overall, despite the challenges Spain’s democratic system has faced since the financial crisis of 2008-09, it appears to have maintained the fundamental elements of functioning politics. The country’s governments have continued to be led by party leaders who are ultimately accountable to voters. In Italy, the political class instead opted for technocrats in periods of deep crisis – Mario Monti in 2011-13 and Mario Draghi in 2021-22. This demonstrated the extreme weakness of the country’s political system and a wider inability to make difficult decisions. This, in turn, has accelerated the decline in trust and support for traditional parties.
Risks of radicalisation
Does this imply that Spain is entering a new period of political stability, while its Mediterranean partner continues to navigate uncharted waters? It is premature to draw such a conclusion.
Although the Spanish economy has generally performed better than the Italian one, unemployment remains high, and there are still significant risks of social and territorial tensions. Moreover, predicting the dynamics of an electoral campaign is challenging. It is possible that competition between the PP and PSOE could result in increased polarisation as they try to win over voters from more radical parties, rather than a convergence towards the centre.
Furthermore, the upcoming snap election in July may potentially lead to a right-wing coalition government, with the PP as the leading party and Vox as its junior partner. This would be an unprecedented development in Spanish contemporary democracy. It is worth noting that in Italy, post-fascist and radical right parties entered ruling coalitions in subordinate roles during the 1990s and 2000s. The subsequent trajectory of events, which propelled them to leading government positions in more recent times, serves as a cautionary remin