Called early by Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez after the disastrous outcome of the May 28 regional and local poll, the July 23 Spanish general election was presented by both major political blocs as the most crucial in recent history.
For the People’s Party (PP) and the racist, Islamophobic, Spanish-chauvinist Vox, it was the chance to end the horrors of “sanchismo” — such as laws on transgender rights and against gender-based violence, passed with the support of the “enemies of Spain” like the Basque left independentist force EH Bildu and the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC).
For the PSOE and Sumar — the new electoral platform including nearly all non-PSOE left forces and replacing Unidas Podemos (UP) — it was a choice between “regressing 50 years” or building on the gains of three-and-a-half years of PSOE-UP government to create “a more just, more sustainable, more democratic, more feminist and more pluralist Spain” — in the words of Sumar leader and outgoing labour minister Yolanda Díaz.
The bloc of right-wing forces has never been able to achieve an absolute majority in a Spanish general election when turnout is more than 70%. All its wins since the end of the Francisco Franco dictatorship in 1978 were built on the demobilisation of the left.
This election campaign was, therefore, an almighty war to inspire or suffocate the popular mobilisation that, despite the May 28 poll disaster, always had some chance of blocking Spain’s reactionary right.
The result was that this evil phalanx was held at bay — just. With participation reaching 70.4% (a 4.2% increase since the 2019 election), the PP (136 seats), Vox (33), and the Union of the People of Navarra (1) together fell six seats short of the 176-seat majority needed to win government.
The right could still gain two seats from the overseas vote, but it cannot govern — unless there is an earthquake in the PSOE in favour of abstaining in the second-round investiture vote (which only requires a relative majority).
That scenario seems excluded, given that it was Sánchez’s refusal to follow this course that produced his 2016 resignation as PSOE general secretary and 2017 recovery of the position on the back of a PSOE membership mobilisation.
A PSOE-Sumar government invested with the support of the Basque, Catalan and Galician parties remains possible. However, depending on the result of the overseas vote, it will require either the abstention or support of the Catalan independentist Junts (Together), party of exiled former premier and European deputy Carles Puigdemont.
Given that Junts’ conditions are a negotiated referendum on Catalonia’s future and a general amnesty for charged pro-independence activists, the road to a PSOE-Sumar government looks difficult, with a repeat election not excluded.
PSOE defensive surge
The right’s stall happened against 99% of opinion polling, an unprecedented media hate crusade against sanchismo, the PP’s own triumphalist bandwagon campaign (“It’s Time!”) and blatant white anting by ancient PSOE luminaries like former prime minister Felipe González.
How was this result — which brought relief to all progressive Spain — achieved?
The most important of the contests underlying the right’s flop was that between the PP and the PSOE.
In the May 28 local elections, with a low participation rate of 63.9%, the conservative force scored about 7.1 million votes to the PSOE’s 6.3 million (31.53% to 28.12%).
These figures became 8.09 million to 7.76 million (33.05% to 31.7%) on July 23. The gap had closed from 763,000 to 330,000 votes (from 3.41% to 1.35%).
This shift went completely against the trend “detected” by every opinion poll taken between May 29 and July 22. They showed an average PP lead of 5.96%, ranging as high as 11.3%
There were two main causes of the PSOE’s comeback. First, even in the states (“autonomous communities”) where the PP came in first (14 out of 17), the PSOE vote also held or increased (with the exception of Galicia, PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo’s home state).
Second, in Catalonia, Euskadi (the Spanish Basque Country) and Navarra, hundreds of thousands of voters who usually vote for pro-independence parties switched to the local franchises of the PSOE, felt as the best insurance against a PP-Vox win.
These local PSOE branches became the most-voted candidacies, surpassing the pro-independence forces that usually prevail. Indeed, it was the Catalan and Basque vote for the PSOE that saved the day for Sánchez, given that the combined PP-Vox vote easily exceeded 50% in the rest of the Spanish state.
Vox sinks, Sumar holds
The second trend underlying the containment of the right regards the degree to which the lead forces in each bloc (PSOE, PP) took votes from their junior partners/rivals (Sumar, Vox) and vice-versa.
Here, the PP — nervous at the effect that its abominable deals with Vox were already having as PP-Vox administrations were sworn in after May 28 — launched a campaign for the far-right vote to be reconcentrated on itself.
Here, Núñez Feijóo was hoping for a repeat of the dynamic of the 2022 Andalusian regional election, in which a PSOE-weary electorate, including many traditional PSOE voters, turned to the PP.
The PP message increasingly became, if implicitly: “If you don’t want us to govern with Vox, just vote for us.”
This pressure, combined with Vox officeholders’ crimes in government — like attacks on women’s refuges and suppression of literature and education in Catalan — saw the racist outfit lose 19 of its 52 seats, with the pain concentrated mostly in the regions where it has been acting as junior governing partner or external support to the PP.
In Castilla y León, Vox lost five of its six seats to the PP, in Andalusia three of nine, and in Madrid and the Valencian Country two of seven.
By contrast, Sumar better withstood the pressure for a “useful” vote for the PSOE.
Sumar lost 700,000 votes and seven of the 38 seats that had gone to the forces to the left of the PSOE in the 2019 general election.
This was a disappointing result for those expecting that Yolanda Diaz’s party might recapture the space held by UP in the pre-Vox era (72 seats in 2015), However, the result should be seen in the context of the appalling results of most Podemos candidates in the May 28 regional election.
Here, the party led by Pablo Iglesias lost all 10 seats it held in the Madrid regional parliament, all eight seats it held in the Valencian parliament, four of the five seats it held in the parliament of Aragon and three of its four Asturian parliamentary seats.
The creation of Sumar as a new platform (and with Podemos no longer hegemonic within it), plausibly stemmed the bleeding that Iglesias’s brand experienced on May 28.
The ‘third Spain’
The rise in vote for the all-Spanish left inevitably came at the expense of the “third Spain” — its oppressed nations and regions.
In the incoming Spanish congress, the ERC caucus will shrink from 13 to eight, while Junts will fall from eight deputies to seven and the People’s Unity List (CUP) will disappear.
In all, Catalonia’s pro-independence parties lost 800,000 votes, contracting to 27.2% of the total and coming in well behind the combined PSOE-Sumar vote of 48.5%. The 4% fall in turnout — the product of disillusionment with independentism’s intra-party fights — contributed to the slump.
The other winner was the PP. As the all-Spanish class war took precedence over the Spain-Catalonia conflict, tens of thousands in Catalonia’s richer neighbourhoods returned to voting for Núñez Feijóo’s party and its vote rose from 7.4% to 13.3% (2 seats to 6).
In Euskadi, the conservative ruling Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) lost 103,000 votes (7.95%), mainly to the PSOE and then to EH Bildu. The left-independentist force will now have six seats in the Congress as against the PNV’s five.
The result of July 23 was always going to depend on whether Spain’s millions of working, welfare-dependent and poor people would mobilise enough against the country’s particularly reactionary right wing: and this despite the inflation-driven erosion in líving standards that would have doomed Sánchez in a normal election.
They did, and Sánchez’s victory is theirs. Now, however, Spain’s acting prime minister will have to deal with the man of whom he said in the election campaign: “Puigdemont was a problem five years ago. Now he’s an anecdote.”
It is poetic justice that the reviled “anecdote” — symbol of Catalonia’s democratic struggle for self-determination — now holds the fate of the PSOE-led government in his hands.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent.]