Spain’s snap election outcome leaves more questions than answers

Spain’s general election on July 23 had an unexpected outcome. Alberto Nez Feijóo, the head of Spain’s Populist Party, declared victory in the emergency election but could not establish a majority even with the support of the far right. 

It is now being determined whether Spain will be able to form a government soon. Negotiations will now continue to create a new government and avoid another election. 

The question facing Spaniards in the aftermath of the election is not whether a conservative/far-right PP-Vox combination would result in a significant movement to the right and what ramifications this may have for Europe. 

Key parties in Spain

Two “traditional” parties in Spain retain the role of the main ones, and it is between them that the competition for the post of prime minister and victory in the elections is taking place. These are the right-wing conservative People’s Party (Partido Popular, PP) and the current pro-government left-wing Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).

The leading contenders for the post of prime minister, respectively, are PP leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo and the head of the PSOE, the current prime minister Pedro Sanchez.

However, the recent vote results do not allow either of them to win an absolute majority to form a government. In addition, possible coalitions also seem too difficult for both parties.

The electoral process in Spain

Sánchez decided to move the general election forward from December after his Socialist Party (PSOE) scored poorly in the May 28 municipal and regional elections.

During the campaign, PP actively tried to influence the electorate of other right-wing parties. Parties fought within the right-wing camp for votes that were still to be reserved for one of the parties in the future coalition, sometimes even discrediting prospective partners.

Feijóo’s PP was mainly successful in turning the May elections into a referendum on Sánchez’s progressive coalition government, established by the PSOE and the far-left Unidas Podemos and in power since early 2020. 

The populist far-right Vox party more than doubled its local councillors, allowing it to play a substantial role in cities where the PP needed its votes to assume office, as was the case with numerous regional governments. With most surveys showing his party well in the lead, the PP leader confronted the sudden elections.

Despite winning both votes (33% of the vote) and seats (136 out of 350 in the Congress of Deputies, 47 more than the PP now has), Feijóo failed to fulfil his primary goal: a change of government.  

Race for power: what comes next

With the left and right blocs practically neck and neck in their drive to obtain as close to 176 seats as possible, the coming weeks will be fraught with uncertainty as possible pacts within both blocs must be sorted. 

On August 17, a new parliament will meet, and King Felipe VI will invite the leader of the largest party to form a government. 

In the first instance, Feijóo will try to build a single-party government with the assistance of Vox and a few smaller allies, but he will almost certainly fail.

The king will subsequently extend the same invitation to Prime Minister Sánchez. This will allow him to re-edit his progressive coalition, which would necessitate the participation of Junts per Catalunya. This separatist party won seven seats and is led by Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s former president living in exile in Belgium.

However, it is difficult to understand what Sánchez could provide in exchange for their support, considering that their apparent goal of Catalan independence would be irreconcilable with the Spanish Constitution. 

Possibility of a new election

The Constitution does not establish a timeline for this complex procedure. Still, if no candidate obtains a majority in parliament within two months following the first vote in an attempt to form a government, new elections must be held. 

Those who projected the start of a new political scenario in Spain will have to wait, while a snap election before the end of the year (or in early 2024) cannot be ruled out.

Spanish election outcome

Overall, this election provides some interesting insights into contemporary Spanish politics. The first is that Spanish voters are moderate and have rejected extreme parties. Furthermore, the two largest parties, the PP and PSOE, are once again receiving more than 60% of the vote, thanks in part to the demise of the centrist Ciudadanos.

The two parties received 13 million votes, 1.5 million more than they did four years ago. On July 23, the two biggest parties received almost 15 million votes (64 per cent), unfathomable in other European nations where political fragmentation is more pronounced.

As a result, it is feasible to see a gradual return to a party system dominated by the two big parties. Finally, the high voter participation of over 70%, well above the EU average, indicates that Spaniards have a high level of trust in their representative institutions.

It is unclear whether European socialists were confident in Sánchez’s last-minute recovery, but many feared that his defeat would be a watershed moment for the far right, not only in Spain.

Possible effect on the European Council

Establishing a government in which Vox would have had a significant influence may have given European right-wing parties influence in the European Council, with more than 35% of the vote, beyond the threshold that allows them to oppose European Commission measures. 

The Spanish defeat, on the other hand, marks the end of a string of successes for right-wing, populist, anti-EU parties in Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Czechia, as well as in Finland and Sweden. 

This should help European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen complete critical objectives such as the energy transition more peacefully.

Spain now has the presidency of the European Union’s Council, but political uncertainty is unlikely to impact the day-to-day operations of the European Union’s institutions.

Even if forming a government takes longer than usual, or if new elections are held later this year, the acting executive, which will remain in office, will be in a position to ensure the presidency’s success. Most crucially, Spain has been the most consistently pro-EU big member state, with PSOE and PP holding broadly similar views on the European Union.

Furthermore, the two main competitors are members of the political families that have long dominated the European Parliament, namely the European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats.

In the long run, regardless of the ideological orientation of the next government, Spanish foreign policy will remain constant. If a coalition government formed by the PSOE and Sumar is created, its foreign policy will be similar to that of the Sánchez government in recent years.

Foreign policy is expected to be decided by the senior partner in the event of a repeat election that results in a coalition government between the PP and Vox, as has been the case in the current left-wing coalition. And, if Sánchez has not allowed his coalition arrangements with UP to impact Spanish foreign policy, Feijóo is likely to do the same with Vox.

Spain’s stance on the Ukraine-Russia war in the context of the election

Elections in Ukraine’s allied countries often cause evident anxiety among Ukraine’s partners. Kyiv is actively fighting for the support of certain governments in the West, and a change of government risks having negative consequences for such relations.

Analysts say that the topic of Ukraine has little influence on the Spanish voter.

Whereas in Germany, the UK or the US, politicians use the topic of war and peace for their purposes, and this is popular with the public, in Spain, the issue of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did not come up at all during the election campaigns for any of the candidates. 

There needs to be a consensus and agreement among Spanish elites to support Ukraine. On the contrary, Spanish society does not care about the Russia-Ukraine war enough for politicians to consider it in their campaigns.

Support for Ukraine could not significantly add or subtract from the voters’ support. Nevertheless, there is no apparent danger to Ukraine either.

Although Spain does not expect to lead Europe in security and foreign policy, Madrid has begun to support Ukraine with weapons and equipment. There will not be a breakthrough after the election.

The main thing is that both giants of Spanish politics and irreconcilable rivals PSOE and PP support assistance to Ukraine, including weapons supply. The positions of smaller forces vary and are often uncertain.

What Vox thinks about Ukraine is unclear. This party used to be suspected of being almost pro-Russian, but now there are nearly no grounds for this. They have even criticised the government for not providing enough arms to Ukraine.

Perhaps Vox’s friendship with Italy’s pro-Ukrainian Prime Minister Meloni and close ties to the Polish ruling right-wing PiS party have influenced its stance.

On the other hand, the leftists from Sumar are “for peace and against war” (without condemning Russian war aggression), and several regional parties, such as the Independents, are critical of spending Spain’s budget on arming Ukraine.

In a possible left-separatist coalition, the issue of the Ukraine-Russia war will cause active debate, and it has yet to be known whether it will be in Ukraine’s favour.

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