With the final polls of the campaign indicating a modest right wing majority, John Boyce assesses the coalitions’ chances of survival in the upcoming general election.
It was the most hotly anticipated political event of the spring.
In April, after months of speculation, Spain’s newest political party, Sumar, was officially unveiled to an enthusiastic crowd of 5000 supporters in Madrid.
The new unity platform led by a prominent cabinet minister looks set to seriously upend the status quo on the Spanish left when the country goes to the polls in July.
Less certain, but more intriguing, is whether Yolanda Diaz’s new formation can do enough to halt the general slide in left wing fortunes.
Spain’s current progressive coalition is composed of the centre left socialist party (PSOE) and their radical left junior partner Unidas Podemos (UP). Together they form the nucleus of a minority administration, twenty odd seats shy of a majority.
They frequently rely on up to six smaller parties, including Catalan and Basque separatists, to pass legislation. The so-called “Frankenstein coalition” is the result of an increasingly fragmented political landscape, in which single party majorities are a thing of the past.
Mathematically the weakest administration since Spain ́s return to democracy, the key to its durability has been separatist´s fear of the alternative; a coalition of the centre right popular party (PP) and far right Vox.
Once upon a time Catalan and Basque separatists were happy to cut deals with the PP, but post the 2017 Catalan referendum debacle and the rise of the far right, such deals are now unthinkable, creating something of a conundrum for the mainstream right.
Vox is now essential to the PPs ́ governing ambitions but leaves them friendless in the regions, requiring the two parties to reach a majority on their own, a harder task than it used to be in these polarised times.
However, multiple crises, from COVID and inflation, to the energy crisis and Ukraine, have taken their toll on the current government, and most recent polls point to an overall majority for a putative right wing coalition.
Sumar is the brainchild of the current Minister of labour, Yolanda Díaz, a relative unknown when she first entered government four years ago. A labour lawyer by profession, Díaz comes from a staunchly left wing family of trade unionist activists, steeped in anti-Franco activism.
She followed her father into the Spanish communist party at a young age, and still remains a member. Elected to the regional parliament in her native Galicia in 2012, Díaz moved to the national stage as part of the Podemos coalition of leftist groups which came from nowhere to win 69 seats in the Spanish parliament in 2015.
Díaz has been the undisputed star of the current administration, earning a reputation as a savvy negotiator, and someone who gets things done. Those things include unprecedented rises in the minimum wage and introducing the groundbreaking “Riders Law” which saw Spain becoming the first EU country to force the likes of Uber and Just Eat to recognise digital platform workers as employees.
The law has been so successful in Spain that plans are afoot to instigate a similar measure across the European Union in 2024. She also made strides in tackling the endemic Spanish problem of employment precarity, born of the country’s huge reliance on seasonal tourism, winning praise from as unlikely sources as the Financial Times. Díaz is regularly voted the most popular politician in the country, and attracts support from across the spectrum.
The Sumar platform is an attempt to parley this popularity into a concrete power base, and Díaz is open about her ambition to be Spain’s first female prime minister. While that is highly unlikely in the short term, her new political gambit may yet hold the key to a second term for the current coalition.
Sumar in Spanish means to add up, or amalgamate, and Díaz´s aim is to unite the disparate forces to the left of PSOE, which in recent years have been riven by factionalism, and consequently punished at the ballot box.
To date Díaz has managed to bring more than a dozen left leaning groups under the Sumar banner, including greens and some regional parties. As David Torres, political commentator for left leaning newspaper El Publico explains, many of these smaller entities have bought into the Díaz argument that “when your political programmes are 90% compatible you have an obligation to travel the road together if you really want to make change”.
Díaz´s evident popularity – her months-long nationwide listening tour attracted enthusiastic crowds – is undoubtedly key in the decision to coalesce around her.
After protracted negotiations and no little rancour over the exclusion of controversial minister of equality, Erene Montero, from the list of Sumar candidates, Unidas Podemos, the largest entity in the far left ecosystem, agreed to join the unity platform.
The party was left with little choice in the aftermath of disastrous local election results, for the left in general and Podemos in particular. Surveys also showed Sumar comfortably outperforming UP, was another factor that concentrated minds within the party and pushed them towards an agreement.
A unified candidate has the potential to maximise leftist votes in a system that tends to punish smaller parties. According to political scientist Alejandro Rodríguez, this is largely down to the inequities of the Spanish version of the D´hondt electoral system. “A 14/15 % vote share is the threshold above which votes are efficiently converted into seats. Parties which fall below that are significantly penalised”.
While unity may boost Sumar standing among leftist voters, depriving the right of their coveted overall majority will also require bumping up turnout, a perennial problem for the left whose lower propensity voters are often as likely to sit out an election as switch allegiance between the centre left and more radical left options.
To have any hope of remaining prime minister, PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez needs hard left voters, who would never vote for his own party, to come out strongly for allies to his left, rather than stay at home.
Thus a key question is whether Sumar will simply cannabalise the votes of other left wing parties, or has the capacity to significantly boost turnout by enthusing low propensity and apathetic voters, thus wresting a crucial half dozen seats or so from the right.
Final polls show Sumar edging ever closer to the far right Vox in the battle for third place. The winner of that particular contest might yet prove crucial in determining the survival of the frankenstein coalition.