Key Takeaways From Spain´s J23 Election

In the aftermath of surprising results in last Sunday’s general election, John Boyce examines the fallout from 23J

After a hard fought campaign, a bad-tempered leaders debate and much overblown rhetoric, Spain’s first summer election campaign came to a close at the weekend. A record number of citizens voted by mail, and despite the soaring July temperatures, turnout was almost 4% higher than in 2019 at over 70%.

It was a night of surprises, disappointment and relief, depending on your political world view, and leaves Spain facing months of uncertainty as to whether a new government can be formed. 

A pyrrhic victory for the PP

A succession of very positive poll numbers and party leader Feijoo’s victory in the head to head debate with Sanchez fuelled increasingly high expectations for the Popular Party. As the campaign entered its final days there was even wild talk of getting close enough to the magic number of 176 sets as to not need far right Vox in government at all.

However, with their reliance on the far right leaving them friendless in the regions, that was always going to be a tall order, and so it proved to be.

The PP substantially increased its representation but even when combined with Vox still fell seven seats short of the coveted absolute majority. In his delusional post election speech, Feijoo put a brave face on the result, but couldn’t escape the reality of Spain’s parliamentary system; being the largest party is all well and good but doesn’t butter any parsnips if you can’t put together a majority.

In an excruciatingly embarrassing moment for Feijoo, the crowd outside party headquarters interrupted his hastily improvised speech with chants of “Ayuso Ayuso”, a reference to the pugnacious Community of Madrid president, widely tipped as a future party leader.

All of which begs the ominous question; in the event of a second election, will Feijoo survive long enough as party leader to fight it?. 

The night the far right fell to earth 

After half a decade of exponential growth at regional and national level, and a month spent wheeling and dealing for entry into several regional governments, the far right suffered its first  major reverse.

Having previously benefited from Spain’s d’Hondt electoral system, which rewards parties on the up, this time out the party suffered from its tendency to kick parties when they are down. Though Vox shed less than three percent of their 2019 vote (from 15% to just over 12%) they lost more than a third of their seats, falling from 52 to 33. 

While all the polls predicted some loss of seats as right wing voters migrated to the Popular party, a phenomenon known in Spain as “ el voto util” the “useful vote”, Vox was consoled by the prospect of becoming king makers in a national administration.

Its disappointing performance now potentially reduces it to complete irrelevancy at national level for the next four years.

In any normal party, their bombastic leader Santiago Abascal would already be toast, but given Vox’s particularly hierarchical structures and antipathy towards any kind of self reflection, it is unlikely that Abascal will be going anywhere any time soon.

Never leave Pedro Sanchez for dead.

Since his surprising comeback as leader of the socialist party PSOE back in 2017, Pedro Sanchez has proven to be the most resilient politician in Spain’s recent political history.

Calling a snap general election in the wake of disastrous local election results in May was his biggest gamble yet, and one that few, even those in his own party, believed he could pull off.

For any party to increase its vote share and seats after four years in power is an achievement in itself, but given the torrid four years that PSOE has put down, from COVID and the energy crisis to inflation and Ukraine, the result is little short of miraculous. 

Sanchez had banked on two key scenarios that appear to have come to pass. During their M28 election post mortem, PSOE calculated that more than half a million habitual socialist voters stayed at home, but believed that with the fate of the entire nation at stake on July 23rd, at least some of this cohort would return to the fold.

A key PSOE theme throughout the campaign was the spectre of the far right entering national government, with Sanchez hoping that the sight of the PP doing deals with Vox in autonomous regions around the country would bring out his base in an effort to block a similar arrangement at national level. 

Frankenstein 2.0 or fresh elections

With both the Basque national party (PNV) and Vox  now officially rejecting any notion of working together in a putative right wing coalition (always a non-starter given Vox stated desire to criminalize secessionist parties), what little hope the Poplar Party had of cobbling together a working majority has all but evaporated.

Although, as the official winners of the election, the king will give first dibs to Feijoo on government formation, it will be little more an exercise in going through the motions.

Unless the counting of the votes of the Spanish diaspora on Friday leads to a significant reallocation of seats (highly unlikely as they traditionally tend to favour the left), there are only two realistic scenarios; a renewal of the current progressive coalition or fresh elections at the end of the year. 

Negotiations to put together Frankenstein 2.0 will be both more and less complicated than in 2019. Back then disagreement between PSOE and Podemos over the creation of the first formal coalition in Spain since the 1930s led to a second election.

With that rubicon now firmly crossed an agreement between Sanchez and Sumar leader Yolanda Diaz should be relatively straightforward. Both Basque parties, EH Bildu and PNV, as well as the leftist Catalan separatists (ERC) are also likely to get on board with a minimum of fuss.

The new wrinkle this time out is the required abstention of Junts per Catalunya, the more hard line, right wing Catalan separatists, who were not part of the previous arrangement. The party has already named an independence referendum in the lifetime of the next parliament as the price of its support, something which PSOE simply cannot concede.

However, one suspects that when push comes to shove, Junts will reluctantly facilitate Sanchez’s investiture rather than risk being blamed for handing the PP and the reviled Vox party another bite at the cherry.

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