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Whither Spain? The July 2023 General Election Results and Beyond

A period of uncertainty is unfolding in Spain following the general election held on July 23. The election offered a surprise result: a bitter victory for the conservative opposition Popular Party (PP) led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo, who received the most votes, and a sweet defeat for the current Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez. Unexpectedly, the question facing Spaniards following the election is not whether a conservative/far-right PP-Vox coalition would bring a significant lurch to the right, and the European implications this might have. Instead, what is now in doubt is whether Spain will be able to have a government at all in the near future.

Initially scheduled for December, Sánchez decided to bring the general election forward after his Socialist Party (PSOE) performed badly in the local and regional elections held on May 28. Feijóo’s PP largely succeeded in turning the May elections into a referendum on Sánchez’s progressive coalition government, formed by the PSOE and the far-left Unidas Podemos (UP), which has governed Spain since early 2020. The populist far-right Vox party more than doubled its share of local councilors, allowing it to play a significant role in cities where the PP needed its votes to take office, which was also true of several regional governments. At the opposite end of the spectrum, parties to the left of the PSOE suffered from bitter disputes that have bedeviled them in recent months.

The leader of the PP thus faced the snap elections with the wind in his sails, with most polls showing his party comfortably in the lead. However, the expectations generated during the campaign were largely unfulfilled. Despite being the winner in both votes (33 percent) and seats (136 out of 350 in the Congress of Deputies, 47 more than the PP currently had), Feijóo did not achieve his main goal: to ensure a change of government. This was largely because Vox performed worse than expected, winning only 12 percent of the vote and 33 seats, as compared to the 52 they currently held. The PP and VOX are thus 6 seats short of the absolute majority of 176.

By contrast, and true to the title of his autobiography (A Resistance Handbook), Sánchez performed far better than expected, winning 31 percent of the vote and 121 seats, improving on his 2019 results. Following an intense campaign which managed to mobilize the left, with the help of Sumar (the far-left platform which absorbed Unidas Podemos), which won 12 percent of the vote and 31 seats, the prime minister might now be able to re-edit the progressive coalition he has been governing with thanks to the support of several smaller regional parties.

With the left and right blocs running almost neck and neck in their race to get as close as possible to 176 seats, the next weeks will be marked by a great uncertainty, in which the possible pacts within both blocs will have to be settled. A new parliament will convene on August 17, after which King Felipe VI will invite the leader of the largest party to attempt to form a government. (In a similar situation in 2015, PP leader Mariano Rajoy declined the king’s invitation, claiming he could not muster the necessary support.) In the first instance, Feijóo will probably attempt to form a single-party government with the support of Vox and a handful of smaller partners but is unlikely to succeed.

The king will then make the same offer to Prime Minister Sánchez. This will give him an opportunity to re-edit his progressive coalition, which would require the support of Junts per Catalunya, the separatist party that won seven seats, led by Carles Puigdemont, the former president of Catalonia living in exile in Belgium. However, it is difficult to see what Sánchez could offer in return for their backing, given that a referendum on Catalan independence, their alleged goal, would be incompatible with the Spanish constitution. Interestingly, Catalan national parties performed rather poorly in this election, allowing the Socialists to emerge as the largest party in Catalonia after winning 19 seats in the Congress of Deputies, up from 12 in 2019.

The constitution does not set a deadline for this complex process, but if no candidate secures a majority within two months of the first vote in parliament in an attempt to form a government, new elections must be held. Those who had predicted the beginning of a new scenario of political change in Spain will thus have to wait for the time being, and a repetition of the elections before the end of the year (or in early 2024) cannot be excluded.

Overall, this election offers several interesting insights into Spanish politics today. The first is that Spanish voters remain fundamentally moderate and have largely turned their backs on extremist parties. Additionally, the two largest parties, PP and PSOE, are once again attracting over 60 percent of the vote, partly as a result of the demise of the centrist party, Ciudadanos. Between them, the two parties collected 13 million votes, one and a half million more than they attracted four years ago. On July 23, more than 15 million votes (64 percent of the total) went to the two major parties, something unthinkable in other European countries, where political fragmentation is more marked. It is perhaps possible, therefore, to glimpse a gradual return to a party system increasingly dominated by the two major parties, as in the past. Finally, the very respectable voter turnout, over 70 percentabove the EU average, suggests that Spaniards have considerable faith in their representative institutions.

Europe and Beyond

It is not known if European socialists were confident in Sánchez’s last-minute comeback, but they had certainly feared that his defeat would be a turning point for the far right, and not just in Spain. In the words of former British prime minister Gordon Brown, Vox’s presence in a coalition government would have meant “a political earthquake that will be felt on the continent in the middle of the Spanish presidency of the Council of the European Union.”

Vox’s poor performance could have repercussions far beyond the Iberian Peninsula, since its leader, Santiago Abascal, had been publicly endorsed by the prime ministers of Italy, Poland, and Hungary. In fact, the formation of a government in which Vox would have had a major say could have given European right-wing parties enormous weight in the European Council, with more than 35 percent of the vote, thus exceeding the threshold that allows them to block European Commission initiatives. The Spanish setback, however, breaks a wave of continued successes for right-wing populist parties in government in Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Czechia, and with considerable weight in Finland and Sweden. This should allow European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen a more tranquil end to her term, allowing her to complete key initiatives such as the energy transition.

Spain currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union, but domestic uncertainty is unlikely to affect the day-to-day management of the European Union’s institutions. Even if it takes longer than usual to form a government, or if fresh elections are finally held later this year, the acting executive, which will remain in office, will be in a position to guarantee the presidency’s success. Most importantly, Spain is the most consistently pro-EU large member state, and PSOE and PP share broadly similar views of the European project. Furthermore, the two main contenders belong to the political families that have largely dominated the European Parliament over the years, namely the European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats.

In the long term, Spanish foreign policy will also remain largely unchanged regardless of the ideological orientation of the next government. Should the outcome be a coalition government between PSOE and Sumar, its foreign policy would be very similar to that implemented by the Sánchez government in recent years. Sumar has barely had time to define a foreign policy platform of its own, but may be said to be strongly in favor of deeper European integration, with a greater emphasis on social and environmental policy.

In the event of a rerun election that might result in a coalition government between the PP and Vox, foreign policy is expected to be defined by the senior partner, as has been the case in the current left-wing coalition. And if Sánchez has not allowed his coalition arrangements with UP to influence Spanish foreign policy, it is highly likely that Feijóo would act similarly regarding Vox.

Consequently, a PP-led government would not introduce significant changes to Spain’s current preferences and policy priorities in Europe, such as the quest for open strategic autonomy or the need for new fiscal rules. Nor would there be any changes with respect to the bilateral relationship with the United States, with which a new Joint Declaration was signed in June 2022, and which will be reinforced with the arrival next year of two more destroyers at the Spanish base in Rota.

Equally important, a change of government would in no way undermine Spain’s very robust support for Ukraine, which led it to spend 0.4 percent of GDP in economic, military, and humanitarian support in 2022. Furthermore, the Sánchez government had already agreed to increase defense spending in 2023 by 26 percent in response to Russia’s unwarranted aggression, a policy the PP fully endorses. The highly successful Madrid summit held in June 2022 allowed Sánchez to showcase his strong support for NATO despite his coalition partners’ somewhat lukewarm attitude toward the Atlantic Alliance, as well as his proximity to the Biden administration. A PP government would be just as supportive of NATO and would no doubt honor Sánchez’s recent pledge to deploy Spanish troops in Slovakia and Romania to bolster NATO’s eastern front, in addition to those already present in the Baltic region.

With few exceptions, a PP-led coalition government with Vox would therefore largely respect the broad foreign policy orientation of its predecessor. The most visible change of course would probably be a tougher stance toward Morocco, and a return to a more neutral and UN-aligned position advocating the Sahrawi people’s right to national self-determination. It would therefore reverse Sánchez’s decision to accept Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara; similarly, Vox would probably try to ensure that a coalition government would be firmer in its support for Spain’s two North African enclaves, the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla. In turn, this might allow Madrid to restore its badly damaged relations with Algeria, which could once again become a major supplier of natural gas. Similarly, a PP-led government might be expected to take a tougher line with Gibraltar, particularly since the United Kingdom and Spain have not yet reached an agreement on its post-Brexit status. Finally, a conservative government would probably seek to strengthen Spain’s ties with Latin America and is likely to drop the so-called feminist foreign policy orientation of the current government.

Returning to the short term and the more immediate consequences of the elections, it is worth mentioning that an acting government faces certain limitations. For example, it would not be able to approve a general state budget, and the previous one would have to be rolled over. Similarly, it could not present major bills to the Congress or the Senate, nor could it introduce significant changes to Spain’s international agenda.

To conclude, the Spanish general election has not produced the results many had predicted. The most likely outcome is perhaps a reedition of the existing progressive coalition, which would at least guarantee considerable continuity. Even if early elections were to prove necessary, however, the acting Sánchez government would still be in a position to ensure that the Spanish presidency of the Council of the European Union will proceed as planned.

Source : csis