Spain after the June elections: will blocking the right be enough?

For the moment, it seems that the extreme right is not gaining that many institutional positions at the state level. But it has achieved a lot of institutional power in municipalities and regions. In a state where the autonomous regions have important powers, it is conceivable that four years of regressive public policies will follow in many autonomous communities. However, at state level, the progressive block is holding. It remains to be seen how the balance of power will develop in the coming months.

There have been two important elections held in Spain in less than two months. On 28 May 2023, local and regional elections, after the result of which surprise general elections were called early. These took place on 23 July 2023.

In the following article, we set out a general analysis of the evolution of the extreme right.

In parallel, we can already see how the new regional and local governments of coalition between the conservative party (PP) and the far-right party (VOX) are operating. In terms of public policy, not even 100 days have passed, and already reactionary measures are beginning to be implemented, such as the repeal of the law of historical memory in Aragon and the quasi-denialism of the climate crisis, with a total absence of policies that fight for the protection of the environment. As for feminist policies and protection of women’s rights, VOX has twisted the arm of the Popular Party in some municipalities: victims of gender violence will no longer be classified as being in a preferential group when applying for public employment. Once again, and as we see all over the world, feminism becomes the battleground of the extreme right.

For the moment, it seems that the extreme right is not gaining that many institutional positions at the state level. But it has achieved a lot of institutional power in municipalities and regions. In a state where the autonomous regions have important powers, comparable to those of the Länder (regional governments) in Germany, it is conceivable that four years of regressive public policies will follow in many autonomous communities. However, at state level, the progressive block is holding.

It remains to be seen how the balance of power will develop in the coming months.

Amelia Martínez Lobo – Project Manager Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Madrid Liaison Office

By Àngel Ferrero (@angelferrero), journalist and translator, and Daniel Escribano (@DanielEscriba20), contributor to Catarsi and Sin Permiso.

  • In these elections, the left-wing bloc has managed to hold off the right at the gates of the Spanish government with a fragile and fractured wall of defence.
  • Vox’s aim in these elections was to get into a key role in a Spanish government, following the examples of Sweden and Finland.
  • The short-term goal of keeping the right out of office may in fact hinder more advanced social policies, if these policies become contingent on that goal, forcing the Spanish coalition government to  work according to the principle of the lesser evil.

            The elections of 23 July are proof that electoral campaigns can be crucial to the results of an election. On 29 May, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called an early general election immediately after the poor results of the municipal and regional elections, in which the Partido Popular (PP) won with 31.53% of the vote against the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), which obtained 28.12%. Unidas Podemos (UP), its coalition partner in government, lost its seats in several municipal and regional governments, most notably in Barcelona, where the candidacy representing UP’s political space, Barcelona en Comú, came third, after having held the mayor’s office, with Ada Colau, since 2015. The PP formed a government in most of the autonomous communities, either in coalition with Vox (as in the Valencia, Extremadura and Aragon), or with their support in the regional parliament (as in the Balearic Islands). These regional governments in partnership with or supported by Vox provide the PP with a model of how to gain access to Moncloa, the seat of Spain’s national government, as well as extending the PP’s power across the country. It should be remembered that since Vox’s appearance in the Andalusian Parliament in December 2018, the PP has made agreements with the far-right whenever this would get it into government. Vox itself was aiming to gain a key role in a Spanish government from these elections, following the examples of Sweden and Finland.

All in all, the calls for a tactical vote —which in Catalonia gained ground due to the campaign for abstention by sectors of the pro-independence grassroots— have strengthened the two large state-level parties, the PSOE and the PP, and point to a certain trend towards a return to the imperfect bipartisanship from which the Spanish political system seemed to have moved away after the 2015 elections. With the demise of Ciudadanos the right-wing options went from three to two parties, which had been so detrimental especially in small constituencies in the two prior elections. Most polls showed the PP would be the clear winner and predicted that it could comfortably form a government with Vox. However, as the campaign progressed, the conservatives and their media outlets saw their support falling. In the end, on election night, Alberto Núñez Feijóo’s party was the clear winner with 33.05% of the vote and 137 seats (48 seats more than in 2019). Despite having the most votes and the most seats, they lacked the capacity to form a parliamentary majority, even with Vox (12.39%), which lost 19 seats and was left with 33, and the single member of parliament obtained by the Unión del Pueblo Navarro (UPN).

Having Vox, with its aggressive Spanish chauvinist politics —calling for a strongly centralized state— present in an eventual coalition with the conservatives makes any kind of support from the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) (5 MPs) and the pro-independence Junts (7 MPs) unfeasible, particularly after the pro-independence events in Catalonia. Even Coalición Canaria (CCa), which governs with the support of the PP in the archipelago’s regional parliament, has announced that it will not approve the investiture of a president who has the support of Vox. Thus, with 31.70% of the votes and 121 seats, the PSOE candidate could reassemble his coalition, now including the green left represented in Sumar (12.31% of votes and 31 MPs).

The immediate objective of shutting out the right, which was the main mobilizing factor for the July elections (known as 23J), has been achieved for now and the so-called progressive coalition government could even come back into power. Sánchez, whose party has cultivated his reputation —at this point it could even be called a legend— of resilience, put everything on the table, and might have won. But is it enough to have achieved this goal? In a recent editorial article, Sin Permiso magazine summed up the shortcomings of the progressive coalition government that should be addressed in a new legislature as:

A continuous high-wire attempt to arbitrate between competing class interests within the limits of the ’78 regime framework (as well as the Brussels Consensus framework and NATO’s geopolitical one), in spite of the fact that these were at the root of, or aggravated, the conjunctural problems of managing the accumulated polycrisis.

This, on top of their “parking and attempting to ‘deflate’ rather than resolve the constitutional crisis in Catalonia”, a national conflict that, to paraphrase a controversial Catalan thinker, “outlives its most deluded gravediggers”.

Catalonia regains political importance

            In addition to the support of its usual partners in the previous legislature, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) (7 MPs), Euskal Herria Bildu (EH Bildu) (6 MPs), the aforementioned EAJ-PNV and the Bloque Nacionalista Galego (BNG) (1 MP), the PSOE-Sumar coalition will also need the favourable vote of at least one MP from Junts, the Catalan pro-independence right-wing, whose leader, Carles Puigdemont, is in exile in Belgium, persecuted for his activity as president of the Catalan government during the pro-independence events, and whose extradition to Spain was one of Sánchez’s 2019 general election campaign promises. The day after these latest elections, the secretary general of Junts, Jordi Turull, reiterated their conditions of an amnesty for all those convicted and prosecuted for the pro-independence process and the recognition of the Catalan people’s right to self-determination. It remains to be seen to what extent Junts holds on to these conditions in the negotiations, or whether the PSOE is capable of giving partial satisfaction to these demands.[1]

 At the time of writing, Junts and ERC have agreed to begin talks to bolster the strategic unity of the pro-independence parties in negotiations with the PSOE and Sumar. ERC has also initiated an internal consultation with its party members to determine its position in the negotiations and future agreements with the PSOE. This has arisen as the last legislature’s round-table dialogue that was supposed to settle these issues did not yield the results expected by the pro-independence parties, a fact used by Junts to inflict some damage on the ERC government in Catalonia.

The role of the left

Sumar, the party led by the Vice-President of the Government and Minister of Labour and Social Economy, Yolanda Díaz, faced the challenge of building an election-ready political organisation against the clock, as the early election call surprised it in the first stages of a “listening” programme. This challenge was not without conflict with Unidas Podemos, in particular over the exclusion of the Minister for Equality, Irene Montero, and with the traditionally more communist facets of the left, dissatisfied with both the party’s shift towards arguments closer to those of the Nordic green left or the European green parties and with the candidate selection procedure which favoured profiles they considered too expertise-based and far removed from social movements. From the point of view of Sumar, this was an attempt to distance itself from the public perception of Podemos as an all-too-often unstable and inexperienced political organisation.

Be that as it may, the state-wide  left should not ignore reality: the results have not been good. Sumar won two seats less than UP did in 2019. However, if we add to these the two obtained in the previous elections by Más País, a new green party which emerged from a split in Podemos led by Íñigo Errejón, and the one for Compromís, the centre-left Valencianist party, the total loss rises to five seats and 611,990 votes. And Sumar, which in Spanish means ’to add up’ or ‘unite’, and which was supposed to bring together most of the parties to the left of the PSOE, failed to live up to its name here. There have been those who have argued that the context “was more difficult” on this occasion — with what other context they are comparing it is something they are hesitant to clarify. It is worth remembering that some of the members and sympathizers of this political space, whether from government institutions or from their positions of influence in some prominent media outlets, have contributed to generating this very context and, consequently, they cannot duck their own responsibility for the results.

In the Basque Country, EH Bildu once again obtained good results and snatched a seat from EAJ-PNV, strengthening its objective to consolidate a pro-independence bloc. After celebrating the second best results in the history of a left-wing nationalist candidacy in a Spanish general election, EH Bildu’s general coordinator, Arnaldo Otegi, has already stated that his priority will be to “prevent the right-wing from governing”. However, to understand the coalition’s actions in parliament, it needs bearing in mind that one of its priorities is to improve the situation of Basque prisoners from the years of armed conflict with the state, and this task is more achievable with a government similar to the current one than with a right-wing national government.

In Catalonia, on the other hand, the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) was especially affected by the calls for a tactical vote against the reactionary bloc on one side, and for abstention by a sector of the pro-independence rank and file on another, and lost its two parliamentary seats. For this group, a period of rethinking and perhaps reestablishing the party has begun. Indeed, the turnout in Catalonia was 65.42%, four points lower than in 2019, and abstention particularly affected the pro-independence parties, which fell from having 23 members of parliament to 14, falling below one million votes for the first time since the beginning of the pro-independence process. [2]

In Galicia, for its part, the BNG just managed to maintain its parliamentary representation, in the face of a clear victory for the PP (43.14%). And the anti-capitalists of Adelante Andalucía (AA), like the CUP, failed to win parliamentary representation.

Perspectives for the left

A repeat of the progressive coalition government could certainly provide Sumar the opportunity to bring in transformative measures and advance its programme on social and labour rights and environmental policies, at the same time giving it the time it still needs to define and consolidate itself as an organization. According to Gustavo Buster (pseudonym of Agustín Santos Maraver, former Spanish ambassador to the UN and Sumar’s number two), Daniel Raventós and Miguel Salas (authors of the Sin Permiso editorial article cited above), Sumar

Continues to be a confederal coalition, with a small ‘umbrella’ organisation of the same name, which must exercise political leadership from the parliamentary group, while developing new democratic structures and coordinating the existing ones across the territory, bringing together the whole political space to the left of the PSOE in a coherent way.

This, however, is not a risk-free task. Not only is the correlation of forces in the coalition government now more unfavourable to the left, but the tensions that arose during the process of forming Sumar haven’t gone away, as we can see in the statements made by Podemos secretary general Ione Belarra the very next day after the elections, blaming the loss of votes on Díaz for “renouncing feminism” —in a veiled reference to Montero’s aforementioned exclusion— and for “marginalizing Podemos”. The former secretary general of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, twisted the knife in the wound the following day, stating that many people did not understand the “cruelty” of the “unilateral” and “unfair” veto of Montero, and calling for a primary round in the event of a repeat election. Moreover, they will face a strengthened right-wing bloc – despite current doubts from some of their supporters over the leaderships of Núñez Feijóo and Vox’s Santiago Abascal because of their results— along with a well-oiled political and media machine which won’t miss a chance to attack the executive, as well as Basque and Catalan demands for greater autonomy and progress towards the exercise of the right to self-determination. All this on top of likely pressure from Brussels for austerity measures to contain the economic problems affecting the continent. The short-term goal of keeping the right out of office may actually end up putting the brakes on more advanced social policies, if those policies become contingent on that goal, forcing the Spanish coalition government to work according to the principle of the lesser evil. We are very familiar with the consequences of this from other clear precedents, including that of the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (PSOE) in its second legislature (2008-2011).

In these elections, the left-wing bloc has managed to hold off the right at the gates of the Spanish government with a fragile and fractured wall of defence. The question is whether it will hold for the next four years, if indeed it is able to retain legislative power. Strengthening it will depend not only on the government’s own action; the left will have to understand its unfortunate tendency, especially during the previous legislature, of falling into “parliamentary cretinism”, to use the old expression to describe the delusion that everything can be resolved in a legislative chamber. It will need to strengthen its presence and action in the social movements and trade unions, which have excused the meagre social protest of the last four years so as not to damage the central government. And it is worth noting that the socio-economic conditions for protest are not lacking, as shown by the fall in real wages, which has stood at 7% since 2008, and has been exacerbated by the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

[1] With regard to these claims, it should be noted that amnesty is not constitutionally prohibited. However, if the government considers it too politically costly, it has the power to give instructions to the Public Prosecutor’s Office (Article 8.1 of the Organic Statute of the Public Prosecutor’s Office), including requesting the dismissal of the proceedings underway related to the ‘procés’ or the acquittal of the accused. It is also in line with the Constitution for Congress to call a “consultative referendum” on self-determination in Catalonia (Art. 92.2); to transfer the power to call it to Catalan autonomous institutions (under Article 150.2); or for the Catalan Parliament to call a non-binding referendum. As Francisco Rubio Llorente, former vice-president of the Constitutional Court, has pointed out, this would serve to quantify the extent of the desire for independence in Catalonia and the degree of need to undertake a process of constitutional reform that would enable a binding referendum to be held.

[2] It is worth remembering that Catalan independence did not become a government option until very recently, which makes its grassroots particularly vulnerable to ‘magical thinking’. The short-lived Solidaritat Catalana per la Independència party and, above all, Junts pel Sí, the “transversal” list imposed by the then president of the Generalitat, the conservative liberal Artur Mas, for the autonomous regional elections, which were billed as a plebiscite on independence, managed to establish the idea among the less politicized rank and file that an express and painless path to independence was possible. The ultimate expression of this was the “roadmap” to obtain it in 18 months, which did not address the undemocratic nature of the Spanish state in terms of territorial unity, and the resistance it would face. The extensive police and judicial repression since 2017, with the use of all kinds of lawfare mechanisms, has demonstrated that only too well. Once the pro-independence electorate realized that the two major pro-independence parties prioritize the Realpolitik of autonomic management – whether openly admitting it (ERC) or hiding it behind a ‘confrontation’ that does not go beyond rhetoric and symbolism (Junts) -, parts of their rank and file opted for an equally magical abstentionism that, in reality, paved the way for the victory of the pro-Spanish parties, especially the PSC (the Catalan party federated with the PSOE), which also benefited from the tactical vote against the reactionary bloc.