What happened in Spain’s snap general election?

Expected coalition between conservative People’s party and far-right Vox did not materialise. So what happens next?

What happened in Spain’s snap general election on Sunday?

Pretty much the opposite of everything the pollsters and pundits had predicted would happen. The election, called by the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, after his Spanish Socialist Workers party (PSOE) did badly in May’s regional and municipal elections, had been expected to usher in a coalition government between the conservative People’s party (PP) and the far-right Vox party. Although the PP finished first and picked up 47 more seats than in the November 2019 election, its victory over a resurgent PSOE was far narrower than had been forecast and the party failed to secure the absolute majority it had hoped for.

What about Vox?

Sunday was indisputably a bad night for the far-right party. It lost 19 seats, saw its share of the vote cut and had its chances of playing kingmaker slashed. The PP won 136 seats and Vox 33, giving them a combined total of 169 – seven seats short of the 176-seat absolute majority needed in Spain’s 350-seat congress.

How did the Spanish left do?

The PSOE picked up 122 seats – two more than it won last time – while its allies in the new leftwing Sumar coalition won 31, giving the two main parties of the Spanish left 153 seats. While the PSOE and Sumar have fewer seats than the PP and Vox, they have more options when it comes to doing deals to win the support of smaller parties as they endeavour to form a new government.

What happens next?

Both the PP’s leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, and Sánchez are going to try to put together new governments over the coming weeks. Congress will convene on 17 August and King Felipe VI will then meet party leaders to determine which candidate could win MPs’ backing to become the next prime minister. That candidate would then take part in an investiture debate followed by a vote that requires an absolute majority in Spain’s lower house (the aforementioned 176 seats). If the candidate falls short of that number, a second vote will be held 48 hours later in which a simple majority – more votes for than against – will suffice. Should that fail to happen, MPs have two months to appoint a prime minister. When those two months are up, parliament will be dissolved and new elections called for the end of the year.

So who is most likely to be able to pull together a government?

Sánchez and his allies. Feijóo’s decision to enter into more regional and municipal coalitions with the far right following May’s elections has not endeared the PP to more moderate parties, which simply won’t entertain supporting an alliance that includes Vox, an anti-feminist, anti-immigrant party that denies the existence of gender-based violence and human-made climate change. And any attempt by Feijóo to try to forge a minority government would be sunk by the PSOE’s refusal to back it or to abstain to allow it into office.

Pedro Sánchez in Madrid on election night
Pedro Sánchez (second right) in Madrid on election night. Photograph: Juan Carlos Rojas/LaPresse/Shutterstock

What are Sánchez’s options?

By enlisting the support of smaller regional parties, including the separatist Catalan Republican Left party and the pro-independence Basque party EH Bildu, the PSOE leader could potentially secure the backing of 172 MPs – enough to get him over the line in a second investiture debate. But Sánchez would also need to negotiate a deal to ensure the abstention of Junts, the hardline, centre-right pro-independence party of the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont. In another of the election’s many twists of fate, Puigdemont’s party – which spearheaded the unsuccessful push to secede from the rest of Spain almost six years ago – could find itself playing kingmaker. “We won’t make Pedro Sánchez PM in exchange for nothing,” its leader, Míriam Nogueras, warned on Sunday night.

While the PSOE may have a numerical advantage over the PP, deals with Catalan and Basque independence parties would play neatly into the hands of Sánchez’s rivals, who accuse him of being far too reliant on them. The campaign for May’s elections was dominated by the legacy of the defunct Basque terrorist group Eta after it emerged that EH Bildu – whose support the Sánchez government has enlisted in congress – was fielding 44 convicted Eta members, including seven people found guilty of violent crimes, as candidates.

Sánchez criticised Bildu’s decision – describing it as legal but “obviously indecent” – but it was swiftly seized on by his opponents, who have also attacked his government over its botched sexual offences reforms, which have led to more than 100 convicted sex offenders being granted early release.

“You’re the great electoral hope for rapists and pederasts, for mutineers, squatters, corrupt people, and now for those who used to go about in balaclavas with pistols,” Feijóo told Sánchez. “And I will never be that.”

What’s the most likely outcome?

As the PP has once again learned to its cost, it never pays to bet against Sánchez. That said, the coming weeks and months are unlikely to be easy for the socialists and their allies as they try to put together a new government. Spanish politics continues to be fragmented and another general election remains a distinct possibility. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Sunday’s vote means that the last five Spanish general elections have resulted in hung parliaments.


Sam Jones in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

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