Spain’s centre-right Citizens party, once seen as a potential kingmaker, has announced it will not run in July’s snap general election after an abysmal performance in Sunday’s regional and municipal elections, ceding its space to the triumphant conservative People’s party (PP).
Citizens attracted just 1.35% of the vote and lost its seats in 12 regional parliaments on Sunday, suggesting that the party is in its death throes. Its decline began in 2018 when it refused to back the socialists’ successful vote of no confidence in the corruption-mired PP government of Mariano Rajoy, and was exacerbated by its decision to abandon the centre ground and shift to the right.
“The message from Sunday’s regional and municipal elections has been very clear,” the party’s general secretary, Adrián Vázquez Lázara, told a press conference on Tuesday. “We have concluded that as things stand today, the Spanish people do not see us as a transformative political alternative for our country. That’s not good news for us and it’s not good news for the thousands of liberals in Spain and in Europe.”
For that reason, he added, the national committee had decided the party would not run in the next general election and would instead prepare itself “for the new political scenario”.
The party’s absence will serve to further strengthen the PP, which gobbled up Citizens’ votes on Sunday as it won an emphatic victory that prompted Spain’s Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, to call a general election five months ahead of schedule.
The PP far exceeded expectations, securing an absolute majority in the Madrid region and taking six other regions that had been run by the Socialists. Sánchez’s junior coalition partner in the far left, the anti-austerity Podemos party – who, like Citizens, once offered an alternative to the political duopoly of the Socialists and the PP – took huge losses in the elections and is currently negotiating with the new, leftwing Sumar alliance in an effort to bring together the fractured Spanish left.
Earlier on Tuesday, the PP’s leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, welcomed preliminary reports of Citizens’ decision not to run on 23 July. “In my opinion, it would be a mature and responsible thing to do – and, in the name of the Spain that is hoping for a change, I’d like to recognise that,” he said. “They have recognised Sunday’s message, which was that we can’t let even a few votes go to waste and not translate them into seats.”
Feijóo’s party succeeded in turning the regional and municipal elections into a referendum on Sánchez’s style of government, which it calls “Sanchismo” and depicts as cynical, weak, overly dependent on Basque and Catalan nationalists, and fixated on remaining in office.
Its campaign was helped by Podemos’s bungled sexual offences reforms – which have allowed more than 1,000 convicted sex offenders to have their sentences cut and more than 100 to win early release – and by the spectre of the defunct Basque terror group Eta.
The PP quickly, noisily and successfully attacked the decision of the pro-independence Basque party EH Bildu – on whom Sánchez’s minority government relies for support in congress – to field 44 convicted Eta members, including seven people found guilty of violent crimes, as candidates.
However, despite Feijóo’s buoyant tone and his glee at the prospect of ending Sanchismo five months earlier than planned, the PP will still need to rely on the support of the far-right Vox party to form new regional governments in many of the areas where it triumphed on Sunday.
Although the PP already runs the Castilla y León region in coalition with Vox, the party knows that its claims to represent the political centre could be seriously undermined by more deals with the far right. It will instead be hoping to secure Vox’s abstention in regional investiture votes rather than risk any more governing alliances in the coming weeks. But the party’s refusal to explicitly rule out any deals with Vox – either regionally or nationally – could come at a price.
Sánchez, a politician with a long history of high-stakes gambles, is hoping that his decision to call the snap election will unite and galvanise the Spanish left in the face of any possible union between the conservatives and the far right.
Among those congratulating Vox on its strong showing on Sunday were Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, whose party has neo-fascist roots, and Hungary’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who expressed his delighted at what he called the party’s “rightwing reconquest” at the polls.
Vox’s leader, Santiago Abascal, thanked Orbán for his support and said: “There are many threats to freedom and sovereignty across all of Europe, but we’ll defeat them by working together.”