11th Dec 2023

Spanish election: Conservatives resist call for change

  • Rajoy presented himself as an economic safe choice after four years of austerity (Photo: PP)

Spanish conservatives are expected to cling to power after Sunday’s (20 December) general election, despite much change in Spain’s political landscape.

The last authorised opinion polls published on Monday (14 December) gave a narrow lead to the Popular Party (PP) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy, with between 25-30 percent of voting intentions.

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  • Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera could be the kingmaker in the new government (Photo: Ciudadanos)

The Socialist Party (PSOE) trails with just over 20 percent. It is closely followed by Spain’s two upstart parties: the centre-right Ciudadanos, with around 20 percent, and far-left Podemos with just under 20 percent.

If intentions are confirmed in ballot boxes, the PP would lose its absolute majority in the parliament. The expected outcome is either a minority or a coalition government. Such a situation would be new to national governance in Spain.

“With the current poll numbers it will be hard for a minority government to govern with a different political agreement for every piece of legislation,” Ignacio Lago, an associate professor of political science at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, told EUobserver.

In this uncertain configuration, Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera will probably be the kingmaker in the new government whether it is right or left.

“It is interesting to see how Ciudadanos stands ideologically between PSOE and PP, making it able to support one or the other,” Lago said.

The party currently governs with the PSOE in Andalusia and with the PP in the Madrid region.

Four-party contest

The rise of Ciudadanos and Podemos is related to the struggles of the PP, and before it, the PSOE, to deal with the economic crisis and the high unemployment rates since 2008. This has been coupled with some high-level corruption cases affecting both mainstream parties.

Although the Spanish economy is picking up again, 21.6 percent of the Spanish work force is unemployed, including almost 50 percent of young people.

Eighteen percent of the Spanish population also lives below the poverty line, twice as many as before the crisis, according to the OECD. At the same time, the number of people with large fortunes in Spain has grown by 40 percent in the last seven years.

As a consequence, the two-party system which has dominated Spain since the end of Franco’s dictatorship in the late 1970s has become a four-party contest.

In 2014, the newly-established Podemos party obtained over 1 million votes in the European elections. The party arose from the Spanish "indignados" movement. Its campaign harnessed popular anger at the government’s spending cuts on health care, education, and social security.

Ciudadanos, originally active just in Catalonia, went national this year and campaigned for the reform and modernisation of Spain, as well as lower corporate taxes.


Both Podemos and Ciudadanos are outspoken on a crackdown on corruption.

A string of both low- and high-level cases linked to established political parties across the country have come to light in the last eight years, boosting support for the new parties.

“The many cases of corruption have been seen by the citizens as hardly democratic. It is a problem of political representation,” Ignacio Lago told EUobserver. “And it is the fundamental reason for the political changes.”

Meanwhile, Rajoy has been reluctant to acknowledge the success of the newcomers. He refused to appear in election debates with Rivera and Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias and participated only in a debate with his socialist opponent Pedro Sanchez.

Rajoy presented himself as an economic safe choice after four years of austerity. “Who speaks today about a bailout, the recession or unemployment?” he asked during the debate.

“Social policy requires a good economic policy because that is what generates resources,” he noted, adding that “there was no money left, only defaults,” when PSOE left power in 2011.

Sanchez, for his part, accused Rajoy of failing to be “decent” and said he should have quit over the corruption scandal involving the PP’s former treasurer, Luis Barcenas.

The socialist candidate also said the consequence of Rajoy’s labour market reform was that “parents see how their children are picking up their passport and migrating. If they stay, they are unemployed or exploited.”

Voting system

Despite yearning for alternatives, Spanish voters are likely to reelect the prime minister.

It is not only because voters let their politicians too easily off the hook, Lago noted. It is also because the voting system favours Rajoy’s conservatives.

“We always talk about the percentage of votes, but the percentage of votes is not the same as the percentage of seats,” the analyst said.

“The Spanish electoral system favours the two main parties and especially the Popular Party. Both PSOE and PP will get an over-representation in terms of seats and Podemos will be severely penalised,” he said.

Unchanged since 1977, the electoral system over-represents smaller provinces to the detriment of the most populated areas, such as Madrid and Barcelona, both governed by leftist coalitions.

“The smaller the district, the more rural, conservative and religious it is - that improves the results of PP,” Lago said, adding that there are many small constituencies in Spain.

Both Ciudadanos and Podemos are supporters of changing the electoral system one way or another.


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