29th Sep 2023

Spaniards face stark choice in Sunday's snap election

  • The rightwing Partido Popular (PP), led by the conservative leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo, has already confirmed a potential coalition with far-right Vox should he fall short of an absolute majority (Photo: European People's Party)
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Spanish voters will hit the polls on Sunday (23 July) for a snap general election — with a potential shift in power looming large.

Given the school summer holidays, over 2.6 million people have already applied for postal voting, indicating a potentially high overall turnout.

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  • The far-right Vox party, led by Santiago Abascal, openly promotes the 'abolition of all gender legislation' in its manifesto (Photo: Vox España)

In this pivotal electoral contest, Spaniards will decide whether to keep the socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez's minority government — or grant their backing to the rightwing Partido Popular (PP), led by the conservative leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo, who has already confirmed a potential coalition with far-right Vox should he fall short of an absolute majority.

Final opinion polls on Monday showed that Núñez Feijóo would come top, gathering over a third of the votes (around 140 seats) — but failing to secure an outright majority of 176 seats in the country's 350-member lower house.

Depending on the number of seats obtained by the PP, Núñez Feijóo will have to either make a coalition government with anti-feminist, anti-migration, far-right Vox or request an abstention of Sánchez's socialists to secure a government without Vox.

Núñez Feijóo's political campaign has expressed a preference for the latter option — since forming a coalition with Vox could lead to challenges and complications throughout the next legislative term.

Despite Sánchez's rejection of abstaining in favour of the PP, this remains a possibility for forming a government, potentially avoiding involvement with the far-right faction.

In the event that the opinion polls were wrong, and Sanchez's PSOE secures more seats than currently predicted, Sanchez in turn will have to make a coalition government with Sumar, a new alliance of far-left groups that includes Unidas Podemos, the previous coalition partner. Feminist, leftwing and environmental party Sumar is led by labour minister Yolanda Díaz, which has gained support for her anti-austerity policy and labour reforms.

Following Europe's trend

The outcome of Spain's general election will have significant implications for the country's political landscape, but also for Europe and the upcoming EU elections.

A hypothetical coalition between PP and the far-right party Vox will add Spain to the list of countries where far-right parties are in the government, either on their own (for example, in Poland and Hungary) or forming a coalition (Italy and Finland).

Such a coalition is likely to raise concerns about human rights, migration, social welfare and regionalism, such as Catalonia — with experts warning that this could also have an impact in Europe.

"Vox in government would probably push PP away from its more moderate views on things like climate legislation and gender equality. But I don't think we should worry too much — for now," Camino Mortera Martínez from the Centre for European Reform (CER), a think tank, told EUobserver.

She argues that even if Vox manage to get into government with one or two seats in the cabinet, that will not be enough to undermine Spain's historic pro-European attitude.

Amidst the mounting political pushback against green, women and workers' rights proposals, such as has already been seen in some EU countries and parts of the European Parliament (which is expected to tilt even more to the right after the 2024 elections), Mortera Martínez also says that "a PP-Vox coalition would fit right with the coming zeitgeist".

And indeed, Spain currently holds the EU Council presidency until 31 December.

Depending on the outcome of the elections, Spanish lawmakers may be more focused on internal affairs and national politics, potentially diverting attention from developments in Brussels.

But technical work in the council is not expected to be affected by a change in the government.

Brake on green and social laws

Meanwhile, any PP-Vox coalition is also likely to trigger a brake on the country's green transition as well as social and labour improvements.

Just a few weeks ago, the conservative leader Feijóo declared in Brussels that he would respect the labour reform pushed by the left coalition. In a year and a half, this landmark initiative has managed to increase the number of employees covered by social security, reduce misused temporary contracts and cut high levels of unemployment.

However, the PP's electoral programme makes no mention of the labour reform, while Vox talks of withdrawing the socialist-led reform and introducing a new one.

Critics also have raised concerns over the impact that a rightwing government would have on the country's greening economy efforts.

For example, a conservative government would also see the end of the so-called 'Iberian exception' energy price cap.

In addition, policy efforts to protect nature in the Iberian peninsula are also expected to face opposition if a change of government takes place.

Earlier this year, PP and Vox pushed to legalise, in the Andalusian parliament, irrigation in a section of the Doñana Wetland National Park — a widespread illegal practice that has put the Natura 2000 site, protected under EU law, and its ecosystem under immense pressure.

Meanwhile, tensions in the Catalan region could be exacerbated under a conservative government which is expected to take a firm stance on issues related to pro-independence movements.

On the tax front, the PSOE and Unidas Podemos' path of temporarily taxing large fortunes and levying taxes on the profits of energy companies or banks would be completely reversed.

A PP-Vox coalition would do the opposite: significantly lower taxes. The far-right party even proposes to abolish wealth and inheritance taxes.

Historic first?

In 2020, Spain finally broke its long-standing two-party hierarchy — with a coalition between Sánchez socialists and the left-wing Podemos party.

PP and Vox have already formed controversial pacts in different Spanish regions (for example, Extremadura, Valencia, and Baleares) — following the results of last May's regional elections which prompted Sanchez to call for snap elections.

But it would be a historic first if Vox and PP formed a national-level coalition.

The Vox party, founded in 2013, won 12 seats in the regional parliament of Andalusia in 2018, becoming the first far-right group to triumph in the ballots since the Franco era.

Vox seeks to exploit the centre-right's PP softer line in certain policies, plus pushing back against the rise of the socialist government after 2004 which boosted social rights (including a same-sex marriage law) — and as a nationalist response against the Basque and Catalan separatism movements.

If they entered into the government, one of the most significant social fears is the possible regression of the rights achieved by women and the LGTBIQ+ community over the past years.

The Vox political programme openly includes the "abolition of all gender legislation" as one of its measures to ensure "equality for Spaniards".

Despite the removal of rainbow flags from several city councils where the PP and Vox govern in coalition, Feijóo's party sought to distance itself from the far-right's messages on Pride Day (28 June) by issuing a manifesto in which "we reaffirm our commitment to policies that combat LGTBI-phobia".

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