Monday

20th Jan 2020

Spain undecided and divided ahead of Sunday's election

  • Spain's traditional two-party system has given way to a political spectrum with now five parties fighting over voters. Here Unidos Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias (l) and PSOE prime minister Pedro Sanchez (r). (Photo: Podemos)

Spain will head for the ballot boxes this Sunday (28 April) to elect a new government, in an election that is seen as the country's most fragmented and unclear vote.

Fragmented, because Spain's traditional two-party system has given way to a political spectrum with now five parties fighting over voters. And unclear, because around 40 percent of voters are still undecided on who to vote for.

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  • It is the third general election in just four years in Spain. (Photo: Helena Spongenberg)

Plus, it is the third general election in just four years in Spain - the fourth biggest economy in the Eurozone.

According to the polls, the social democrats (PSOE) led by the current prime minister Pedro Sanchez, is expected to win around 30 percent of the vote, and increase its seat count, but without enough votes for an outright majority.

Sanchez came to power ten months ago after a multi-party motion of no-confidence took down Mariano Rajoy's conservative Partido Popular (PP) government, over corruption in his party.

The PP and its new leader Pablo Casado, on the other hand, are expected to lose several seats, getting around 20 percent of the votes, compared to 33 percent in the last election. Some of the party's hardline conservative supporters are opting for far-right party Vox, expected to get around 11 percent of the vote.

Spain is therefore set to join the list of European countries with a far-right party gaining more that one seat in the legislative arena, for the first time since the country's peaceful transition into a democracy from a fascist dictatorship in the late 1970s.

Centre-right Ciudadanos and the leftist Podemos tie, on around 14 percent of the votes, according to the polls, and slightly lower than the last election in 2016.

Vote first, negotiate after

But without a majority for any parties, the hard work seems to come after the election, when whoever wins the most votes, must start negotiations to find support for a government.

If it does fall on Sanchez, he would need to govern in a minority, or form a coalition, which is still uncharted territory for a Spanish national government.

If he would go for a leftist alliance he would need support from Unidos Podemos led by Pablo Iglesias, and probably also from the nationalist parties in the Basque and Catalan regions.

It was in fact the lack of support from the Catalan nationalist parties for the 2019 budget that led to the early calls for elections back in February.

Sanchez could also go for a more left-centre government with the Ciudadanos, but its leader Albert Rivera has already stated that his party will not form a coalition with the socialists.

Alternatively, the three parties on the right of the centre, PP, Ciudadanos and Vox, could get together, mirroring the recent regional election outcome in Andalucia, where PP and Ciudadanos formed a government with the support of Vox, and ending four decades of socialist rule.

In 2015, the political parties were unable to agree on forming a government, leading to fresh elections in 2016.

"It is a very open scenario," says Xavier Casals, a historian at the Blanquerna University in Barcelona. "Especially with the whole political spectre in fragmentation, and with the high level of voters who might only decide on who to vote for on the very day of the election."

"The only prediction in this election, is that no predictions can be made," he tells EUobserver.

Casals explains that the election campaign has focussed on feelings rather than essential policymaking. "The whole campaign has been steered by emotions, which have been polarised into the right and the left. There have been no talks about concrete topics that are more urgent for the public, like the pensions."

Catalonian thorn

The issue of Catalan independence has been a big talking point in the campaign, as it is something that awakens strong feeling among voters across Spain. For the parties on the right, just the mere thought of Catalan secession is a threat to the Spanish identity. They therefore call for a tougher approach on Catalonia, and less regional powers in general.

Iglesias calls for dialogue to solve the Catalan crisis, while Sanchez is stuck in middle acting tough not to lose his most centre-leaning voters, but at the same time not too tough should he need the support of the Catalan nationalists after the election.

While Vox has been around for six years, it was not until the regional elections in Andalucia late last year that Vox really had a say, as the centre-right parties needed them in order to form a regional government. The party is led by Basque politician, Santiago Abascal Conde.

Vox

Casals explains the rise of Vox with a set of factors: the failure of the traditional two-party system to change with the times and with society; the increase of Spanish nationalism in response to the Catalan separatists; the anger at the socialist for reaching power without the ballot box, and with the help of the Catalan nationalists; and the new ways of doing politics with social media, as well as, the polemic exhumation of the former dictator Franco planned for June.

"Vox is criticising the old political system from the right," he says. "Just like Podemos is doing it from the left, and Ciudadanos is doing it through calls for liberal reform."

In its election manifesto, Vox announces that it stands "in line with what the countries of the Visegrad Group defends with regards to borders, national sovereignty, and respect for the values of European culture".

The party also wants to "considerably" increase the role of Spain in European decision making.

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