17th Feb 2019


Spanish election: A geek's guide to the big night

  • Old/new is as big an issue as left/right in Sunday's voting (Photo: Steve Rhodes)

On Sunday (20 December), Spain will hold legislative elections. The campaign has been unprecedentedly vibrant and plural, since the polls point to a scenario that is more open than ever.

Election nights in Spain are pretty quick, straightforward affairs: polling stations close at 8pm, local time; exit polls are released immediately (after a one-week silence); first results start to emerge around 9.30pm, and by 11.30pm the result is by and large known.

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For foreign observers who want to take part in the fun, here are some issues to pay attention to as the exit polls, and then the results, unfold in little more than three hours.

The main players

The big two parties, who traditionally dominated Spanish politics, are the Conservatives of PP (blue), a member of the centre-right EPP group in the European Parliament, and the Socialists of PSOE (red).

The two new players are:

Podemos (purple), part of the far-left GUE group, which is running in coalition in three regions - Galicia (En Marea), Valencia (Compromis/Podemos or Es el Moment) and Catalonia (En Comu Podem).

Ciudadanos (orange), a party that only started competing outside Catalonia in 2014, which defines itself as centre liberal and which is a member of the ALDE group at EU level.

The United Left (IU in Spanish) is running as Popular Unity (UP in Spanish, dark red colour) after failing to form a coalition with Podemos.

The rest of the forces are regionally based in Catalonia (DiL is the pro-independence centre-right, ERC the pro-independence centre-left, UDC the Conservative nationalists), Basque Country (PNV-EAJ is the more moderate centre-right, Bildu the radical centre-left), Navarre (GB) and the Canaries (CC).

Order of arrival

All polls predict a PP win with a substantially reduced majority; it could well be the case that the winner is also the party that loses the most seats.

In Spring, PP lost control of four regions and important cities (such as Madrid, Valencia and Zaragoza) despite having come first in elections, because of its inability to form coalitions.

If PP (or another party) comes first, but cannot form a government in the end, victory in the election night may be a pyrrhic one.

The possible need to form coalition means that the order of the four first parties is important: some polls point to a close contest between PSOE and Podemos for the second place, other between PSOE and Ciudadanos.

Possible coalitions

Absent an absolute majority or a big advantage by one party, analysts will first pay attention to the correlation of forces between the centre-right (PP +Ciudadanos) and the centre-left and left (PSOE+Podemos). A centre coalition (PSOE+Ciudadanos) is also possible.

Less likely coalitions might include a German-style grand coalition between PP and the Socialists.

Three-party coalitions, or other two-party combinations (such as a coalition of the new, with Podemos+Ciudadanos), would have to overcome serious ideological divides.

If results are tight, smaller regional parties may count, but Catalan nationalists, who traditionally played that hinge role and had significant numbers, are out of question because of their pro-independence turn.

The old and the new

Sunday’s election must be read according to the left/right cleavage, but also according to the new/old one, which may in fact be determinant for a large number of voters.

The vote is the ultimate test to the crisis of "bipartidismo", the system that for decades ensured the preeminence, and also alternation, of PP and PSOE.

How much these two parties get combined will be relevant, as will how far Podemos and Ciudadanos stand from both of the big two.

The centre

For the first time, the winner amongst voters placing themselves at the centre of the political spectrum may not be the winner of the election.

PP and PSOE have in Ciudadanos a strong opponent in this space, and at the same time a likely coalition partner or external support (a role Ciudadanos plays for both parties in five regional governments).

Centre-left and left

Spain has borrowed from the Italian left the word “sorpasso,” and indeed Podemos’ strategy has been one of surpassing first the United Left, and then, as it did in some big cities at the local elections in May 2015, the Socialists.

Polls point to an upward trend during the campaign for Podemos, at the expense of Socialists.

Other issues to pay attention to are the survival of the United Left as a viable national player, which is seriously threatened by Podemos’ surge; and whether or not Podemos achieves better results where it runs in coalition (Galicia, Catalonia and Valencia) than where it runs under its own banner alone (elsewhere).

Centre-right and right

There is no contest on the right: absent any viable extreme right, anti-immigrant and or anti-European alternative, the PP only competes for the centre-right space with Ciudadanos.

However, the perception of Spaniards about Ciudadanos has moved to the right in the last months.

Ciudadanos could hurt PP disproportionately if it erodes its big advantage in that space, and becomes the instrument to punish PP for corruption for its less committed supporters. Look at the results in Castilla -Leon, Cantabria or Murcia for signs of that.


The 27 September Catalan elections were clearly won by the pro-independence parties, but they have so far failed to capitalise on their victory and even to form a regional government.

Polls predict a tight race at the top. Both Ciudadanos and Podemos have serious options to come first. That would be a major victory for the winner, and a blow to the pro-independence camp.

Their main rivals, in addition to each other, are pro-independence nationalists, which compete in two lists (DiL and ERC).

PP and PSOE may face abysmal results in Catalonia, Spain’s second most populous region, if results are close to polls.

The tendency to political fragmentation in Catalonia could accelerate, to the point that a different winner in each of the four Catalan provinces is a distinct possibility.

Regional dynamics

'Aragon es nuestro Ohio' is the title of a book where a group of Spanish political scientists analyse the recent transformation and the constants of Spain’s electoral behaviour.

Aragon has indeed picked the winner in all elections since 1978, as has Ohio in US presidential elections.

In Valencia, the May regional and local elections pointed to an end of the Conservative hegemony over Spain’s fourth most populous region, which could be confirmed or not.

In the Basque country, the contest for first place could be between Conservative Nationalists and Podemos.

Also worth watching is the resilience of PP and the growth of the new Left in Galicia (of which Podemos is only a part). The latter two regions will have their own elections in 2016.

Big and small provinces

Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia provinces together elect 82 seats. Polls point to tight races for the first four positions, five in Barcelona.

A nightmare scenario for the Socialists, and not unthinkable according to polls, would be to be ousted from the first three positions in all three provinces.

A win in any of the three would be powerfully symbolic for either Ciudadanos or Podemos.

Small provinces will also be interesting to watch. The ability or inability of Ciudadanos to carve a significant space in the strongholds of the right in sparsely populated central Spain could hurt the PP hegemony there, and may push the Socialists out of representation in provinces like Segovia, Avila or Soria.

Jordi Vaquer is regional director for Europe at the Open Society Foundations, a worldwide philanthropic organisation, with its HQ in New York

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