Mark Nayler

The deserved winners and big losers of Spain’s general election

The deserved winners and big losers of Spain's general election
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Spain’s general election yesterday – the third in four years – revealed a deserved winner and a big loser, as well as signalling the start of a lengthy coalition-forming process. The country’s five main political parties performed more or less exactly as the polls had suggested they would. Pedro Sánchez’s centre-left Socialist party (the PSOE) is still the largest group in congress and secured 28.7 per cent of the vote (although it’s still short of a majority). Trailing in a distant second place was the conservative Popular Party (PP), with 16.7 per cent – its worst ever result. Third place went to the centre-right Ciudadanos (15.9 per cent), fourth to leftist Podemos (14.3 per cent) and fifth to far-right newcomer Vox (10.3 per cent).

Sánchez, the PSOE figurehead, deserves his victory, which has increased the Socialists’ seats in congress from 84 to 123. Since becoming Spain's Prime Minister, after ousting the former PP leader Mariano Rajoy in a no-confidence vote last June, Sánchez has achieved much to be proud of. He has formed a government comprised of eleven women and six men – the first female-majority cabinet in Spain’s modern democratic history. The Socialist leader has also secured an unprecedented 22 per cent increase to Spain’s minimum wage. And despite being fiercely criticised for his attempts to strike up a dialogue with Catalan secessionists, Sánchez’s approach to the issue has been far more rational than Rajoy's, whose heavy-handed tactics only inflamed separatist sentiment.

The conservative PP, now led by Pablo Casado who replaced Rajoy last summer, is the clear loser of yesterday’s vote: it now only has 66 seats in congress, down from the 137 it won in 2016. Traditionally the party of choice for right-leaning voters, the PP has seen its support steadily erode over the last few years. This is partly due to the emergence of Albert Rivera’s centre-right Ciudadanos, which upped its number of seats in congress from 32 to 57 yesterday. The PP's decline is also due to the rapid rise of Vox, an anti-immigration group led by former PP member Santiago Abascal. Vox won twelve seats in the Andalusian parliament last December, making it the first far-right party to gain regional representation since Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship ended in 1975. Yesterday, Vox became a national player too, winning 24 seats in congress.

A seemingly endless string of corruption scandals also accounts for the PP’s losses. Indeed, it was the party’s involvement in the so-called 'Gurtel' scandal that finally finished Rajoy off last summer: judges found senior PP figures guilty of maintaining secret slush funds and even questioned testimony that Rajoy himself gave as a witness in the case in 2017. The PP has yet to recover from the reputational damage and for the moment looks like a spent force, with no chance of being part of the next Spanish government.

As with Spain’s last two elections, in 2015 and 2016, no single party is able to govern by itself as things stand. So Sánchez, holding the largest share of the vote, will now to try find a coalition partner. But it won’t be easy: his most obvious ally, Pablo Iglesias’ radical-left Podemos, has previously resisted partnering with the PSOE, perceiving it as too mainstream. Even if Podemos were to put aside its qualms, the two parties would still be eleven seats short of the 176 needed for a majority, and so would need the support of Catalan or Basque groups. But Sánchez has already alienated Catalan parties with his refusal to approve an independence referendum in the region.

Teaming up with centrist Ciudadanos would give Sánchez a majority, but both parties have ruled out a partnership. Again, Catalonia is the cause of the problem: Ciudadanos's Rivera has repeatedly criticised Sánchez’s attempts to strike up dialogue with separatists, arguing that he's encouraging a movement intent on breaking up Spain. For his part, Sánchez is reluctant to team up with a right-wing party. In the run-up to the election, he assured voters he would do everything he could do stop the right gaining power.

As in 2015 and 2016, various ideological partnerships between Spain’s main parties will now be tested as the coalition-forming process begins. Hopefully this time the negotiations will result in a functioning government, rather than another general election. Watch this space.