With Spain’s general election brought forward to Sunday 23 July by struggling Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, José Magone sets out the background to the election, the issues and dynamics dominating the campaign, and what to expect.
On 28 May 2023, the left-wing minority coalition government in Spain – consisting of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the radical populist left-wing Unidas Podemos (UP) – lost heavily in a ‘super Sunday’ of regional and municipal elections, to rivals the People’s Party (PP), a moderate right-wing party, and the ultra-conservative Vox.
These polls were meant to be the first major electoral test for the incumbent left-wing government before legislative elections in November. Yet the day after the regional elections, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez brought these elections forward to 23 July.
The Socialists’ fear of further eroding the party’s electoral base over the course of 2023, combined with heavy losses in major cities and regional strongholds of the Socialist Party and Unidas Podemos (UP), signalling a high level of discontent with the government, means Spain faces a general election much sooner than planned.
Pedro Sanchez, leader of the Socialists, has been Spanish Prime Minister since June 2018, after orchestrating a successful vote of no confidence against former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (PP). After almost a year as a single-party minority government, Sanchez went to the polls twice in six months (May and November 2019), failing on both occasions to win a majority of seats in the Congress of Deputies.
As a result, Sanchez was forced to form a minority coalition government with the small, left-wing populist party Unidas Podemos. Yet even together, the parties failed to reach the 175 seat threshold needed to hold a majority in the lower house, forcing the Prime Minister to look for votes amongst regional parties, such as the left-wing Republican Catalan Left (ERC), the right-wing moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), and the more radical Euskal Herria Bildu (Euskal HB). This fragmented coalition has meant Sanchez has struggled to coordinate government business in recent years.
Despite his precarious premiership, Sanchez has continued to pursue explicitly leftist policies. In fact, supported by Unidas Podemos, Sanchez has often used polarisation around issues like LGBTQ+ rights, education, and religion to mobilize a left-wing constituency of voters against the right.
Since 2018, he has continued to implement the ‘politics of memory’ policy, related to the victims of the Spanish Civil War, of the former Socialist prime minister José Luis Zapatero (2004-2011). In October 2019, the government went so far as to order the exhumation of dictator Francisco Franco from his mausoleum in the Valle de los Caídos, a major monumental site built in his honour, enraging the right in Spain.
The mobilisation of these issues arguably contributed to the strengthening of parties such as Vox, and led to regular clashes between PSOE and the PP. The government’s legislative programme, including a controversial education bill, was only approved thanks to non-state-wide parties, increasing the tensions between the left and the right in the lower house of Parliament. Added to this was the government’s difficulties in managing the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yet, despite their divisive nature, Sanchez seems set on focusing on such polarising issues during this year’s election campaign. The PSOE strategy appears to be mobilising its anti-fascist, leftist supporters against a potential right-wing coalition government, and appealing to LGBTQ+ constituencies
And Vox, a vociferous, ultra-conservative party targeting ‘gender ideology’, supporting the sanctity of the traditional family, and upholding the legacy of former dictator Francisco Franco, is more than ready to take up this fight.
Admittedly, most Vox supporters, even Francoists, support democracy, and leader Santiago Abascal is a former member of the PP, meaning the party’s message will likely moderate in the event of a joint coalition government with the centre-right. But the election campaign itself will likely be fractious and polarising. PP and Vox main campaign promise is ending ‘Sanchismo’, the government of Pedro Sanchez.
Sanchez’s campaign will be made even more difficult by the splintering of party support in Spanish elections in recent years. Until 2014, the centre-left PSOE and the centre-right PP dominated the party system at all electoral levels (European, national, regional, and local), each scoring about 35-45% of the vote and alternating in power regularly.
However, the financial crisis led to the fragmentation of the party system, which now consists of five national parties and several small regional parties. For comparison, in the 2008 election, the combined vote of PSOE and PP was 83.8%. In the 2019 general elections, it had decreased to 49.3%, with the two main parties now joined by three other national parties in Parliament: the radical left-wing Unidas Podemos, the liberal centrist Ciudadanos, and Vox.
Polls currently predict that Vox will achieve between 10 and 14% of the vote later this month. At the same time, a new coalition of 16 small, non-national left-wing parties to the left of the PSOE – named Sumar and led by current vice-president Yolanda Diaz – may receive up to 13%, a similar result to UP in 2019.
The electoral room taken up by these parties makes it even more difficult for Sanchez to narrow the gap between PSOE and the PP in the polls. The PP is forecast to achieve 32-36% of votes, while PSOE sits at 25-29%. This gap will only be reinforced by the disproportional nature of the Spanish election system, which has many small constituencies favouring the PP.
Sanchez’s early election gamble has so far not improved the party’s electoral prospects. Although some opinion polls seem to suggest that the distance between the two parties has shortened, the government’s image has been suffering. The campaign has so far been fractious. PP have continued to attack PSOE for a controversial new law which has seen some sex offenders have their sentences reduced PSOE have struck back with warnings about a potential coalition between PP and Vox, drawing attention to Vox’s reluctance to condemn domestic violence against women.
All this said, the election is still too close to call.
By José M. Magone, Professor of Global and Regional Governance, Berlin School of Economics and Law.