A bitter victory and a sweet defeat: Spain’s general election

Ana Mar Fernández Pasarín and Asbel Bohigues continue the Loop's coverage of Spain's 23 July general election, analysing the results and the (im)possible parliamentary alliances. They show how the left has a chance to continue in government – but that a repetition of the election is not implausible

On 23 July 2023, Spain held general elections for the two houses of its parliament: the Congress (Congreso de los Diputados) and the Senate. The chamber that concentrates the most power and elects the president is the Congress. Attention is thus now focused on the uncertain parliamentary alliances that could lead to a new government in the Congress.

Neither the right (People’s Party and Vox) nor the left (Socialist Party and Sumar) has an outright majority. Anyone who aims to form a government will therefore have to negotiate with different regionalist and independentist parties. In other words, it’s business as usual.

2019: The first coalition government since 1978

Following Spain's two general elections in 2019, the centre-left Socialist Party had to build a governmental majority that included the far-left United We Can (UP). This led to the first coalition government since the restoration of democracy in 1978. Supported by 155 out of 350 seats in the Congress, the government was forced to negotiate parliamentary alliances with regionalist and independentist parties throughout the legislature in order to deal with, among other things, the crises stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic and the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In the face of this coalition government, the right was defeated – twice in 2019 – and divided into three separate forces. There was the declining liberal centrist party Citizens, the resilient liberal-conservative People’s Party (PP), which was growing sharply at local and regional levels, and the populist far-right party Vox. Now, after four years, the first national electoral test for the left-wing government and the right-wing opposition has taken place. It has resulted in a sweet defeat of the former and a bitter victory for the latter.

The 23 July elections...

Spain’s general elections should have taken place in November 2023. However, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez decided on 29 May to call a snap election in view of the results of the regional and local elections the day before.

The PP was the major force in these May elections, winning in several key cities and autonomous communities including Madrid, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands. Citizens disappeared from the map, while Vox slightly improved its results. UP, the junior partner in the coalition, also nearly disappeared from all institutions. The Socialist Party, meanwhile, saw a slight but not decisive increase in votes. After the elections in May, the Socialist Party held the presidency of only Asturias, Navarra, and Castilla La Mancha; just three out of 17 autonomous communities. This was not enough to prevent a right-wing victory.

In May, despite good macro-economic data and stability in government, the coalition government received no electoral reward

Therefore, despite good macro-economic data and stability in government, it received no electoral reward. The right won these elections, and Sánchez reacted with a call for a snap election.

Nearly every poll was against the left. A PP-Vox majority was the most likely result, one that would repeat the scenario in May.

...and their results

However, on 23 July, the unexpected occurred. By the time CERA (non-resident) votes had been counted, on 28 July, the sum of seats won by the PP (137) and Vox (33) was not enough to form a majority. The probability of a second coalition government thus increased, since the PSOE (121) and Sumar (31) could regain a parliamentary majority with the left-wing Catalan independentist party, ERC (7); the far-left Basque independentist party, Bildu (6); the right-wing Basque party, PNV (5); and the right-wing Catalan independentist party, Junts (7).

The PP has increased its representation considerably (+48), but not as much as polls suggested. For its part, Vox has fallen to 33 seats (-19). The PSOE increased its share slightly (+1), and Sumar obtained 31 seats. This is noteworthy, considering the unexpected call for elections and the fact that Sumar consists of more than 15 parties.

The right's bitter victory gave it more seats than the left, but not enough to form a government

In view of the 28 May results and the polls’ predictions, the right won a bitter victory – more seats than the left but not enough to form a government. The left, meanwhile, experienced a sweet defeat, with fewer seats than the right but still enough to form a government.

The remaining parties in the chamber share similar positions, albeit with one crucial difference. ERC has fallen from 13 to 7 seats, a situation that makes the 7 seats of Junts, the party of Carles Puigdemont, decisive for a leftist government. At the moment, this negotiation with Junts is the key issue on the table.

Possible and impossible alliances

In the past, the PP and centre-right regionalist and independentist parties such as Junts have given each other parliamentary support. However, the equation now includes Vox. Any alliance of the PP with Vox almost automatically prevents any other party, especially Catalan independentist parties, from joining.

Without Vox’s seats, the PP cannot form a government. Neither can it do so with them, because no more seats can be added to obtain the majority

Without Vox’s seats, the PP cannot form a government. Neither can it do so with them, because no more seats can be added to obtain the majority. Therein lies the bitterness of the PP’s victory and the opportunity for the left to repeat a coalition government.

Three possible scenarios

In the coming weeks, the Socialist Party and Sumar will attempt to build a majority that includes all leftist and regionalist parties that have supported them in recent years (ERC, Bildu, and PNV), plus Junts. The regionalist demand for a referendum of independence in Catalonia, which clashes with the Spanish Constitution, will be the major challenge for negotiations.

All in all, there are three possible scenarios. The least likely is that of a right-wing government led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo (PP). There could be a repetition of the general elections. Or, perhaps most likely, a new leftist government led by Pedro Sánchez (PSOE) and Yolanda Díaz (Sumar). Negotiations and time will confirm which of those scenarios becomes reality in the wake of these most recent general elections.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Ana Mar Fernández Pasarín Ana Mar Fernández Pasarín Associate Professor in Politics and Public Administration, Jean Monnet Chair in European Policies, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona More by this author
photograph of Asbel Bohigues Asbel Bohigues Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Valencia More by this author

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