Peripheral parties hold the key in the aftermath of the Spanish elections

After Spain’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, right-wing parties won more seats, but left-wing parties have a better chance of governing. Sonia Alonso Sáenz de Oger and Bonnie N. Field examine the territorial and national identity divisions that will make or break governance

The key to governance

Spain’s election this past Sunday attracted outsized international attention, in part because of the possibility that the far-right Vox party could enter a coalition government with the conservative Popular Party. The results said otherwise. Vox lost votes (about 2.5 percentage points). Its seat share declined by more than a third, and the two parties of the right fell short of an absolute majority.

However, there was always the possibility that Spain’s regionally-based and peripheral nationalist parties could, once again, be key to governance. Spain’s peripheral nationalist parties challenge the Spanish state but are often necessary for governance. And this is true once again.

Spain’s peripheral nationalist parties challenge the Spanish state but are often necessary for governance

The realities of Spain’s territorial and national identity politics impede a right-wing government, despite the Popular Party winning the most votes. Whether an alternative left-wing coalition can form, presumably under incumbent Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, depends on Basque, Catalan, and Galician nationalists.

Undoubtedly, the election results make forming a government extremely difficult. We cannot rule out new elections, as occurred in 2015 and 2019.

The numbers don’t add up for the right

Provisional results show the Popular Party (PP) won 33.1% of the vote and 136 seats, followed closely by the Socialist PSOE (31.7% and 122 seats). Vox came third (12.4% and 33 seats) and the left-wing alliance Sumar fourth (12.3% and 31 seats). Seven additional parties won seats. All are regionalist, nationalist or separatist parties from the periphery.

In a parliament of 350, the votes don’t add up for Spain’s national right. Jointly, with 169 seats, PP and Vox fall seven seats short of an absolute majority. That may not seem like a large gap, especially in a country where the prime minister can be elected with a relative majority in a second-round vote in parliament.

However, it is likely insurmountable. A right-wing coalition is a non-starter. PP has engaged Vox as a coalition partner and parliamentary support party in subnational politics. But most parties in Spain consider the far-right, Spanish nationalist Vox a pariah.

A PP minority government is also highly improbable, to say the least, despite the PP's attempts. The centre-right Basque Nationalist Party formally rejected PP’s overtures on Tuesday. And even the Canary Coalition, a conservative regionalist party, ruled out supporting the impossible 'ghost' candidacy of PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo for prime minister.

National identity divisions impede a right-wing government

No one can deny the complexity of Spain’s politics, with a strong and polarised left-right division, along with territorial and national identity divisions. Much international attention focused on the former, but the latter are also consequential.

Today's PP cannot gather support from peripheral nationalists as it could in the past. In part, this is because Spain’s peripheral nationalists have changed. In some cases, they radicalised, as was vividly clear in Catalonia's 2017 push for independence. But so too have Spain’s national right-wing parties.

The Popular Party's drift rightwards, its proximity to Vox, and its position on territorial identity issues make it virtually impossible for peripheral nationalist parties to govern alongside it

Fierce competition between the PP and the now irrelevant Citizens party for hegemony on the right moved both parties further toward the Spanish nationalist pole. This pre-dated Vox’s rise. Once Vox made its electoral breakthrough in 2018, in part because of the independence push in Catalonia, it polarised national identity and territorial divisions yet further. After all, Vox wants to eliminate Spain’s decentralised state and ban separatist parties.

More recently, PP’s opposition strategy and election campaign also relied heavily on territorial and national identity issues to delegitimise Sánchez (and Sanchismo) and the coalition government. This included references to ETA terrorism (a Basque terrorist group, inactive for over a decade), Sánchez’s rapprochement policy in Catalonia, and the government’s reliance on separatist parliamentary allies.

PP’s proximity to Vox, including its willingness to govern with it, make it virtually impossible for even moderate peripheral nationalist parties, such as the Basque Nationalist Party, to support it.

Another left-wing coalition?

Spain's incumbent Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is better placed to find support for a PSOE-Sumar minority coalition government, despite jointly holding fewer seats.

The Spanish national left parties are more willing to accept the realities of a multinational Spain and the potential costs of dealing with peripheral nationalists. This bolsters their chances to govern, everything else being equal. Sánchez has committed to finding investiture votes 'under the stones'.

It will not be easy. And it is not assured.

The Spanish national left parties are more willing to accept the price of dealing with peripheral separatist parties, but it will still be a challenge

In one scenario, Sánchez could win power with a relative majority of 172 votes. This would require support from the Basque Nationalist Party, the Basque left-wing separatist EH-Bildu, the Galician nationalist and left-wing BNG, and the Catalan left-wing separatists ERC. Moreover – and this is a big moreover – it would also require the abstention of the Catalan separatist Junts. Junts’ leader, Carles Puigdemont, has lived in Belgium since the Catalan push for independence to avoid prosecution in Spain.

The price of cooperation

There are electoral and policy challenges to gaining the cooperation of Catalan separatists.

They will, of course, calculate how cooperating (or not) will affect their own electoral prospects. The separatist parties suffered a crushing defeat in Sunday’s election. In Catalonia, the Socialist Party won 34.5% of the vote, more than the vote share of ERC (13%) and Junts (11%) combined. This puts ERC, the lead party in 2019, and Junts behind PSOE, Sumar and PP in votes. Six years after the unilateral declaration of independence, Catalan separatist parties are not reaping electoral benefits for their direct confrontation with the Spanish state.

In initial public statements, the separatist parties set a high price for their support of Sánchez’s candidacy. ERC’s demands are, however, less radical than Junts’. The latter currently demands a legal referendum on Catalan independence and an amnesty for those involved in the independence push.

What these results demonstrate vividly is that, as we have seen many times in the past, Spain’s territorial and national identity politics are key to governance. And only by understanding their role within Spain will we understand the recent election results.

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 Sonia Alonso Sáenz de Oger Sonia Alonso Sáenz de Oger Associate Professor, Universidad de Deusto More by this author
photograph of Bonnie N. Field Bonnie N. Field Professor of Political Science, Global Studies Department, Bentley University More by this author

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