Spain’s electoral gridlock and the road ahead

Sebastian Contin Trillo-Figueroa and James F. Downes argue that the 2023 Spanish general election is likely to lead to further volatility and fragmentation on the left and right of the political spectrum. This will make governing Spain a very difficult task in the future

Volatility and fragmentation in Spain

The Spanish general election on 23 July has resulted in gridlock, amid recurring patterns of volatility and fragmentation. This outcome makes governing Spain even more difficult. The centre-right People’s Party (PP) emerged as the numerical winner, with 136 out of 350 seats in the Spanish Parliament (Congreso de los Diputados). However, PP failed to obtain a parliamentary majority. The radical right party, Vox, meanwhile, saw a reduction from 52 to 33 seats.

Some commentators have argued that working with Vox would allow the PP to form a right-wing coalition government. But between them, the PP and Vox obtained only 169 seats. This still leaves them seven seats short of the 176 required to form an absolute majority in Parliament, and they are unlikely to be able to form a government.

The prospects of forming a stable government remain uncertain. While the likelihood is slim, Spain could still see another round of general elections.

Meanwhile, the incumbent centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE), led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, did better than expected, achieving 122 seats. These, alongside the seats of other parties with which it has alliances, may allow it to form a progressive bloc through a mixture of direct (coalition) and indirect support (abstention). Such a bloc could include radical-left parties like Sumar, Podemos’ rebrand, which has 31 seats; separatist factions such as ERC and Junts, with 7 seats apiece; nationalist groups like PNV (5); and even terrorist group ETA’s political branch (EH Bildu, with 6 seats).

However, this would still not result in a parliamentary majority for Sánchez. And these alliances, engineered by Sánchez, have attracted strong criticism from within PSOE party ranks.

Uncertainty in Spanish politics

The role of peripheral parties

Spain's uncertain journey towards a new government and PM is likely to extend for several weeks, until late August or even September. Separatist and nationalist forces are known for pushing their demands and seeking to secure greater concessions. Much negotiation will therefore need to take place.

The Spanish left has proved ready to embrace agreements. Different left-wing parties have forged a coalition that is widely accepted within their ranks. And parties of the left may be even more tempted to do this if the alternative is merely to call for new elections.

The same applies to Junts and ERC, who share reservations about the PP. Last time the PP was in power, it implemented constitutional rules to prevent a Catalonian independence referendum. If Junts and ERC believe they will receive policy concessions, these parties may offer their support to the PSOE. However, these concessions cannot include a referendum; the PP majority in the Senate will have the final say, blocking it.

Government inactivity

The government may not undergo significant changes yet. But its current state prevents it from making key political decisions, limiting its manoeuvrability when confronting crucial policy issues. This is especially concerning given that Spain currently hosts the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Strategic wins and losses

The recent municipal and regional elections in Spain looked like a success story for the PP. So what hindered it in these general elections? One major perplexing decision was the party’s decision to decline participation in a televised candidates' debate. This might have suggested to Spanish citizens that the party lacked ambition and innovative proposals or even interest in presenting an alternative vision for the country.

The situation is even more puzzling when we consider PP President Núñez Feijóo. Feijóo is a seasoned political leader who previously won four absolute majorities in the region of Galicia.

The PSOE's decision to hold a snap election was a resounding success

In the future, Isabel Díaz Ayuso could emerge as an alternative PP Party leader. If so, PP would likely gain attract a substantial share of votes from Vox, as Ayuso did in the Madrid regional elections. But right now, all these prospects remain uncertain.

In direct contrast, the PSOE's decision to hold a snap ballot six months ahead of schedule was a resounding strategic success. Some considered it an irresponsible political move. But it hindered right-wing parties' ability to form a government, and PSOE ended up performing beyond expectations.

The future of Spanish politics

In recent years, the radical right has been on the rise across Europe. Recent election results have seen a number of radical right parties increasing their share of votes and percentage of parliamentary seats. Western European countries including Italy, Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Greece have all experienced this. In Hungary and Poland, the radical right are currently the main governing parties. Northern Europe has also seen the rise of radical right parties, most recently in Sweden and Finland.

But in Spain's recent election, support for Vox declined. Spain's contemporary political landscape is complex, with fragmented party competition. Radical left-wing and secessionist nationalist parties also play an important role.

If PSOE manages to form the next government, it will face the challenge of leading a decentralised country within a multi-party scenario.

If PSOE manages to form the next government, therefore, it will face the challenge of leading a decentralised country. A significant number of regional and local governments are likely to be controlled by the right-wing national opposition, presenting a governance nightmare.

Inter-party conflict would likely increase as a result of diverse political parties holding power at different regional and local levels. This could damage Spain's ‘autonomous state’ system, and inhibit the effectiveness of governance across the country.

In such a scenario, maintaining a coherent ideological vision and policy direction for the whole of Spain may prove tough. To advance its agenda effectively, PSOE will have to seek consensus, cautiously, with regional and local governments. But maintaining effective governance in a polarised nation is an unenviable – perhaps impossible – task.

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 Sebastian Contin Trillo-Figueroa Sebastian Contin Trillo-Figueroa Geopolitics Scholar / Political Strategist / Lawyer More by this author
photograph of James F. Downes James F. Downes Assistant Professor (Senior) & Head (Programme Leader) Politics & Public Administration Programme, Hong Kong Metropolitan University More by this author

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