What to expect in this weekend’s Spanish elections

All indications are that Spain is heading down another political dead end - can anything change the political dynamic?

Pedro Sanchez
Acting president Pedro Sanchez speaks in Cordoba, Spain
(Image credit: 2019 Europa Press)

Voters in Spain will head to the ballot boxes on Sunday in an election taking place against a backdrop of a separatist political crisis in Catalonia and a surging far-right movement nationally.

Polls for the weekend’s election - the country’s fourth in as many years - indicate that the most likely outcome is a continuation of the political stalemate that the vote itself was called to break.

Caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez called Sunday’s election in April, after failing to form a coalition that would have brought a majority in parliament. Sanchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE) is the largest party in Spain, currently holding 123 seats, but even in partnership with the left-leaning Podemos, which currently has 42 representatives in the 350-seat house, remains short of the majority needed to form an effective government.

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According to a recent survey by pollster 40dB for El Pais, PSOE, Spain’s oldest political party, is on course to remain the largest after the election, but still fall short in its bid to increase its numbers - it may even lose seats. If it does manage to gain a majority in Sunday’s vote, it will hope to role out “ambitious, structural reforms... to overhaul the education system, legalise euthanasia, change labour regulations and shake up national broadcaster RTVE,” the BBC reports.

Sanchez still hopes to mobilise voters afraid of yet more standstill. “Deadlock is the main worry, the main political problem that Spain is going through,” he said during a debate on Monday, calling on voters to throw their weight behind a “strong”, “stable”, centre-left government.

Sanchez hopes that, in the event of another hung parliament, the main opposition party, Pablo Casado’s People’s party (PP), might “help usher in another Socialist mandate by abstaining from a future vote on the next prime minister”, reports Politico. However, “even if Sanchez gets a new mandate to become prime minister in this way, it could be further marred by instability and difficulty in getting legislation passed”.

Far-right Vox predicted to make gains

Vox, the first explicitly far-right party to win a seat in Spain since its return to democracy in 1975 following the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, is expected to make huge gains in the election. It could earn as many as 46 seats, almost doubling its current 24. If this happens, Vox will likely overtake Podemos to become the third largest party overall.

However, the party is projected to take most of its votes from the centre-right Ciudadanos party, already part of the opposition coalition of right-wing parties. As such, barring a last-minute turnaround, the stalemate in Madrid is set to continue.

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The Catalan crisis

In 2017, Catalonia held a referendum on independence that authorities in Madrid deemed illegal. While 80% voted to leave, only 40% of the population voted at all. Earlier this month, nine of the vote’s leaders and instigators were sentenced to between nine and 13 years in jail for their part in organising the referendum.

The decision sparked a chaos of revolt on the streets of Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital. What’s more, according to The Washington Post, the trial “split Spanish society like no other events since the country’s democratic transition in the mid-1970s”.

The issue has energised the right nationally, and is one of the main factors behind the rise of Vox. In April’s fruitless election, Pablo Casado led the PP, Spain’s main centre-right opposition, to the worst general election result of its history. On Sunday, they hope to reverse much of the damage, largely thanks to the tough stance they have advocated against the separatists in Barcelona.

Not that the Socialists have been meek on the issue - Sanchez “has hardened his stance on the restive region” in advance of the election, Reuters says. They have simply been outflanked on the issue by the right, who have advocated even harsher treatment of the separatists. This plays well in Spain, a country generally opposed to devolution. Much like in Israel, and indeed, the UK, a split country brings a static government and legislature.

“It’s clear that everything that’s happened in Catalonia in reaction to the sentence has completely captured the public agenda,” said Guillem Vidal, a postdoctoral researcher at the Berlin Social Science Centre. “What it’s done, deep down, is polarise the whole national political agenda. If you look at the polls, the consequences of this level of polarisation have been the reinforcing of the parties most deeply involved in the issue.”

Franco’s remains

While Catalonia dominates the media coverage, and has become a potent political weapon during the campaign, the election will also revolve around Spain’s slowing economic growth, and the issue of unemployment. “Figures out last week showed that a seven-year-long decline in the unemployment total has basically stalled,” the Financial Times reports.

One of Snachez’s flagship policies has been the exhumation of Fascist leader Franco, whose grand tomb in the Valle de los Caidos, or Valley of the Fallen, which was built by prisoners of the Spanish Civil war between 1940 and 1958, amounts to inappropriate veneration of the Fascist leader. Franco’s presence there, claims Sanchez, “divides Spaniards”.

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