Spanish elections: why devastating local losses to the right have forced socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez to call an early national vote


The local and regional elections that took place the 28th May have shaken up the political chessboard in Spain. The right-wing Partido Popular took the largest proportion of votes and now has the largest number of seats in local and regional governments.

The socialist PSOE only managed to hold onto two regional governments and will have to make a pact in Navarre with the left-wing Basque nationalist party EH Bildu to stay in power. This debacle marks the beginning of a new epoch. Only three cities out of the 20 most populated now have a socialist mayor’s office. In one fell swoop the socialist party has lost around 70% of the local and regional power it had.

In the face of his party’s horrendous regional losses, President Pedro Sánchez has brought forward the general elections that were to take place in November or December to the 23rd July. The move stems from a mixture of boldness and a sense that a national vote is his only chance to hold onto power.

Sánchez’s aim is to regain the initiative by forcing a plebiscite on his mandate and prove he maintains the public’s trust.

National identity

Ideas about identity and nationalism came to play an important part in what were supposed to be elections about local matters. During the last week of the campaign in particular, national issues dominated the discourse. An association of victims of terrorism (Covite) spoke out about the fact that 44 candidates standing for EH Bildu had belonged to the terrorist group ETA, and that seven of them had been convicted of violent crimes. The campaigns of the parties on the right subsequently turned into a denunciation of the pacts that the central government had made with EH Bildu, alleging that the socialists were “associating with ETA”.

The Partido Popular has constructed a rhetoric of being the only party defending the constitution and the union of the country. Its constitutional interpretation is conservative, but the message works. Its voters are the most loyal of the Spanish electorate and its aspiration to occupy the centre right has been consolidated.

The party, presided over by Alberto Núñez Feijóo, has absorbed the main voters from Ciudadanos, the Catalan political start-up that was at first phenomenally successful when it came to national prominence in 2015 but has already almost disappeared. Their votes have been transferred to PP, as have around 10% of conservative socialists tired of Sánchez’s leadership and his agreements with Basque and Catalan nationalists.

Meanwhile, electoral successes for far-right party Vox make it the third largest party in municipal government. Its support will be essential to approve budgets and push through legislative initiatives. Its real impact on public policy is minor but it has symbolic strength. Vox’s stance on gender issues, the content of basic education and a certain nostalgia for how things used to be drive a national populist discourse in line with other European parties such as Law and Justice in Poland, Brothers of Italy, Greek Solution, Civic Democractic Party in the Czech Republic and the Finns Party.

On the left, the nationalist question is peripheral. In the Basque Country, support for EH Bildu has increased while the conservative PNV has lost traction. In Catalonia, left-wing nationalist party ERC fell from being the first to third political force, behind the socialists and right-wing nationalists Junts per Catalunya. In Galicia, the Popular and Socialist parties split the main cities.

Political leadership

Pedro Sánchez leads based on his personality and charisma, and presents himself as a democratic superhero, with a strong media and institutional presence. He fuses his status as president with that of a candidate in a permanent campaign. He has managed to boost his international image with good performances in Europe and occasional visits to Washington and Beijing.

There are doubts, however, that this external outlook will bring him votes.

And this must now take a backseat as he tries to regain popular support at home and control over his own party, where there is a growing number of dissenting voices and now a decrease of local power.

Yolanda Díaz, current vice-president, has formed a new party, Sumar, which has already registered as a candidate for the election. She seeks to unite all the forces to the left of the PSOE and thus win more votes and more representation.

But there is little time for Sumar to establish a strategy that can turn a social movement into a political entity with representation in the provinces. For the moment, her electoral bets for the municipal and regional elections have not had much success, and Podemos, the party that once governed in coaltion with PSOE, has sunk.

Meanwhile, Alberto Núñez Feijoo, of the Spanish People’s Party, proposes a quiet style of leadership. In his campaign, he will rely on his management experience governing in Galicia. Focusing on the increased cost of living, unemployment and inflation will reinforce a clerical but practical discourse.

Plebiscite

For the national campaign, Sánchez is basing his mandate on the rhetoric of a leader against the world.

Sánchez triumphs when he stands up to his own – he resigned as the leader of the socialists in 2016 following public disagreements with the party’s executive and was again reelected one year later, in 2017 – but it is not clear that his strategy will win elections. He lost three MPs in the 2019 rerun election and now he has lost ground in many regions. In Catalonia, his acceptance is growing, but the seats it brings to the general elections are not enough.

In this situation, Sánchez’s only chance is to get as near to his current 120 parliamentary seats as he can. He can’t do it all by himself, and needs the support of rest of the left-wing parties. The electoral strategy is to stop the electorate’s swing to the right, to offer an institutional counterweight and to unify the vote in a single bloc.

His idea is right, but may not be enough. Sánchez’s governments have worked because he has been able to incorporate sensitivities in the divisions of identity (nationalism) and social policy (the left). None of these forces currently seem to be growing.

Sanchismo is showing signs of exhaustion. He might be able to maintain a reasonable number of seats, but – without his traditional supporters – his era might also be doomed.

Spanish politics is in transition. We cannot anticipate the outcome of the elections and it is not advisable to extrapolate the municipal results all at once. Experience also shows that the local vote does not correspond to the general elections, but varies significantly.

Whereas local elections weren’t supposed to be a plebiscite on national government, next 23rd of July seems to be the rerun of a general election whose first round took place last weekend.



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