On April 28, Spaniards will vote in what will be their country’s most chaotic and unusual national election to date. Whereas under the old system voters chose between the centre-left Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the centre-right Partido Popular, they will choose this weekend between several parties that together form two strongly polarized blocs. It is the most controversial vote since the restoration of Spanish democracy.
The election campaign was tense and confrontational to a degree not seen in Spain in the past four decades. Paradoxically, as the country seemed to do without its two-party system, it became more polarized than ever.
On the right, Partido Popular and Ciudadanos are now jostling with far-right Vox for votes, giving rise to hardened right-wing rhetoric. Parties on this side of the spectrum accuse President Pedro Sánchez of undermining Spanish unity and identity by pandering to Catalan separatists. They warn that if he remained in power, Spain would be dismantled by a so-called “Frankenstein” government made up of the PSOE, Catalan and Basque separatists and the left-wing Podemos.
Meanwhile on the left, although they ran slightly more muted campaigns, the PSOE and Podemos nevertheless warned voters that the right-wing camp would also dismantle Spain – in this case, not its territory but its democratic system.
About 30% of Spanish voters won’t decide who to back until the last minute
With no party ready to secure an outright majority, it remains to be seen which of the many possible ruling coalitions – or even a hung parliament – will emerge from the vote. In such a decidedly open and polarized contest, centered on questions of identity, the results of this election will, as Foreign Minister Josep Borrell warns, be of “existential significance”.
The PSOE: currently in government with only 85 seats out of 350, should come out on top and most likely stay in power. The PSOE is expected to increase its vote share from its current 22% to over 28% – or even 30% – if it continues on its current trajectory. The most favorable polls put the party with 139 seats, while others believe it will only win 112. This suggests that – unlike European countries such as France, Italy and Greece – the Spain will have a strong and well-established social structure. Democratic Party on its center-left.
People’s Party: ousted from the government in June 2018, is expected to come in second place and likely to suffer heavy losses. The party’s current 137 seats and 33% of the vote are expected to fall to 84-100 seats and 20% – or possibly even less, judging by the most recent polls. Party leader Pablo Casado is desperately trying to appeal to the voters who gave Mariano Rajoy, his predecessor and former prime minister, an outright majority in 2011. Yet Casado’s party is hemorrhaging massive votes at once. in Vox and Ciudadanos.
Ciudadanos: currently in fourth place, with 13% of the vote and only 32 seats, but likely to arrive in third place, with 15-16% of the vote and 47-56 seats. The party is likely to be the kingmaker deciding between the PSOE and the Partido Popular.
Podems: currently in third place, with 71 seats and 21% of the vote. The party will suffer heavy losses due to its territorial fragmentation, its internal purges and its alignment with the secessionists in Catalonia. The party currently votes at 11-13% and its support is dwindling, which could leave it with as few as 28-32 seats.
Voice: the great story of this election and comparable to the radical right-wing forces that have emerged elsewhere in Europe since the 2015 migration crisis. However, Vox’s growing popularity stems more from a response to the secessionist movement in Catalonia, which has reinvigorated the Spanish nationalism. Vox currently votes between 10% and 21% of the vote, a substantial share for a newcomer.
Around 30% of Spanish voters won’t decide who to back until the last minute. They face a dilemma of whether to support a party because of its attitude towards Catalonia or its positions on political issues that traditionally divide left and right. The emotionally charged Catalonia issue may cause right-wing voters to support Vox out of nationalist sentiment and left-wing voters to avoid backing the PSOE or Podemos – both of which came to power with the backing of secessionists.
Pollsters say they face a major challenge in correctly identifying potential Vox voters. It is unclear whether the party can expand beyond its current electoral base (traditional People’s Party voters who are angry with Catalonia) and attract less ideological but more disenchanted voters (class citizens lower average in cities and rural areas who worry about unemployment, immigration, and taxes – similar to supporters of the yellow vests in France or the League in Italy).
The aftermath of the election
No party will come close to winning an absolute majority. The election has four possible outcomes:
Scenario 1: A right-wing government made up of the Partido Popular, Ciudadanos and Vox
This bloc advocates low taxes, pension reform, further labor market reform, deficit reduction, tighter budget controls and cuts to spending and regional powers.
The right-wing bloc can get almost 47% of the popular vote, but without getting the 176 seats required for an absolute majority. Indeed, the electoral system, which covers 52 constituencies of very different sizes, penalizes the fragmentation of party support in small or medium-sized provinces. In large constituencies where ten or more seats are elected – such as Madrid or Barcelona, which elect 26 and 31 respectively – the system offers something akin to proportional representation. But there are many provinces in which voters elect only 2 to 5 MPs, a situation that strongly favors large parties.
Therefore, a difference of just one vote can move a seat away from, say, Vox or the PSOE. Small shifts in national vote share could produce wild swings in the allocation of parliamentary seats. The current safe zone for Vox and Podemos is 15%; if they fall below, their voices will transfer with unintended consequences.
Scenario 2: A left-wing government made up of the PSOE, Podemos and Catalan secessionists
This bloc advocates an increase in the minimum wage, taxes and social spending, as well as an easing of budgetary constraints for national and regional governments, stricter rules on digital platforms such as those of Airbnb and Uber, and intervention in the housing market to cap rents. in the big cities.
The bloc could face two difficulties in obtaining an absolute majority. The first is that Podemos may be too weak to help the block. The other is that Catalan secessionists, especially right-wing radicals who support former regional president Carles Puigdemont, are unlikely to support the government unless they are promised an independence referendum. The snap election is taking place precisely because they refused to help Sánchez pass a budget without the promise of a referendum.
Scenario 3: A centrist government made up of the PSOE and Ciudadanos
This block can gain power if others fail to agree to work together. He is likely to have an absolute majority if the PSOE continues to perform well and if the Partido Popular and Vox fail to secure Ciudadanos’ votes. The PSOE and Ciudadanos agreed in 2016 to try to form a government, suggesting they can overcome their political differences.
This centrist coalition would help end Spain’s political fragmentation and polarization, allowing the country to pursue a much-needed reform agenda on issues such as pensions, education and taxes, and limit the budget deficit. However, the parties could only form a coalition if they reach an agreement on the issue that currently divides them the most: Catalonia. The topic has poisoned political debate in Spain, introducing a hostility into public discourse that goes beyond traditional disagreements between left and right. Having leaned on the secessionists to become prime minister, Sánchez will have to publicly break with them and Podemos – which could again split the left in two.
Scenario 4: A suspended parliament
There remains a possibility that no bloc will win an outright majority, forcing them to call new elections.
The probability of a PSOE victory
The PSOE is likely to win the election and remain in government – but with what support remains to be seen. The result depends on two big unknowns: the strength of Vox and the degree of mobilization of left-wing voters to stop the party. It is possible that the two parties will cancel each other out or, alternatively, that one of them will end up winning.
(Average estimate of votes by Kiko Llaneras, El PaisApril 4, 2019)
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