Election preview: Spain

Prime minister Mariono Rajoy has left it to the last possible moment, but Spain goes to the polls on Sunday to decide whether his government will be returned for a second term – and if not, which of the different possible combinations will replace it.

This sort of uncertainty is rather a new experience for Spain, which for a generation now has had one of the most clear-cut two-party systems on the European continent, with Rajoy’s centre-right People’s Party and the centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers Party alternating in government. But change is on the way.

Rajoy was elected in 2011 with a comfortable majority (186 seats out of 350). It was the height of the European financial crisis, and despite what looked like a clear mandate, the new government’s austerity policies met widespread opposition and its popularity fell sharply. But the opposition Socialists were never able to reap much of the benefit.

Instead, support swung to a grassroots radical left movement that had formed to oppose austerity measures and official corruption, much along the lines of “Occupy Wall Street”. Early last year it developed into a political party, Podemos (“We can”), and by the beginning of this year it had overtaken the Socialists and was challenging the People’s Party for first place in the opinion polls.

Since then, as the economy has picked up, Podemos has waned slightly, but the government remains becalmed. Instead another new political force has come to the fore: Ciudadanos, or Citizens, which started out as an anti-independence party in Catalonia but has now broadened to become a nationwide liberal-centrist and anti-establishment party.

The latest polls show the People’s Party with a little over a quarter of the vote – down from 44.6% in 2011 – and pretty much a three-way tie for second between the Socialists, Podemos and Citizens, all close to 20%. The far-left Popular Unity and a collection of regionalist parties (particularly the Catalans) will take most of the rest.

To understand how this will translate into seats, and why it’s such a break from past Spanish experience, it’s necessary to look at how the Spanish electoral system works. We’re used to describing most of the continental European systems as “proportional”, but that elides a major difference between, say, Germany and Sweden, where the national totals of seats are proportionate to the national vote, and systems where proportionality only operates within constituencies. Spain is a good example of the latter.

The country votes in 52 multi-member constituencies* corresponding to provinces, each with a number of seats roughly matching population. A few are quite big – Madrid has 36 seats, Barcelona 31, Valencia 15 – but two-thirds of the provinces have six seats or fewer. That makes it very hard for smaller parties to get a foot in the door, unless their support is heavily concentrated geographically (as, for example, with the Catalan and Basque nationalists).

To illustrate the problem, the following table shows the votes and seats received at the 2011 election, and the seats that would have been allocated using the same proportional system (D’Hondt) but on a nationwide instead of province-by-province basis:

Party Votes Seats (actual) Seats (projected)
People’s Party 45.2% 186 162
Socialists 29.2% 110 104
Greens & radical left 8.9% 12 31
Union, Progress and Democracy 4.8% 5 17
Catalan nationalists 5.3% 19 18
Basque nationalists 2.9% 13 10
Other regionalists 2.3% 5 8
Others 1.5%    


The Socialists and other left groups together with the regionalists would actually have had more seats than the centre-right (since they had more votes), and Union, Progress and Democracy, a centrist party, would have held the balance of power. It probably would have backed the People’s Party, but lacking an absolute majority the latter would have governed a lot more cautiously.

With such a system, the only way the two-party duopoly is likely to be broken is when a crisis leads to a major political realignment, as has happened in the last two years.

Since elections aren’t fully proportional, it’s possible for a party to win a majority with well under 50% of the vote. But this time around that’s academic: no party has been able to stay above 30% in the polls all year, so it’s as clear as anything can be that no-one will have a majority after Sunday. For any government to win a vote of confidence, deals will have to be done.

At regional level, Podemos has generally supported the Socialists where necessary, while Citizens has helped keep minority centre-right governments in power. But if neither combination can put together a majority (as seems quite likely), it’s possible that Podemos, Citizens and the PSOE could co-operate in some broad centre-left coalition.

Alternatively, one side or the other may be able to garner enough support from the regionalists, although it’s hard to imagine Citizens and the Catalan nationalists sitting in the same government.

Whatever happens, the last big election of 2015 is certainly going to be worth watching. Polls close at 6am Monday (eastern Australian time); try the interior ministry site for results.


* Strictly speaking, 50 multi-member and two single-member, since the two African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla only have enough people for one seat each.


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