Understanding Spain, part II

(If you haven’t already done so, it’s best to start by reading part I, here.)

The lower house of the Spanish parliament, the Congress of Deputies, consists of 350 members elected by D’Hondt proportional representation from 52 multi-member constituencies. The proportionality operates within each constituency, not overall – the difference is important, as we shall see shortly.

As explained in part I, Sunday’s election will effectively be a contest between two unofficial alliances of left and right – counting the regionalist parties as on the left, regardless of ideology, because the right is incorrigibly centralist.

At the last election, in June 2016, the two sides were evenly matched; the left led narrowly with about 51.8%, most of it with the Socialist Party (22.7%) and the far-left Podemos (21.1%). The right had around 46.4%: 33.0% for the centre-right People’s Party and 13.1% for the centrist Citizens.

The left’s advantage held up in seats as well, with 180 seats in total: 85 Socialists, 71 Podemos and 24 regionalists (of which 17 Catalans and seven Basques, or 13 centre and 11 left). The People’s Party won 137 and Citizens 32, for a right aggregate of 169. (The 350th seat went to the Canarian Coalition, a regionalist party in the Canary Islands, which has usually voted with the right but abstained in last year’s no confidence vote.)

You can see all the recently published opinion polls in Wikipedia’s compilation. There have been a lot, and they’re pretty consistent. At the party level they show some notable movement since 2016, but at the level of broad alliances, much less so.

Basically, the aggregate left vote is holding at around 50%, down maybe a point or two from last time. The aggregate right vote is barely changed at all from its 2016 level.

But that conceals some big shifts. The People’s Party vote is down to maybe a touch over 20%, a drop of 12-13%. A small amount of that has gone to Citizens – maybe about 2% – but most of it has gone to the far right Vox, which has come from almost nothing to about 10 or 11%.

On the left, the regionalists are holding fairly steady, but the Socialists have gained something like 7% at the expense of Podemos. Whereas last time they were separated by less than two points, now the Socialists are beating them by more than two to one.

If the electoral system was fully proportional, these changes would not be so significant. But because most of the seats come from relatively small constituencies – about two-thirds of the provinces have six seats or fewer – there’s a bias in favor of large parties and in favor of parties whose support is very geographically concentrated.

In 2016 those two biases pulled in different directions: the People’s Party was easily the biggest party, and the regionalists benefited from a concentrated vote. This time, however, with the Socialists well in the lead, both biases will favor the left.

That’s why, if you look at the projections of seats that most of the opinion pollsters make, they generally show gains to the left. Starting out with a lead of 11 seats, it looks like enlarging that, if the polls are right, to maybe between 20 and 30.

That’s far from a landslide, and the left’s representation will still be divided three ways: something like 120-130 for the Socialists, mid-30s for Podemos and mid-20s for the regionalists. They will all need one another, and the bargaining between them will be anything but straightforward.

But this time they know that if they are unable to compromise their differences, the alternative will be a government that gives the far right a seat at the table.

Unless there is some late shift in opinion that the polls haven’t picked up (no new polling is allowed in the final week), it looks as if prime minister Pedro Sánchez made the right call in going for a snap election rather than try to carry on after the rejection of his budget. After the horror experience of 2016, things finally seem to be going right for him.

And provided he can get his fractious allies to work together, this should be a good time to be in government in Spain. Following years of pain, the economy is in full recovery; the country is starting to look less like an outlier and more like a core component of western Europe. Even the Catalans, somewhat chastened by the events of the last few years, may be ready to buy into a new constitutional settlement.

But first, Sánchez has to beat the forces of Old Spain arrayed against him.

Results should come through around breakfast time on Monday in eastern Australia. El País usually has the best coverage, with much of its news available in an English-language version.



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