Centre-left brings home the goods in Spain

On anyone’s story, the centre-left has had a bad few years in European politics. But it came good in a big way yesterday in Spain. (See my preview here and here.)

After being forced to a snap election by the rejection of his budget two months ago, Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez has substantially improved his position in parliament and will have no trouble putting together a majority coalition. Full results are here.

The centre-right People’s Party has recorded its worst ever result, with just 16.7% of the vote – down 16.3% from the 2016 election. Its turn to the hard right under new leader Pablo Casado completely failed to prevent its vote being cannibalised by the far-right party Vox, which won 10.3% to enter parliament for the first time.

In terms of votes, the overall left/right balance hasn’t shifted much from 2016. But the splintering on the right, with the People’s Party losing votes to both Vox and, to a lesser extent, the centrist party, Citizens (up 2.8% to 15.9%), was matched by consolidation on the left, where the Socialists gained at the expense of the far-left Podemos.

The Socialists have won 28.7% of the vote and 123 of the 350 seats in the lower house, up 6.0% and 38 seats from 2016. Support from Podemos, which won 14.3% and 42 seats (down 6.8% and 29 seats), will leave them in total eleven seats short of an absolute majority.

Sánchez has two options to make up that shortfall: either lure across Citizens, with its 57 seats (up 25) – difficult, but certainly not impossible – or find allies among the various regionalist parties, which will hold 36 seats in aggregate.

The big strength in his position as compared to the old parliament is that he does not need all of the regionalists, and in particular can at a pinch manage without the Catalans. The Basque nationalists have ten seats (six centrist and four left); adding the two Canary Islanders, one Valencian and one Cantabrian would be enough for a majority.

So although the Catalan nationalists have done well, winning 5.8% of the vote (36.6% in Catalonia) and 22 seats (up five), they have lost much of their leverage. Sánchez will still want to address their grievances, but he will do so from a position of strength: independence will be firmly off the table.

Also working in his favor is the fact that within Catalonia, the nationalist vote has shifted leftwards, away from the centrist Together for Catalonia, which has been more hardline on the independence issue, and towards the Republican Left of Catalonia, which has recently leant more towards conciliation.

So although many of the headlines are focusing on the arrival of the far right, the real story of this election is about the defeat of extremism. Casado’s strategy of taking his party away from the centre has been repudiated; the populists of Podemos, who a couple of years ago were polling level with the Socialists, have been put firmly in their place; and Catalonia has shown a preference for talking rather than fighting.

It’s a good result for Spanish democracy. It also showed an engaged electorate – turnout was 75.8%, up 9.4% from last time. When there are big issues at stake, people will come to the polls without being forced.

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