Lessons from Spain

The dust has settled only slightly from last Sunday’s Spanish election. Although the result was clearly a victory for the governing Socialist party, there is no hurry about forming a new government: with elections for the European parliament coming up later this month (at which time Spain will hold local and some regional elections as well), it’s not expected that there will be any serious negotiations until June.

But that hasn’t stopped the postmortems getting under way. Centre-right leader Pablo Casado, who took his People’s Party towards the right and lost half its seats, now seems to be having second thoughts, sacking his campaign director and (correctly) describing Vox, which last week he was treating as a potential coalition partner, as “far-right”.

Vox’s leader, unsurprisingly, doubled down in classically fascist style, saying “We will be the only opposition to the progressive dictatorship and the treasonous separatists.”

Spain’s demons here are more powerful than those of most countries, but there’s nothing unusual about a centre-right party having to decide how far it will go in cozying up to the far right. It’s already become a key issue in Australia’s election campaign, and we’ll probably hear a lot more about it over the next two weeks.

But advocates of a right turn will have difficulty explaining away the Spanish result. As the polls clearly show, the climb in Vox’s support came after the People’s Party had made Casado leader, and his normalisation of its policies seems to have only contributed to its growth.

The result was that the People’s Party lost ground on both of its flanks. Here again are the numbers*:

  Votes Seats
Vox (far right) 10.3% +10.1% 24 +24
People’s Party (centre-right) 17.1% -15.9% 68 -69
Citizens (centre) 15.9% +2.8% 57 +25
Total centre-left, far left and regionalists 53.9% +2.0% 201 +20

The similarity with, say, the 2017 election in Western Australia, where the Liberal Party shed votes everywhere after dallying with One Nation, is probably no coincidence.

It’s also worth mentioning another point that I made in the Western Australian case: this was a victory for a normal centre-left party, pursuing fairly conventional centre-left policies. Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez is perhaps slightly to his party’s left, but he is no Jeremy Corbyn; he sits well within the mainstream.

Nor has he made any attempt to steal Vox’s thunder by pursuing nativist policies – and after seeing what happened to Casado, he is even less likely to in future.

The above table compares the results with the last election, in 2016, but in some ways the comparison with 2015 is more significant, because that was the vote that started the recent period of confusion.

Superficially they don’t seem very different. Then, the combined total for Socialists, Podemos and the various regional parties was 187 seats – still a clear majority. Their combined share of the vote was actually fractionally above last Sunday’s figure, at 54.3%.

But that wasn’t enough to produce a Socialist government. Why the difference this time?

What matters is not so much the extra 14 seats, but the way they’re distributed. Firstly, the big gain for the Socialists at the expense of Podemos means that a combination of Socialists and the centrist Citizens now has a majority, with 180 seats. In 2015 it was only 130.

Even though no such coalition is likely to eventuate, it greatly improves the Socialists’ bargaining position: they have an alternative if either Podemos or the regionalists prove difficult. It also improves Citizens’ position vis-a-vis the centre-right; they can more plausibly threaten to desert the opposition, because now they have something to offer the Socialists.

The second thing is the position of the regionalists. Even though they have improved their numbers overall, with 34 seats (as against 26 in 2015), the Socialists no longer need virtually all of them. Sánchez is now strong to be able to play off one lot of regionalists against another, whether centre against left or Basques against Catalans.

And as icing on the cake, the Socialists also won an absolute majority in the Senate, which is based on (mostly) equal representation of provinces, with 141 of the 266 seats. So this time, in contrast to the chaos that followed the 2015 poll, there is no plausible alternative to a Socialist government.

While we wait for the Spanish to decide on its precise form, we will get to see whether Australia’s political parties, and in particular its hapless centre-right, learn anything from the Spanish experience.


* I’ve counted the Navarese Union (0.4% of the vote and two seats), which is a local joint ticket of centre and centre-right, with the centre-right total, and the Animalist party (1.3% but no seats) with the centre-left.


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