Yes, it’s Spain again

Spain goes to the polls on Sunday for its fourth general election in as many years, and the second wholly unnecessary one.

The story is familiar; you can read my last report on it here. Briefly, voters in April elected a parliament in which the Socialists had a plurality (123 of the 350 seats, from 28.7% of the vote) with two possible routes to a majority: coalition either with the centrist Citizens (15.9% and 57 seats) or with the far-left Podemos (14.3% and 42 seats) plus some of the regionalist parties.

Neither happened. Citizens refused to play ball, and negotiations with Podemos went nowhere. Without understating how irritating Podemos would probably be as a negotiating partner, it does look as if prime minister and Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez was more to blame for the failure.

With no other plausible route to a majority – other than a grand coalition between centre-left and centre-right, which Sánchez ruled out – parliament was dissolved in September for a fresh election.

Exactly what this is supposed to achieve is less than clear. Sánchez evidently hopes that Socialist gains and Podemos losses would translate into a smoother negotiation. But there are multiple risks associated with that. A swing to the Socialists may not eventuate, and if it does it may embitter potential allies rather than make them more tractable.

As one expects in these situations, the polls show little movement since April. The Socialists rose at first but then dropped again after the failure to form government, and are now slightly below their starting point. Their main opposition, the centre-right People’s Party, trailed them by 12 points in April; the gap is now about half that.

Podemos has suffered a split (actually, a split that started in Madrid at the beginning of the year has gone national), with its less doctrinaire wing forming a new party, Más País (“More Country”). It’s polling around 3%, with Podemos’s total down by a similar amount.

The big loser looks like being Citizens, which is now polling below 10%. That means that even if (as now seems unlikely) the Socialists make gains, the option of forming government just with the centrists is likely to disappear.

It may be that Citizens’ voters disliked the way it had shifted towards the right. It may even be that some of them feel that far-right policies have been legitimised, weakening the taboo against voting for the far right party, Vox. In April, Vox placed fifth with 10.3% and 24 seats, but the polls show it up by almost four points and in a position to claim third place.

So unless the polls are badly wrong, there looks like being little overall movement between left and right. That means no new possibilities will open up, and the same leaders will have to try again at what they have already failed to do. Exactly as could have been predicted three months ago.

That’s not to say that nothing has happened in Spain since September. Quite the contrary: last month, nine Catalan leaders were sentenced to long prison terms for sedition and misuse of public funds over the failed Catalan independence campaign, a decision which – not surprisingly – led to outrage and violent protests in Barcelona.

But the impact on national politics has been relatively slight. Most voters have already made up their minds on the independence issue, and even a fairly big swing in Catalonia itself (for which there is no evidence so far) would only make a few seats’ worth of difference at national level.

Sánchez has talked tough against the Catalans. That’s unlikely to help him much – if your big issue is Spanish nationalism, you’re probably going to vote for the right anyway – but it could make subsequent relations even more difficult with Podemos (who support self-determination) and the regionalists.

Polls close at 6am on Monday, eastern Australian summer time. Counting is generally fairly quick, so we should be able to watch the results come in over breakfast.


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