The second round of France’s parliamentary election (which we’ll have another look at tomorrow) isn’t the only election in Europe this weekend. Andalusia, the most populous region (or “autonomous community”) of Spain, goes to the polls on Sunday to pass judgement on its controversial coalition government, in office since the beginning of 2019.
Traditionally, Andalusia is left-wing territory. Prior to the 2018 election, its centre-left Socialist Party had been in government continuously for forty years, ever since the restoration of democracy. And in 2018 its centre-right opponent, the People’s Party, recorded the worst result in its history, winning just 20.7% of the vote and 26 of the 109 seats. But remarkably, the centre-right ended up in government!
What had happened was a nation-wide phenomenon in Spain: having for decades been mostly a conventional two-party system, the country had suddenly transitioned to multi-party politics. As recently as 2012 the two major parties had had more than 80% of the Andalusian vote between them; in 2018 that fell to less than 50%.
The Socialists remained in first place with 27.9% and 33 seats, a long way short of a majority. The centrist party, Citizens, had 18.3% and 21 seats, the far-left alliance Forward Andalusia 16.2% and 17 seats, and the far-right Vox 11.0% and the remaining 12 seats. (See my report here.)
The People’s Party at that point could have pursued a grand coalition with the Socialists. Alternatively, Citizens could have agreed to a broad-based arrangement with the Socialists and the far left. But neither of those things happened. Instead, People’s Party leader Juan Manuel Moreno reached two agreements: one with Citizens to form a coalition government, and one with Vox to secure its support on votes of confidence.
Dallying with the far right is controversial anywhere, but especially so in Spain, with its traumatic experience of civil war and dictatorship. It was particularly toxic for Citizens, who were supposed to be a liberal force – and whose plea that they had not themselves dealt with Vox was obviously disingenuous. Their voters began to desert them, not just in Andalusia but across the country.
Like most such agreements, the deal with Vox didn’t last. Just over a year ago it announced it would no longer support the Moreno government, and in November it voted with the opposition to defeat the government’s budget. Moreno struggled on for a few months, but an early election was inevitable.
In the meantime, another big region, Castile & León, went to the polls in February, and Citizens there were almost wiped out, losing more than two-thirds of their vote and all but one of their seats. Vox made big gains, and joined the government as junior partner to the People’s Party. Centre-right leaders around the country are being put on the spot as to whether they would agree to the same thing.
The polls in Andalusia suggest a similar result to Castile & León. The People’s Party vote is back up into the mid- or even high 30s, maybe ten points ahead of the Socialists. Vox, in the high teens, is running a clear third, while Citizens has dwindled to the low single figures. The far left has split, with the larger component running as “For Andalusia” and the smaller keeping the Forward Andalusia name (they don’t sound quite so similar in Spanish), but even in aggregate they look like trailing the far right.
Voting is D’Hondt proportional within each of eight multi-member provinces, which gives some advantage to the larger parties; if its rise in the polls continues, it’s just possible that the centre-right could win a majority, either on its own or with the help of any remaining Citizens MPs. But it’s much more likely that it will again depend on Vox, and that this time Vox will insist, as it did in Castile & León, on a share in government as the price of its support.
As I’ve said a number of times, there is no single answer to the question of how best to deal with the rise of the far right. There will be occasions where admitting it to participation in government is an effective way to draw its sting, and others where it may be the path to disaster.
The fate of Citizens, however, has demonstrated one thing beyond doubt: parties that brand themselves as liberal but then jump into bed with the far right have nowhere to hide from the wrath of their voters. That’s a moral that may perhaps have significance beyond the borders of Spain.