Spain’s Political Prospects

Spain will hold general elections this Sunday, November 10, the fourth election in Spain in four years. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) came to power in May 2017 by way of a vote of no confidence against then-prime minister Mariano Rajoy of the center-right Partido Popular (PP). Elections were held in April 2019, and while PSOE gained the most seats, it could not secure a parliamentary majority. Prime Minister Sanchez’s inability to form a government forced Spaniards to return to the ballot box again.

The Economy and the Society

Spanish politics today cannot be understood without accounting for the political implications of the 2008 Great Recession and the subsequent economic crisis that lasted until 2015 in Spain. Spanish GDP growth was in negative territory from 2008 until 2014. But by 2015, the Spanish economy was growing at a rate of 3.8 percent, well above the Eurozone average of 2.1 percent that same year. Eurozone growth has now fallen to about 0.2 percent, while Spain’s GDP growth has also slowed in 2019 to a still respectable rate of 2.1 percent according to the latest annual official figure, due in large part to the global economic slowdown. The Bank of Spain is forecasting a GDP growth rate of 1.7 percent for 2020.

The long and painful economic crisis, as well as an unequal recovery, has taken a significant toll on Spanish society. Poverty remains high across Spain, with more than 4.2 million people in severe poverty, though poverty rates have come down from 29.2 percent in 2014 to 26.1 percent in 2019. The unemployment rate was just over 8 percent in 2007 but jumped to almost 26 percent in 2013. In 2019, the unemployment rate is still quite high at 14 percent, while youth unemployment is 32.4 percent, double the average of the European Union. Overall, while there has generally been a recovery, those at the lower end of the economic ladder continue to suffer, as does the middle class.

While there is positive news—Spanish GDP has recovered to its previous levels and job creation is strong (566,200 new jobs in 2018)—many of the jobs created are temporary contracts, and the salaries are lower for first-time job seekers and those re-entering the job market. This helps explain why unemployment and poverty are the priority issues for the electorate and why voter frustration with political leaders and associated allegations of corruption have fueled populist parties, such as far-left Podemos and a new party, Mas País.

From an Imperfect Two-party System to Multiple Parties

In the March 2008 Spanish general elections, prior to the Global Recession, the two major political parties, the PSOE and PP, collectively won more than 83 percent of the vote. In the last election, in April 2019, they garnered only 45 percent of the vote (a poll of polls for November predicts the two parties may win a total of 48.6 percent of the upcoming vote). New parties have emerged on the left (Podemos and a splinter party, Mas País), in the center (Ciudadanos), and on the extreme right (Vox).

The central government of Spain has not had a political culture of coalition formation in the period since democracy was restored in 1978. The government has always been led by a single party, either as a majority or a minority government (where it would reach agreement with the other party on key issues), although there is growing experience with coalition governments at the regional level. The concept of hinge (bisagra) parties—other than Basque, Catalan, and other nationalists—is distorting the process of political formation. For example, the center-right party Ciudadanos, Catalan in its origins but now with a national reach, was a hinge party in the April election and believed it would outperform the PP, refusing to consider joining a coalition with the socialists. It is being punished politically for its refusal and is now changing its views on joining the winning political party (although it will likely win much fewer seats).

The Catalonia Effect

The election will take place amid large (and in some instances violent) protests in Catalonia by pro-independence citizens and movements, with the support of the Catalan regional government, against the sentencing by Spain’s supreme court of several leaders of the pro-independence movements and government. The court handed down sentences ranging from 13 years of imprisonment (the heaviest sentence, for Oriol Junqueras, the former vice president of the Catalan government) to 9 years, as well as long-term disqualifications from holding public office. The supreme court’s rulings were based on charges of violating the Spanish Constitution for holding the 2017 referendum and other laws, in addition to embezzlement (illegal use of public funds to hold the referendum). But there remain several outstanding legal rulings. Carlos Puigdemont, the former head of the Catalan government, and others who fled Spain following the referendum are still being legally pursued, with Madrid seeking their extradition to Spain. There are outstanding judicial appeals to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the pending verdict of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg on Junqueras’s immunity for his seat in the European Parliament. Both Puigdemont and Junqueras were elected to the European Parliament but have not been able to take their seats. This process will play out over time.

Within Catalonia, the political situation is even more complex. This election will be a test of the political strength of the pro-independence Catalan parties following the recent supreme court ruling. The Junts per Catalunya party (led by Carlos Puigdemont) is in competition with Esquerra de Catalunya (ERC), which appears to be gaining political strength and could become the most prominent pro-independence party in the region, although it is searching for a way out of the independence conundrum. The more radical Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) independence party is also growing in popularity despite not typically running in general elections (though they are running this time­).

But Catalonia is also complex for the other political parties. The PP has only one member of parliament elected from Catalonia (and none from the Basque region). Ciudadanos, which opposes Catalan independence, earned the most votes in the last Catalan regional elections and gained 16 percent of the vote in the April election. However, it has dropped to below 10 percent due to its refusal to form a stable government with Sanchez.

Catalan society itself is deeply divided on the independence issue between communities and families. Questions over independence divide society by age, economic strata, and language. So far, more than half of the citizens of Catalonia oppose independence; recent polls show a 48 percent preference for Catalonia to stay within Spain, against 44 percent for an independent Catalonia. It will be interesting to see if the pro-independence parties are able to achieve an outright majority of the votes (over 50 percent) in Catalonia, something they have not yet accomplished. However, the pro-independence parties have achieved a majority of seats, as the electoral system weighs the seats more heavily from the rest of the province than from the populated areas of Barcelona. Public support for independence had been dropping (see graph below) prior to the supreme court sentences.

The perceived harshness of the sentences not only triggered large public demonstrations by pro-independence citizens but also a significant public backlash elsewhere in Spain against Catalonia. The far-right Vox party has been highly critical of these judicial sentences, believing they were too lenient. In recent election debates, the leader of Vox stated that all pro-independence (Catalan, Basque, and other) political parties should be banned. For many months, the polls showed Spanish citizens (excluding Catalonia and the Basque country) being divided into two political camps on the left and on the right. Voters moved within these camps but not between them. However, the unfolding crisis in Catalonia and the supreme court rulings have changed this dynamic, with voters moving from the left to the right. Vox could benefit enormously from this movement in this election. Some independent polls (that under Spanish electoral law cannot be published starting a week before election day) show that Vox could more than double its seats from the 24 they got last April and could become the third-largest party in the parliament.

After November 10

Only one poll (by the public polling institute CIS), taken before the supreme court decision and the large demonstrations in Catalonia, gives a large (though not absolute) victory (around 117 seats) to the PSOE, which could form a government with Podemos or Ciudadanos. If there is no clear left or right majority, it is not out of the question that the PP could abstain from voting against a PSOE government in parliament and allow Pedro Sanchez to be elected prime minister (as the socialists did for the PP in October 2016), complemented by some agreement on economic and political reforms. This would require Pedro Sanchez to govern via negotiation with both the left and center-right on his government’s budget, policies, and planned legislation. Even the best polls for the right (PP, Ciudadanos, and Vox) do not give the bloc a majority; per recent estimates, PP would gain around 92 seats, Ciudadanos 18,m and Vox 46.

But in a volatile situation, anything could happen.

As for Catalonia, it is very difficult for the Spanish polity to think about a political resolution at the moment, but any solution must be based on dialogue and, at some future point, reform of the Spanish Constitution toward a more federal system, which could include reform of the Catalan Statute. All agreed constitutional reforms could then be voted on by all Spaniards, and a new Catalan Statute would need to be agreed to by Catalans. But first, a deeply divided society must begin a reconciliation process, most likely after a new government settles in Madrid and new regional elections in Catalonia take place, probably in the spring of 2020.

Andrés Ortega is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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