Parliamentary Elections

November 10, 2019


The socialists (PSOE) won the election with 120 seats (3 fewer than in April) and announced they will form a progressive coalition government with left-wing Podemos (26 seats). They will still require the support of other small parties, or at least their abstention on some votes. With the right-wing Popular Party (PP) receiving 89 seats—only 37 more than the far-right Vox—a grand coalition with PSOE or support by abstention was ruled out. PSOE and PP, which in 2008 garnered 83% of the vote, only received just under 50%, demonstrating the demise of the political center. Meanwhile, Vox more than doubled its seats in the Congress (from 24 to 52), partly boosted by the backlash against violent protests in Catalonia. Ciudadanos, the center-right party, suffered the biggest blow: it lost 47 seats and is now down to 10, his leader resigned after the bitter defeat, and the party will certainly go through a period of soul-searching.
In Catalonia, the pro-independence vote advanced somewhat but received just under 43% of the vote, reflecting the deep division within Catalan society. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has spoken on the need for dialogue but, as he looks for support for his new coalition, will try to find a way to avoid relying on those pro-independence members of parliament.


  • Bicameral parliament in unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy, composed of 17 autonomous regions; divided into the Congress of Deputies (350 seats, lower house) and the Senate (266 seats, upper house).
  • All 350 seats in the Congress are at play and 208 for the Senate, with the remaining 56 appointed by the autonomous regions.
  • Congress members are elected through proportional voting system; the prime minister is nominated and appointed by the monarch (customarily from the party that gained a plurality of seats) and confirmed by Congress; PM designates the Cabinet.
  • Incumbent: PM Pedro Sanchez (center-left PSOE) leads a minority government with support from smaller regional parties and Unidas Podemos, after a motion of no confidence in June 2018 ended a center-right government led by the People’s Party (PP).
  • This election is a repeat of the inconclusive April poll, after which PM Sanchez failed to form a government. In the meantime, long prison sentences were handed down to Catalan separatist leaders, reviving protests over and questions surrounding the future of Catalonia as a major election issue.


  • Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) : center-left; social democracy, socially progressive; seeks improved relations between autonomous regions and the central government within the constitution; advocates managed immigration in a more ordered framework; pro-EU with an improved social dimension; pro-NATO.
  • People’s Party (PP) : shifting away from its center-right position to become a more right-wing party; free market economy, socially conservative and nationalistic; supports a strong central state to prevent independence movements in autonomous regions beyond Catalonia; immigration policy based on cooperation with 3rd countries for returns and addressing root causes of migration, crackdown on smuggling networks; pro-EU; pro-NATO.
  • Ciudadanos (Cs) : center-right, started as a Catalan regional party; economic liberalism but favors socially progressive policies; strongly opposed to Catalan independence and other movements away from central rule, supports clearer division of power between state and regions and making the Senate a geographically representative body; supports immigration reform toward point-based system; pro-EU; pro-NATO.
  • Unidas Podemos (UP) : far-left alliance of parties (including Podemos and United Left); some nationalization of industries, socially progressive; supports reform of the financing of autonomous regions and a self-determination referendum for Catalonia; advocates expanded access to asylum process from 3rd countries, end of expedited removal of irregular migrants and increase in resettlement; pro-EU with a stronger social safety net; favors a shift from NATO to a more purely European security through CSDP, and abolition of nuclear weapons.
  • Vox : far-right nationalistic party founded by former PP members; supports reduced state role in the economy, socially conservative; strongly opposed to regional autonomy and seeks to end decentralization of regional competencies (police, justice, education); anti-immigration, particularly from Muslim countries, pro-quotas and stringent rules of return for irregular migrants; Islamophobia; Euroskeptic but no desire to leave the EU; favors national sovereignty and more autonomy in defense but unclear position on NATO.

Impact on U.S. Interests

  • Spain is the 4th largest economy in the Eurozone with a positive growth trend (+2.5% GDP in 2018, 2% forecast for 2019); the U.S. is Spain’s top non-EU trading partner and top destination for Spanish investment outside Europe (14.6% of all investment, above $88 billion); Spanish subsidiaries in the U.S. employed around 104,000 people in 2016.
  • After the recent WTO ruling on Airbus, the U.S. imposed 25% tariffs on imports of Spanish olives, olive oil, and wine.
  • Spain is a NATO member and has an Agreement on Defense Cooperation with the United States. It contributes troops to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan; to the Global Coalition against Daesh in Iraq (training of security forces); and contributes to a NATO Battalion in Latvia; Spain hosts the Naval Station Rota through which U.S. and NATO vessels rotate and form an element of NATO’s missile defense shield; the Moron air base hosts air elements (e.g. refueling) and the Marine Corps Special Force Earth-Air Crisis Response of up to 2,200 personnel.
  • Spain spends 0.9% of its GDP on defense spending, the third-lowest in NATO.
  • Spain has recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guido as acting and Spanish authorities have authorized the extradition to the U.S. of a former Venezuelan intelligence chief on drug trafficking charges.

Key Issues to Watch

  • Political reverberations from the 2017 Catalan independence referendum and the trial of 12 Catalan officials and civic leaders (some condemned to up to 13 years in prison) have altered Spain’s political landscape and led to waves of demonstrations by pro-independence protesters, some turning violent.
  • The political spectrum on the right has fractured and fed into three parties, each trying to be seen as outdoing the other on their nationalistic credentials to protect the unity of Spain. PSOE has also hardened its position toward Catalan secessionism.
  • The far-right party Vox, founded only in 2013, reached 10% of the vote in the April elections and is expected to maintain and possibly increase its seats by campaigning against what it considers leniency in the PSOE government toward Catalan leaders. Vox remains strongly anti-immigration but the issue has not yet featured as prominently in Spanish public opinion as in other European countries.
  • Poverty and unemployment rates (still at around 14%) remain some of the highest in the European Union a decade after the economic crisis despite a return to economic growth; parties have proposed many policies to address this imbalance and the next government will be under pressure to deliver.
  • After four elections in four years, there is political understanding that a government must be formed after this election. The two main parties, PSOE and PP, garnered 83% of the vote only a decade ago in 2008; today, they may just reach 50% of the total vote, demonstrating the demise of the political center and the lack of familiarity (or comfort) with coalition governments. Around 35% of the electorate remains undecided days before the vote.

Polls and Forecasts

This election is a repetition of last April’s poll, in which the socialists in PSOE won 28.7% of the vote while the right-wing PP received 16.7%. The socialists were unable to muster a parliamentary majority and failed to form a coalition after Ciudadanos refused to join the government and PSOE’s Sanchez could not find an agreement with Podemos on government formation.

Polls suggest that PSOE will win the most seats but not an outright majority. PSOE would have to choose a coalition with the left (Unidas Podemos, and regional leftist parties) or seek the support or parliamentary abstention of PP (which would divide PP). On the right, PP’s support is growing; liberal Ciudadanos’ support has collapsed; and the extreme right Vox may increase their seats but a “right block” would likely not be able to gain enough seats. Only one poll forecasts that PSOE will increase its number of seats and would be in a position to choose to govern with Ciudadanos or with Unidas Podemos.