Eurasia Group | Spanish elections point to continued instability

Spanish elections point to continued instability

1 May 2019
Spanish Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez speaks at a rally. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. REUTERS.
Spain's ruling Socialist Party emerged the clear winner from last weekend's elections, securing nearly twice the number of seats as its closest rival, the conservative Popular Party. Still, it fell far short of a parliamentary majority and faces an uphill battle to secure backing for a new government. As Eurasia Group expert Federico Santi explains, short-lived governments supported by a diverse array of parties seems to be the new norm in Spain.

What does this outcome mean for government formation and political stability?

For Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who came to power less than a year ago by spearheading the ouster of a Popular Party-led government in a parliamentary vote, the victory at the ballot box reinforces his personal legitimacy. That will help him to cobble together a working coalition, though the process will be challenging in a highly fragmented parliament. There are several parties that are reasonably likely to back a Socialist government, including the radical left-wing Podemos and several small regional parties. But this would leave Sanchez several seats short of the 176 needed to assume office, forcing him to reach out to left-wing Catalan or Basque separatists for their support. Catalan separatists effectively forced last weekend's snap elections by refusing to back Sanchez's 2019 budget, but they have been sending more conciliatory signals recently and a limited agreement seems within reach. However, negotiating the support of at least five other parties with very different agendas will not be easy; concessions demanded by separatist parties could prove especially costly. The most likely alternative would be repeat elections, as occurred when inconclusive elections in 2015 forced a new vote in 2016. And even if Sanchez does succeed in forming a government, it is unlikely to prove very stable, and parliamentary politics will remain volatile.

Why have Spanish politics been so unstable in recent years?

Increasing fragmentation has been developing for several years but became very apparent in the 2015 election for the first time. While the shift has been very acute in Spain, it mirrors a similar trend that is evident throughout Europe. There are a number of structural factors at play, chiefly the inability of establishment parties to respond adequately to new challenges such as globalization, technological change, migration, and aging populations. Existing political structures and patronage networks have proved insufficient to channel consent and discontent, creating space for new ones. Establishment parties—such as the Socialists and the Popular Party in Spain—have also been undermined by a period of ideological dislocation in the 1990s that blurred traditional left versus right distinctions. And changes in society and the media have rendered their rigid, expensive grassroots structures less effective.

How has the Catalan separatist push and separatist parties shaken up national politics?

A number of regional parties have always coexisted alongside big national ones in Spain, a reflection of strong local identities, as well as an electoral system that is proportional but with very small constituencies. This structure tends to benefit larger parties and those with a strong regional concentration (though not to the same extent as a first-past-the-post system). But even more regional parties have proliferated in recent years. Moreover, Catalonia's independence push has forced a radicalization of the political debate along pro- and anti-independence lines, and it has split both the right and the left further along regional lines. Sanchez's recent electoral success is in part the result of his ability to shift the debate back onto the traditional left-right axis and away from the Catalonia issue. However, risks remain, as he will most likely have to negotiate with Catalan separatists in order to form a working majority against a backdrop of renewed tensions. Several jailed Catalan leaders are on the ballot for upcoming European Union elections and their trials for involvement in the illegal 2017 independence referendum are expected to conclude by summer.

How has the far-right party Vox affected Spanish politics?

Vox has won its first seats in parliament, a significant milestone in a country in which nationalist parties were long stigmatized by the legacy of the Franco dictatorship. Its strong performance (though it fell short of the high expectations generated) came largely at the expense of Popular Party, which obtained only about half the seats it did in 2016. Vox's success is largely the result of the hardline stance advocated on two issues: the Catalonia independence push, which has opened up old wounds and awakened nationalist sentiment elsewhere in Spain (recall the civil war was fought in part over regional rights); and the rise in immigration from Africa, which has unsettled many voters. The numbers are still small, but Spain is now the largest entry point for immigrants into the EU, after inflows into Greece first and later Italy slowed to a trickle. Spain has absorbed waves of immigration before, though ones originating primarily in culturally similar Latin America.
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Eurasia Group senior analyst Federico Santi.
Federico Santi focuses on Europe's southern periphery countries, with a particular emphasis on the political economy of the sovereign debt crisis, Eurozone economic governance, and European Central Bank policy.