Alberto Núñez Feijóo Alberto Núñez Feijóo. Photo: Partido Popular de Galicia / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

Chris Bambery analyses Spain’s regional and municipal election results, which saw the governing Socialist Party defeated on a series of fronts

Spain will face a snap general election on 23 July after the Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, decided to go to the country after his party, PSOE, suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the right in Sunday’s regional and municipal elections. At stake was who would run twelve of the country’s seventeen regional parliaments and all municipalities. These elections were widely believed to indicate how Spain would vote in a general election, which before Sunday was scheduled for December.

The right-wing People’s Party (PP) was the big winner. Sánchez’s government took a hit as a consequence of the cost-of-living crisis and falling living standards. The right, and sections of his own party, also attacked him for relying on the votes of MPs from Catalan and Basque pro-independence parties to secure a majority in parliament.

The rise of support for Catalan independence in recent years has led to a rise in Spanish nationalism with right-wing parties competing to be the most hardline. Sunday’s elections saw the PP win 31.5% of votes compared with 28.2% for PSOE. This was a 1.2 percentage point decrease for PSOE on the previous 2019 elections, but almost a nine point increase for the PP, which benefited from the collapse of the right-wing, neo-liberal Ciudadanos (Citizens) party, which was all but wiped out.

The PP leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, is favourite to take the premiership in late July. But it remains to be seen if the PP can win outright. If it becomes the biggest party, but without an overall majority, its only possible partner is the far-right Vox. The PP relied on Vox’s external support to take over government in Andalusia in 2019, and last year the PP agreed a formal coalition government with Vox in the Castile and León region. Vox doubled its votes compared to the 2019 municipal elections and now has a presence in all the country’s regional parliaments, including in the Basque Country and Catalonia.

Sunday’s elections saw the PP became the biggest party in the regions of Aragón, Extremadura, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands, all previously controlled by the PSOE. But it will need the support of others, most likely Vox, to govern. In La Rioja it took overall control. In Andalusia, a traditional stronghold of PSOE, the PP won in Seville, Malaga, Almeria, Cordoba, Granada, and Cadiz. It also won in the city of Valencia (as in Madrid, there is a city council and a regional parliament).

The PP’s best result was in Madrid, where the outgoing president of the Madrid government, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, increased her share of seats to secure an overall majority, no longer requiring Vox’s external support. The PP also won an absolute majority in the Madrid city council. Ayuso’s success is something of a headache for Feijóo, as she stood on a platform to the right of him, taking on Vox on their own ground and succeeding.

Radical-left decline

To the left of PSOE its current coalition partner, Podemos, was wiped out of several regional parliaments, including losing all ten of its representatives in the Madrid regional parliament. Podemos has suffered from being very much the junior partner in coalition with the PSOE since 2020. Podemos began in 2014 originating from the ‘15-M’ anti-austerity, anti-establishment movement. But the party’s vote has been in decline for some time, and since joining government has fallen further. Its former leader, Pablo Iglesias, made it more centralised and then stood down to stand for the Presidency of the Madrid Region, but polled poorly coming fifth.

Sumar is a more recent creation, launched by Yolanda Díaz, Labour Minister in the coalition government, with the aim of recouping those who had quit supporting Podemos. Over the war in Ukraine, she has followed Sánchez’ pro-Nato line. The new formation failed to make an impact in these elections, in part because they came too early. It remains to be seen whether together Podemos and Sumar can still make up lost ground.  Díaz will demand she be the leader in any such coalition because of her popularity, but that would be a difficult pill for Podemos to swallow. Sánchez clearly hopes PSOE can take those votes.

In an extraordinary breakthrough in the Basque Country, the left wing, pro-independence EH Bildu became the largest party in the Basque parliament, polling 364,855 votes and overtaking the Basque National Party (PNV) who polled 321,383 votes. Aside from a brief period from 2009 until 2012, the PNV has been in government in the Basque Country since 1979.

Bildu’s decision to field 44 candidates with convictions linked to the defunct terrorist group ETA, provoked a storm of rage from the Spanish right and was denounced by Sánchez, even after they withdrew those candidates who’d been convicted of murder. The election of fifteen of the ex-prisoners has led to a further feeding frenzy by PP and Vox politicians.

In Barcelona, Ada Colau’s left-wing En Comú Podem lost control of the city council coming third behind the centre-right, pro-independence Xavier Trias, whose grouping had eleven councillors elected, just ahead of the Catalan Socialists with ten and En Comú with nine. Despite promising a left-wing programme to solve key issues like housing, Colau did not deliver and in her last term relied on the Socialists to govern.

The most dramatic result, though, was the collapse of the centre-left, pro-independence Catalan Left Republicans (ERC), who lead the current Catalan government. From being the biggest party in 2019 they were reduced on Sunday to just five seats. All three Catalan pro-independence parties suffered a fall in votes, falling to their lowest level of support since 2017. Part of the reason was a low voter turnout, reflecting displeasure with the inter-party infighting which has been so obvious in recent months.

The ERC in government in Catalonia has attempted to pursue a ‘dialogue’ with the Sánchez government in Madrid over how to resolve the Catalan question, in the hope he would agree to an independence referendum. After two formal meetings, the talks stalled, and criticism mounted of the ERC among supporters of independence.

Snap election decision

Prior to Sunday’s results it was generally believed Sánchez would wait until the December deadline to go to the polls. His decision to go quick was based on a number of tactical decisions. The first is that if the PP and Vox enter into a series of agreements then Sánchez will focus his campaign on the danger of the far right in a way that could mobilise his flagging support. But the PP did not take any hit on Sunday after entering into such agreements with Vox.

Secondly, any delay in calling an election would allow faction fights to develop further within PSOE. Sánchez faced strong criticism for relying on the votes of Catalan and Basque pro-independence parties to remain in office, not just from the right, but from the wing of his own party associated with former prime minister, Felipe González, which shares much of the Spanish nationalism of the right. Many of Sánchez’s internal opponents with be furious over further losses in old fiefdoms such as Andalusia.

The other consideration is that a quick election might stop the further unravelling of Sánchez’s current coalition partner, Podemos and the new Sumar movement, which is led by Yolanda Díaz, Spain’s charismatic labour minister and a member of the Communist Party. The two left groups have been at loggerheads, but hope for survival means they must bury the hatchet. Responding to poor election results, Díaz said differences on the left needed to be resolved to defeat ‘the black Spain’ of the right.

Podemos Secretary-General, Ione Belarra, responded by announcing the immediate opening of negotiations with Sumar to come to an agreement. With the calling of an election, they have just ten days under Spanish electoral laws to field a coalition ticket, meaning any such resolution must be reached in record time.

Right configurations

If the right wins the general election, then the Catalan and Basque questions will come to the fore again, whether the PP wins overall or needs to rely on Vox. The PP’s origins lie in those sections of the Franco dictatorship which wanted a slow and limited transition to parliamentary democracy after the dictator’s death in November 1975. For almost a year after that, they continued to try to rule as before, but faced mounting anti-fascist resistance and working-class insurgency. The EU and USA then backed their opponents in the Francoist camp who realised the game was up and a swift transition was needed to head off the threat of further popular mobilisation.

Since that time, the PP has emerged as the main party of the right, until 2013 still containing those who pined for Franco, but were willing to play the democratic game. In 2013, Vox split away from the PP. After a poor show in that year’s European elections it moved right, absorbing smaller openly fascist groups. In 2019, it made its first electoral breakthrough in Andalusia.

It is very close and very similar to Georgia Melloni’s Fratelli d’Italia in that, while it is not aiming to create a dictatorship or launch fascist squads against the left and working class, they repeat the mantras of Mussolini and Franco (while trying not to openly praise either dictator). So, both target migrants and Muslims, champion the family, Catholicism and oppose abortion and are extremely nationalist. In Vox’s case that means being the hardest show in town against supporters of Basque and Catalan independence. It wants to ban all parties supporting independence and to scrap those regions’ autonomous governments. Spanish would be the only language used in schools.

The PP face pressure from Vox on its right, but it does not need much encouragement to go down that road. An anti-Catalan agenda has played a big part in its growth, and it was in office in October 2017 when it sent in paramilitary security forces to try to stop a Catalan independence referendum by attacking voters, smashing their way into polling stations and seizing ballot boxes.

When the Catalan parliament voted for a declaration of independence, the PP government suspended its devolved powers and jailed leading Catalan political and civic leaders, who awaited trial on charges of sedition and rebellion. When Sánchez pardoned (but did not amnesty) nine of them, the PP went ballistic.

Whether it’s a majority PP government or one relying on Vox, this would set the scene for a confrontation with the Catalan and Basque parliaments and the movements for self-determination.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

Tagged under: