Pedro Sánchez needs to shoulder a lot of the blame for the rise of the far right in Spain
The ruling Socialist's leader called an election when there may not have been a need for one and now Spain is reaping what he sowed
After a second election within a year, Spain’s political landscape is now even more fragmented than it was following the previous poll in April, but the far-right Vox party has managed to make dramatic gains.
Although the centre-left Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) appears to have more or less maintained its seat share Vox has stolen the headlines having more than doubled its number of seats after a nationwide electoral breakthrough in April.
Weeks of mass protests in Catalonia – after nine pro-independence leaders were sentenced to between 9 and 13 years of jail time for sedition – along with a sense of frustration at institutional gridlock set the backdrop for the fourth general election in as many years.
In April, Pedro Sánchez was hailed as the new success story of European social democracy after harnessing the fear of Spain’s far right – most visibly embodied by Vox – to win almost 30 per cent of the national vote. Yet, far from being the bulwark against the far right he pitched himself as then, he has proved in some ways to be one of Vox’s greatest enablers in the past 12 months.
He placed Santiago Abascal’s party at the centre of a snap election campaign in spring only then to fail to come to strike a governing agreement with either the left or the right, triggering fresh elections. Moreover, his cynical calculations that issues as thorny as the Catalan conflict and historical memory could be channelled into a sequence of electioneering ploys not only failed to return the further electoral dividends his party sought after also sweeping to victory in May’s European and local elections, they have facilitated the rise of a party that at the beginning of this year had no national representation whatsoever.
Spain had proved something of an anomaly to the electoral rise of the far right across Europe in recent years. Vox was previously contained with the big-tent PP, but yesterday’s gains were still plainly avoidable.
In several respects, this was an election that did not need to happen. April’s snap poll returned a mandate that rejected further confrontation around the fraught Catalan question and that provided a basis for tackling some of the most pressing challenges posed in post-2008 Spain – stagnating wages, insecure work and a growing crackdown on dissent among them.
Yet Sánchez, characteristically unwilling to govern against the country’s elites, walked away from summer talks with anti-austerity grouping Podemos over what would have been Spain’s first left-wing coalition since the 1930s. Sánchez calculated that, by tactically pivoting to the right ahead of an autumn schedule that would be dominated by the national question, his party could hoover up further votes from a centre ground seemingly abandoned by PSOE’s historic adversary, the conservative Popular Party (PP), in April.
One other element that factored into his electoral gamble was the potential for further division of his main rival to the left. Even if the new national formation headed by Podemos’ former number two, Íñigo Errejón, in the end proved unable to gain any real traction in a campaign dominated by events surrounding Catalonia, it still had the consequence of further splitting the left vote across a number of key constituencies. On this point, United Left MP Alberto Garzón holds that Sánchez pushed for a repeat election “in order to strengthen his own position and to ensure [his rivals] Podemos were destroyed” but that “The only thing he has achieved has been to strengthen the far right”.
Yet, even if it did create the conditions for Vox’s surge, this election did not yield major overall gains for the right-wing bloc of parties. Despite an aggregate drop in the number of votes for the bloc of right-wing parties Vox has in various ways shaped over this past year, when compared to April’s numbers, the party was instead able to capitalise on the polarising sentiment generated around events in Catalonia and the collapse of liberal-right Citizens. The latter party – astonishingly – led national polls just 18 months ago, and was the most-voted force in Catalonia’s regional elections at the end of 2017, but was reduced to just 10 seats.
Vox’s result will undoubtedly reshape Spanish politics in the immediate term – that much was obvious from its presence in the campaign’s televised debates. Yet its scope for further growth is unclear. The kind of protectionist discourse that has resonated so successfully with millions of voters for Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen is currently lacking from Vox’s armoury. How it handles the coming months could determine whether its vote will be harvested by the PP – which clawed back only some of its catastrophic springtime losses this weekend – or whether it will redefine and threaten to lead this new space on the Spanish right.
Sánchez’s short-termism and political zigzagging has not only made the left-wing coalition option – although the numbers are there – increasingly unlikely. He has also gifted an enormous platform to a party that threatens hard-won rights and represents an unapologetic connection to the darkest chapter of Spain’s recent past.