Spain will hold its third general election in four years on Sunday, April 28 against the backdrop of regional tensions following a failed bid for Catalan independence in 2017, and a rising far right.
According to opinion polls, around a quarter of voters remain undecided as nationalism and social issues have displaced the economy as dominant campaign themes.
“There is quite a heavy division, to the extent of which the election, at least for the right, looks a lot like a referendum on [Prime Minister Pedro] Sanchez and Catalonia,” said Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations Madrid office.
“Of course, Sanchez wants to avoid that and turn the election into a discussion on progressive policy versus the right wing.”
It’s the first nationwide vote since the referendum on seceding from Spain, which led to Madrid sacking the Catalonia government and briefly imposing direct rule on the region.
When snap regional elections were held later in 2017, separatist parties secured a renewed majority, prolonging the crisis and damaging then-Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s credibility.
The far right has exploited mainstream politicians’ failure to resolve the Catalonia issue.
Pedro Sanchez, the current prime minister who heads the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), called the snap vote in February, after Catalan nationalist and right-wing parties rejected his budget in parliament.
Sanchez came to power in June 2018 after winning a confidence vote against Rajoy, whose conservative People’s Party (PP) was embroiled in a corruption scandal.
The PSOE leader won with the help of Catalan separatist parties, and with only 84 deputies in the 350-seat parliament, he relied on their support to pass legislation.
His right-wing opponents were infuriated at Rajoy’s removal and painted the PSOE’s alliance with separatists, in the wake of Catalonia’s attempt to secede, as a threat to the territorial integrity of Spain.
For decades, two main parties vied for the centre ground – the socialist PSOE and the conservative PP.
But the economic crisis that started in the late 2000s provided an opportunity for new parties to challenge the status quo.
The left-wing populist Podemos and the centrist populist Ciudadanos entered mainstream politics in 2015. The far-right Vox party won a dozen seats in a regional election at the end of 2018.
Vox’s rise has pushed Ciudadanos and PP further to the right.
Here is a breakdown of the main contenders:
PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party: PM Sanchez has taken the PSOE from the brink of electoral irrelevance to power. His coalition government relied on the support of Podemos, as well as Basque and Catalan nationalist parties, which eventually forced the snap election. Opinion polls suggest the PSOE will win the largest number of seats in Sunday’s vote, although not a majority, meaning it may turn to the same regional nationalists and Podemos to form a new coalition government.
PP, People’s Party: In power from 2011 to 2018, PP has been tainted by corruption, which eventually led to the removal of Rajoy last June. Its new leader, Pablo Casado, has adopted a combative tone on the campaign trail, calling his socialist opponent “the candidate of the enemies of Spain” in reference to his alliance with Catalan nationalist parties, and moving the party to the right in a bid to head off Vox.
Ciudadanos, Citizens: Initially a populist, centrist party akin to French President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! party, Citizens arrived on the national stage in the 2015 election, winning 40 seats. It has also shifted to the right in response to Vox, taking a hard line on Catalan secessionists. Its leader Albert Rivera has ruled out forming a coalition with the PSOE and accused Sanchez of wanting to “liquidate Spain” – a reference to his alliance with Catalan nationalist parties.
Podemos, We Can: The left-wing populist party emerged from the 2011 indignados movement, which campaigned against austerity. It broke through on a national level in 2015, winning 69 seats to become the third-biggest party at the time. But dogged by infighting and splits, Podemos has failed to build on early success.
Vox, Voice: Founded in 2013 by Santiago Abascal, Vox is the first far-right party to emerge on the national stage in decades. Supported by Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Vox has vowed to “make Spain great again”. Its main message is that Spain needs to be saved from Catalan and Basque separatism. The party made its first significant breakthrough in December in regional elections in Andalusia, Spain’s most populous region, where it won around 11 percent of the vote and 12 of 109 seats in the regional parliament.
The crisis in Catalonia has been at the forefront of the campaign period, despite some polls suggesting that the issue has faded in importance for voters.
While leftist parties favour offering fiscal and self-governance incentives to separatists, right-wing groups oppose any concessions to pro-independence parties in Catalonia. Vox has proposed legislation that would reduce the power of regional governments.
In terms of social issues, feminism has featured in the electoral campaign.
Sanchez has presented himself as a defender of hard-won liberal reforms and champion of women’s rights.
He appointed women to 11 out of 17 positions in his cabinet and has pledged to ban prostitution, invoking the threat of a right-wing government that would curtail women’s rights.
Vox has rallied against gender violence laws, which it says discriminate against men, and the far-right party wants to prevent public health services providing abortion and sex change procedures.
While Vox styles itself as a protector of traditional family values, its main message is that Spain needs to be saved from separatism.
“This is a reaction, largely sparked off by the Catalan and Basque nationalist movements,” said Sebastian Balfour, emeritus professor of contemporary Spanish studies at the London School of Economics.
“[The Catalonia crisis] stirred up a response from the traditional right wing, those with nostalgia for the Franco dictatorship and younger people who dislike the liberal reforms that have taken place over several decades. They also dislike the progressive culture, as they see it, for example, the Spanish equivalent of the ‘Me Too’ movement.”
Although voters are concerned about the economy, it has not been a prominent issue. After five consecutive years of growth, the IMF predicts it will rise again by 2.1 percent this year.
Spain’s unemployment rate has dropped from a peak of around 26 percent in 2013 to 14 percent in 2018, according to World Bank data. But this is about double the European Union average, which was around seven percent in 2018.
“[The economy] is on the back burner,” said William Chislett, an associate analyst at Elcano Royal Institute. “It’s not an issue. It’s probably more of an issue for the man in the street than it is for the parties, so it shows there’s somewhat of a disconnect between your average Jose and your political leaders.”
It is unlikely that any single party will win a majority in the 350-seat parliament, meaning the party leader with the best chance of forming a government will get the first opportunity to try and build a coalition.
According to polls in Spain’s El Pais newspaper on Monday, Sanchez’s party was projected to win around 129 seats, with PP on course for 78, followed by Citizens (46 seats), Podemos (35) and Vox (30).
There appear to be two potential blocs that could add up to a parliamentary majority: PSOE, Podemos and regional nationalists – and PP, Ciudadanos and Vox.
“You have two blocs which are in an existential competition because their policies are totally incomparable with each other, so they need to win an absolute majority which it is not likely,” said ECFR’s Torreblanca.
“This would leave us after the election with two blocs, which have tried a winner-takes-all policy, but they haven’t succeeded. Therefore you would either go for another election, or it would open the way for a centrist bloc to emerge.”
If no party is able to form a working majority, then the country will hold another general election.