Andalusia, Spain – Few political wake-up calls are as brutally loud as the one received last week in Andalusia’s regional election by Spain’s Socialist Party, as a landslide victory for their right-wing arch-rivals, the People’s Party (PP) left the country’s ruling party looking vulnerable.
All eight provinces of the traditional Socialist Party (PSOE) bastion were either held or gained by the PP, previously running a fragile minority government in Andalusia, but now able to rule with a historically unprecedented overall majority.
The Socialists’ most grievous defeat was undoubtedly losing the region including Seville, Andalusia’s capital, where they had been unbeaten since democracy returned to Spain in 1977.
Their total number of Andalusian members dropped to 30 in the 109-seat parliament, the PSOE’s worst-ever result in a region where they ruled uninterrupted for more than 30 years until 2018.
As the liberal-leaning El País newspaper put it: “It was the hardest of blows, and it went straight to the heart of their stronghold.”
After a campaign led by the mild-mannered, affable Juan Manuel Moreno Bonilla (also known as Juan Moreno) focusing heavily on its traditional agenda of economic issues, the PP’s historic triumph in Spain’s most populated region is also a solid endorsement of the party’s recently revived moderate, centrist-leaning image espoused by new PP leader Alberto Nuñez Feijóo. But it has resounded internationally, as well.
On Friday, Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party, the European Union alliance of conservative parties, congratulated the PP for their election success and said it was a sign that the Spanish population wanted change.
While general elections are not due for another 18 months, for the Spanish national government, this third straight defeat in regional elections is “a massive shot across the bows”, Oriol Bartomeus, research professor at the Institute of Political and Social Science in Barcelona’s Universidad Autónoma, told Al Jazeera.
“All the data showed the Andalusians wanted Moreno Bonilla to stay in power, and that the PP is considered the party of government, so this was a vote for continuity in that region,” he said.
But nationally, the results in Andalusia send a different message, he said, because they “help reinforce a narrative fostered by the PP and right-wing media that the Socialists are burned out”.
“That narrative may have been created with a degree of self-interest, but it’s also true that recently the PP has been garnering more and more support from moderate-minded voters,” Bartomeus said.
“The Socialists’ campaign was terrible,” Andalusian health worker Carmen Martínez Gómez, one of half a million voters who abandoned the PSOE last weekend, told Al Jazeera. “In their manifesto there was nothing positive, just criticism of the rest. I couldn’t see the point of voting for a party that was so negative.”
With the total vote for right-wing parties rising from 38 percent to 60 percent in Andalusia in the last seven years, “the political conversation here is shifting in their direction,” said Jaime Aja, professor of sociology at the University of Córdoba in Andalusia. “And after so many years of Socialist rule, the PP is still in a ‘grace period’.”
Aja even argued that the Socialists’ constant campaign warnings about the rise of the far-right Vox party netted the PP a significant number of ex-Socialist voters.
“By indirectly highlighting the idea that there’s a moderate right as well, former left-wingers voted for Moreno Bonilla because they wanted to stop Vox,” he said.
“Achieving that was a real triumph for Moreno Bonilla. He’s been governing up to now thanks to Vox’s [external] support, but at the same time he’s managed to differentiate himself from them,” Aja said.
While Vox’s vote increased slightly, another PP rival and former junior partner, the centre-right Ciudadanos party, has been obliterated, dropping from 21 seats to none.
But Bartomeus played down the popular idea that Andalusia heralds a return to Spain’s “twin-party” political landscape of old, dominated purely by the PP and PSOE.
“Some polls predicted spectacular gains for Vox, but actually it’s an outstanding result,” Bartomeus said. “Normally when support for your direct rival grows, as was the case with the PP, your own support drops. But that didn’t happen, either here or in the Madrid regional elections beforehand. So Vox have consolidated their power base.”
The PP, meanwhile, continue their winning streak and both Aja and Bartomeus believe the current political and economic climate in Spain is broadly unfavourable to the Socialists.
“There’s a drop in unemployment but economic growth so far has largely benefitted the big employers while high inflation is affecting the worse-off and poverty levels are increasing,” said Aja. “So social sectors which normally support the left remain the hardest hit.”
“There’s a lot of insecurity because COVID lasted a long time, now there’s inflation and the war,” said Bartomeus. “People have the feeling they’re not getting out of the rut.”
Strategically, the PP have upped their game, too, he said.
“The PP has become much less obsessed with beating Vox and much more pragmatic since they got their new leader, Nuñez Feijóo. And while they’re sending very clear messages to the population, there’s a widespread feeling that nobody knows what the Socialists’ direction is,” said Aja.
Yet, the pathway for the PP to regain power in 2023 is perhaps not as clear as they would like. An absolute majority is still beyond the PP’s grasp, according to latest polls from CIS, Spain’s public research institute, and the PP would still have to form a coalition with Vox to overtake the Socialists.
Furthermore, nobody would have predicted the PP’s turnaround in such a short space of time, and their political revival may be more short-lived than they would like, said Aja.
“Six months ago, the PP was engulfed in a major leadership crisis and it seemed that Vox would soon be outstripping them,” he added. “A lot, then, can happen in a year and a half before the next elections.”
But while time could yet be on the Socialists’ side, “it depends if [Premier Pedro] Sánchez knows how to use it,” said Bartomeus.
“And that means sending out a clear message that is directed to those voters whose support he has to count on to remain in power. So far that clear message hasn’t appeared,” he said.
And general elections might come sooner than 2023, too.
The often-fractious nature of the governing coalition with the left-wing Podemos group was highlighted early this weekend, when a squabble over the contents of a new package of emergency economic measures for Spain’s least well-off was only finally resolved on the morning the measures were announced.
According to some analysts, rather than uniting against the right, the looming electoral struggle between the two government allies for Spain’s left-leaning voters may well heighten those internal tensions.
But for some longstanding Socialist voters, like Martínez Gómez, whatever happens between now and 2023, it is already too late.
“The Socialists were in power for 30 years in Andalusia and look how that turned out,” she said. “Now it’s time to give somebody else a chance.”