The pre-23 July picture was bleak. At a time when Europe swings towards the extreme right – either because the extreme right gains access to member states’ governments or because the right wing relies on them to govern – the fear that the result of the Spanish elections would consolidate this trend and inevitably reshape Europe was evident.
It first happened in Italy, then in Sweden and Finland. The establishment of another unforeseen far-right government in the European Union would consolidate Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s and the Polish PiS’ way of doing things in the European Council: a shift towards a eurosceptic, anti-democratic and frightening approach to address global challenges and European integration. The far right’s model of the EU is one of hate of immigrants, the undermining of European consensus on social rights and freedoms – especially those of women and LGBTI people –and the loss of integration. The rise of this model comes at a time when Europe needs precisely the opposite: a higher level of European co-sovereignty and ambition to navigate the green and digital transitions, as well as to secure the EU’s global position in a changing geopolitical landscape. Progressive and pro-European hopes were on Spain last Sunday.
In the 23 July elections, the People’s Party (PP) was the most voted party. The PP obtained 136 deputies because of the absorption of voters from Ciudadanos, the almost disappeared liberal party. The Socialists (PSOE) resisted the erosion of governing and gained two more deputies (122) than it had since 2019. In terms of votes, the difference between the two major parties is not as pronounced (PP 33.05 per cent – PSOE 31.7 per cent) but widens in the final number of seats, due to the specificities of Spanish electoral law.
However, Spain held back the extreme right. Unlike its European partners, Spain’s far-right party Vox lost a huge amount of the 3.6 million votes it had won in 2019, and Vox and the People’s Party’s limited view of Spain’s pluralism and diversity makes it impossible for them to forge alliances with any of the other parties represented in the Spanish Congress. A progressive coalition government led by PSOE’s leader Pedro Sánchez is the only viable option for governing in Spain. And in Europe it is the dam that holds back the expansion of the far right.
The defeat of the extreme right in Spain breaks a streak of success for the far right in Europe. Manfred Weber’s EPP strategy of convergence with the far right is not yielding the expected results. This leads to a balance in the EU that is once again in favour of pro-European forces: a Union led by Social Democrat chancellor Olaf Scholz, the liberal Emmanuel Macron, and now by the Spanish Socialist Sánchez, who consolidates his weight and reputation – and that of Social Democracy – in Europe.
Although the elections showed the common approach of the right and the extreme right, the results punished the extreme right of Vox and have sent a message of hope: Spain does not normalise the extreme right. Spaniards do not normalise it because they have seen what Vox and PP are capable of. After the local and regional elections of 28 May 2023, the People’s Party reached coalition agreements with Vox to govern 135 municipalities across Spain. There, Vox imposed its extreme ideological agenda on a PP that had no problem questioning the existence of gender violence, undermining LGBTI rights and censoring cultural pieces, even classic works such as those of Virginia Woolf or Lope de Vega.
PSOE’s leader is to be recognised for blocking the right-wing extremists. His courageous – and initially little understood – determination to bring forward the elections on 23 July has once again given the Socialist party, and him, the keys to government and driven away the spectre of Spanish fascism. Sánchez has done so during an entangled election campaign marked by radically opposing attitudes on the part of the two main candidates.
The candidate of the People’s Party, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, assumed the comfortable position of anticipating a clear and overwhelming victory. Sánchez showed an attitude of confidence and readiness to fight until the end, and made a huge communication effort to explain the good results of the government administration and the ambitious progressive model that Socialism seeks for Spain. Feijóo used a strategy based on lies and personal attacks, supported by the conservative media and polls in his favour. The PP’s elections campaign came at a time when groups close to the Spanish right have bought polling companies in order to influence the public opinion to their advantage. However, this overall strategy along with Feijóo’s decision not to participate in the final electoral debate on the Spanish public television have proven to be a complete failure, as neither the People’s Party nor the press or the polls foresaw the final result of the elections. Spanish citizens perceived this absolute disregard for the democratic institutions as a disrespect towards them and responded accordingly at the time of voting.
Meanwhile the extraordinary resilience of the Socialists and Pedro Sánchez’ leadership has once again become evident. Sánchez has exposed himself again and won again, which demonstrates his courage and political ability, as well as his commitment and determination to ensure that Spain does not go backward. The PSOE and its certain coalition with Sumar (the fourth political force in Spain, left of PSOE) will be heard by the rest of the political parties in the Spanish Congress. As Socialists, we understand that Spain is diverse and plural. We have worked to build the common history of a country that needs to be united for the well-being and opportunities of all. Citizens have recognised in these past elections the Socialist strategy of appeasement and dialogue in Catalonia with an overwhelming victory of Socialism in the autonomous community, while the PSOE has also become the leading force in the Basque Country: two autonomous communities whose political formations in the Spanish Congress are key to governmental pacts.
The arithmetic is not simple. More so, for a country that traditionally experienced bipartisanship and is unaccustomed to coalitions. Just as Europe must learn from the Spanish ability to contain the extreme right, we must continue learning from Europe’s well-established taste for pacts and dialogue to consolidate apparently complex governing coalitions for the country. Now it is time to revalidate the progressive 2020 government, against a PP that based its 23 July electoral campaign on contempt for democratic rules. They tend to forget that democracy, though young, is robust in Spain. So these elections have proved.