As the election night unfolded in Spain, it became clear that the conservative PP would not have an easy go at forming a government while the left-wing block, led by the Socialists (PSOE), might be able to do so. Nevertheless, both sides claimed victory and called upon the other to admit defeat. But: who really, was the winner on 23 July, and what are the consequences of the election for the wider Europe?
The long electoral campaign had de facto begun on the day after the local and regional elections on 28 May, when Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called the general elections. But in the end, none of the long-heralded predictions, by Spanish pundits, such as a right-wing majority in parliament, have materialised. First, different pollsters predicted a victory by the conservative People’s Party (PP), some even claimed the PP would be able to govern alone. Even if the conservatives gained around three million votes and 47 seats (mainly due to the collapse of centre-right Ciudadanos), they did not get close to the required numbers. Second, the Spanish radical right populist party, Vox, lost largely. The party led by Santiago Abascal, an ally of the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orbán, lost 600,000 votes and 19 seats. Together, these results might be seen as a Pyrrhic victory for the right-wing forces in Spain, they also signal how many Spaniards (around 11 million) fell for an illiberal discourse during the campaign. While Vox claimed that the ‘globalist agenda’ had to be rejected, PP repeatedly sowed doubts concerning the validity of the electoral process. These messages clearly echoed claims by other radical right parties against the allegedly imposed ‘international interests’ on the common people, and the infamous events relating to former US President Donald Trump or former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s accusations of election fraud.
One might argue that electoral discourses always tend to be superlative to attract undecided voters, but the actions of right-wing coalitions on the level of the Spanish regions and local councils in their first months in office indicate that these parties are slowly but steadily embracing the populist radical right’s talking points. In the month prior to the general election, PP and Vox removed LGTBIQ+ flags from townhalls, censored plays by Virginia Woolf or the movie Lightyear (two girls kissing was apparently too much for Vox) and refused to pay homage to victims of gender-based violence. This type of speech and actions have increased since Pedro Sánchez won a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy back in June 2018. From that moment onwards, the accusations of illegitimacy of the current government by both PP and Vox have constantly been present in the Spanish political debate, eroding the trust of citizens.
Another two important factors define the outcome of the elections and help identify winning and losing sides. First, the campaign took place in an almost absolute national context. Even if the Russian invasion of Ukraine had repeatedly featured in national news since February 2022, it was largely absent from the campaign. It is noteworthy that an event that constitutes the first war in the European continent since the conflict in the Western Balkans is deemed to deserve no attention by most political candidates. Similarly, there were no proposals concerning foreign policy, despite Spain holding the Presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of this year, the EU-CELAC summit having taken place just a few days before the elections, or the new approach that Spain has vis-à-vis Western Sahara, one of its former colonies. Second, messages concerning the EU were only mentioned from a negative perspective. As is sadly common in member states, the EU is regarded by political parties as an easy scapegoat. This was the case for both PSOE and PP although with a higher intensity by the latter. Similarly, great European victories for PSOE such as the Iberian exception in energy policy, which sets a differentiated regulation for the Iberian peninsula, or the allocation of the NGEU funds, of which Spain was the first member state to receive them, have largely been absent during the electoral campaign. Climate change was also largely absent from the political debate, even though the campaign unfolded under record-breaking temperatures.
So, what does this mean for the EU and European Social Democrats overall? The answer to the question has two underpinnings. The positive one reflects how Social Democracy has been triumphant against the radical right and hot-headed conservatives. In a rather plural and complex country such as Spain, only PSOE can be regarded as a truly national force that is significantly represented in all provinces without exception, including those with nationalist movements where the PP is largely absent. Even if a highly aggressive campaign has been carried out against Pedro Sánchez, most Spaniards have elected MPs that will most likely support him as Prime Minster of Spain. Moreover, the apparently rising wave of European radical right governments has been averted after last Sunday’s election. If PP and VOX had gotten a better result, in all likelihood, three big EU member states would have been (co-)governed by the radical right. Whether this is a change of trend, or an exception remains to be seen. The next European Parliament elections will be highly relevant in this sense. The second underpinning has a sombre implication for the EU, and for liberal democracies as a whole. Despite the good results, the latest electoral campaign further advanced the trend that Global North societies have witnessed since the rise of neoliberalism in the 1990s: citizens are more detached than ever from politics.
These voting trends, both in the EU and in Spain, as well as the talking points present in most liberal democracies’ political debates, point in the same direction: we are still ‘ruling the void’, as Peter Mair put it. The term, coined by the late Irish political scientist, refers to the steady disenchantment citizens show towards political parties and politics in general. Since the publication of its seminal work in 2011, several international developments such as the financial crises, the rise of populism, the climate challenge or the emergence of alternative political systems such as the Chinese have aggravated the problem, further distancing citizens from their liberal democracies. All these issues have deeply impacted Spain throughout the years and have been mostly absent from the electoral campaign. By not taking systemic problems head-on, no matter how ugly these are, political parties in general, and Social Democrats in particular, risk losing touch with citizens and further fuelling the void. In turn, this avoidance of danger might turn winners into losers in the long term, since the trend only benefits critics of the system: the radical right. European progressives should take notice of the elections in Spain and consider them as a warning because they signal the risks that liberal democracy faces today.