Specter of right-wing entering Spanish government fades after inconclusive national election

24 July 2023

MADRID (AP) — HOLD FOR AM

Spain may be facing weeks, even months of political gridlock and possibly a new election, but a national ballot produced one result that will be greeted with relief in continental capitals that like Madrid firmly support the European Union.

Spain’s Vox party, with its ultra-nationalist bent, lost support among voters in Sunday’s election, dashing its hopes to be a kingmaker and enter a governing coalition that would have given the far-right its first share of power in Spain since Francisco Franco’s 20th century dictatorship.

The mainstream conservative Popular Party won the election, but performed well below polling data that had forecast it could oust Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez if it formed a government with Vox as a junior partner.

Even though Sánchez’s Socialists finished second, they and their allied parties celebrated the outcome as a victory since their combined forces gained slightly more seats than the Popular Party and Vox. The bloc that would likely support Sánchez totaled 172 seats, while that the right had 170.

“It was a Pyrrhic victory for the Popular Party, which is unable to form a government,” political analyst Verónica Fumanal said, adding, “I see a deadlock scenario in the Parliament.”

The closer-than-expected outcome was likely to produce weeks of political jockeying and uncertainty over Spain’s future leadership.

Socialist voter Delphine Fernández said she hopes Sánchez can stay in power. She is crossing her fingers that she and the 37 million Spaniards called to vote don’t have to do it all over again like in 2019, when Sánchez had to score back-to-back election victories before he was able to forge a coalition government.

“It was always going to be difficult. Now we are (practically) tied, but let’s see if we can still govern,” said Fernández, a lawyer. “I don’t want to vote again in a few weeks. It’s now or never.”

But the chances of Sánchez picking up the support of the 176 lawmakers needed to have an absolute majority in the Madrid-based Lower House of Parliament are not great.

The divided results have made the Catalan separatist party Junts (Together) key to Sánchez forming a government. But if Junts asked for a referendum on independence for northeast Catalonia, that would likely be far too costly a price for Sánchez to pay.

“We won’t make Pedro Sánchez PM in exchange for nothing,” Míriam Nogueras of Junts said.

With 98% of votes counted, the Popular Party was on track for 136 seats. Even with the 33 seats that the far-right Vox was poised to get and the one seat going to an allied party, the PP would still be seven seats short of a majority.

The Socialists were set to take 122 seats, two more than they previously held. Sánchez could likely call on the 31 seats of its junior coalition partner Sumar (Joining Forces) and several smaller parties to at least total more than the sum of the right-wing parties, but also would fall four short of a majority unless Junts joined them.

“Spain and all the citizens who have voted have made themselves clear. The backward-looking bloc that wanted to undo all that we have done has failed,” Sánchez told a jubilant crowd gathered at Socialists’ headquarters in Madrid.

After his party took a beating in regional and local elections in May, Sánchez could have waited until December to face a national vote. Instead, he stunned his rivals by moving up the vote in hopes of gaining a bigger boost from his supporters.

Sánchez can add this election night to yet another comeback in his career that has been built around beating the odds. The 51-year-old had to mount a mutiny among rank-and-file Socialists to return to heading his party before he won Spain’s only no-confidence vote to oust his Popular Party predecessor in 2018.

PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo claimed the right to try to form a government as the most voted party in the election, though he seemed even more unlikely to put together a majority.

“We have won the elections, it corresponds to us to form a government like it has always happened in Spanish democracy,” he said.

Feijóo focused the PP’s campaign on what he called the lack of trustworthiness of Sánchez. The Socialists and other leftist parties, meanwhile, drummed on the fear of having Vox in power as a junior partner in a PP-led coalition.

A PP-Vox government would have meant another EU member moved firmly to the right, a trend seen recently in Sweden, Finland and Italy. Countries such as Germany and France are concerned about what such a shift would portend for EU immigration and climate policies.

Vox, however, lost 19 seats from four years earlier.

Its leader, Santiago Abascal, called the results “bad news for Spaniards.”

“Pedro Sánchez, despite losing the elections, can block (Feijóo’s) investiture and, even worse, Pedro Sánchez could even form a government,” he said.

Feijóo sought to distance the PP from Vox during the campaign. But Sánchez, in moving up the election, made the campaign coincide with the PP and Vox striking deals to govern together in town halls and regional governments following the May ballots.

Vox campaigned on rolling back gender violence laws. And both the PP and Vox agreed on wanting to repeal a new transgender rights law and a democratic memory law that seeks to help families wanting to unearth the thousands of victims of Franco’s regime still missing in mass graves.

“PP has been a victim of its expectations, and the Socialists have been able to capitalize on the fear of the arrival of Vox. Bringing forward the elections has turned out to be the right decision for Pedro Sánchez,” said Manuel Mostaza, director of Public Policy at the Spanish consulting firm Atrevia.

Spain’s new Parliament will meet in a month. King Felipe VI then appoints one of the party leaders to submit him or herself to a parliamentary vote to form a new government. Lawmakers have a maximum period of three months to reach an agreement. Otherwise, new elections would be triggered.

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Wilson reported from Barcelona. AP journalists Aritz Parra, Renata Brito, David Brunat, Iain Sullivan, María Gestoso, Alicia Léon and José María García contributed to this report.

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