Commentary. The Spanish Socialists now find themselves in a Parliament almost identical to the previous one, but with the extreme right of Vox taking the place of Ciudadanos and sharing power with Podemos.

Sanchez tried to make Podemos go away. He miscalculated.

Editor’s note: By Tuesday evening, the Socialists and Podemos had agreed on a preliminary deal to form a government.

Pedro Sánchez’s electoral ploy has failed. After shooting down the creation of a coalition government with Unidas Podemos (as he himself admitted in the election campaign), he thought that a repeat election would lead to growth for the PSOE and to the substantial disappearance of Unidas Podemos, made into scapegoats for not agreeing to a new Sánchez government. Other factors that were thought to make this outcome more likely were the establishment of Màs Pais, the new party of Inigo Errejòn, the former number two in Podemos, and the sentences passed against the pro-independence Catalans. The three factors combined were thought to result in severe headwinds against UP and its electorate.

That didn’t happen. The Socialists now find themselves in a Parliament almost identical to the previous one, but with the extreme right of Vox taking the place of Ciudadanos, which suffered a possibly fatal collapse. The left has seven fewer seats than in the previous parliament. UP and the Socialists have lost the same number of votes (about 700,000), out of which only a third were absorbed by the new party led by Errejòn (which achieved a very underwhelming result). Despite this, the total number of votes won by the left was still higher than that won by the right—indeed, the gap has only grown compared to the previous elections.

The election campaign was steered, by the media and by the Socialists, to focus on two themes: Catalonia and moving the remains of Francisco Franco. Economic and social issues have not made it onto the agenda. This, indeed, is the only reason behind the growth of Vox. Until two months ago, this party was in sharp decline. The new centrality acquired by the Catalan question and the choice by Sánchez to play up the significance of moving Franco’s remains for electoral purposes gave visibility to Vox and its nostalgic and authoritarian nationalism, allowing it to function as a catalyst for the right-wing identitarian-leaning vote.

The case of Ciudadanos also deserves some careful consideration. Just a year ago, this party was hitting 30% in polls. In the April 2019 elections, it almost managed to beat the Popular Party. In the subsequent months, it was predicted to grow even further (as Vox has managed to do) and take away the title of largest right-wing party from the PP. Instead, it has dropped to 6% and has lost four-fifths of its parliamentary presence. Ciudadanos was considered “the right-wing Podemos,” one of the two parties which rose up as alternatives against the previous two-party system. At the moment, this role seems to have been inherited by Vox. 

This process shows just how high electoral volatility is nowadays, but also the fact that this volatility is always moving within the same ideological field: votes almost never flow from the left to the right or vice versa. People are still prevalently either right- or left-leaning, and vote for ‘their own side.’ In the conservative part of the field, the right is becoming radicalized and the center is disappearing; in the progressive camp, we are seeing comparatively less radicalization.

The results earned by Unidas Podemos cannot be called positive. Once again, the coalition has lost votes compared to the previous elections. It had six million votes in 2015, five million in 2016, 3.7 in April, and only three million in Sunday’s elections. Despite this, the project by the Socialists and a good part of the Spanish economic elite to irreversibly cut down Podemos’s share of the vote has failed. 

One can talk about a successful resistance by Podemos and its coalition, who have consolidated a rather solid voting bloc, and have managed once again—and in very difficult conditions—to conduct a good campaign, capable of deploying both locally and in traditional and digital media. It might be necessary, however, for the UP to have a serious debate on the “fetishization” of the desire to be in government, something which has characterized them for the past two years, in which they have been insisting, in a mostly one-note manner, on the need to form a majority with the Socialists—from a position which has moreover become more and more subordinate. Certainly, the UP has tried in this way to send the message that they could get things done (and being in government has always been Podemos’s goal), but their insistence on this particular point has also led part of its electorate to no longer perceive a significant difference between them and the Socialists.

What will happen now? Technically, a progressive coalition government is still possible, just like it was before. This prospect, however, has always been the most unwelcome one to the Socialists. On the other hand, if the PSOE seeks to form a government with the PP, they risk being abandoned by their voters. Somehow, Sanchez has managed to get himself caught in the web of his own backfiring strategy.

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