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Election of the weekend 2: Spain


It was not so long ago that some comparative politics scholars were talking about the “Iberian exception.” While virtually every country in Europe had seen a the rise of some kind of radical right-populist party in the 21st century, Spain and Portugal were (along with Ireland) among the only exceptions to this trend. After 2019, the Iberian exception is no more. In the April 2019 election, Vox burst onto the scene with over 10% of the vote and 24 seats (out of 350). Vox is a pretty standard right-populist European party in many respects–reactionary gender and cultural politics, anti-immigration. A Spain-specific aspect of their platform and appeal is a pledge to roll back the “regional autonomy” that some subnational entities enjoy and seek to expand. (Zapatero, the Socialist Prime Minister from 2004-2011, ushered in greater regional autonomy for Catalonia, which has proved controversial and motivated some backlash against regionalism.) That April 2019 election should have produced a coalition government between PSOE (center-left social democrats) and Podemos (left-populists), but those two parties spent Spring and Summer dithering and feuding with each other, missing key deadlines to form a government and forcing a snap election in November, where Vox built on their gains, obtaining 15% of the vote and 52 seats. These gains came largely at the expense of other right-wing parties, so PSOE were and Podemos were still able to form a government with some help from a few minor parties, albeit one with much slimmer margins than they’d have had if they got their act together earlier in the year.

Earlier this year, regional elections produced ominous results for those hoping for Sanchez and the PSOE to win re-election on Sunday. The mainstream conservative party, PP, solidly outperformed the socialists, and Vox improved their performance substantially, positioning themselves to be a junior partner in several regional government coalitions. Polling suggests a PP-Vox conservative coalition is a very real possibility–median seat projections based on recent polling have PP+Vox projecting right at the 176 seat threshold needed to form a government. PSOE is projected at around 110 seats, and Sumar, the new left-populist coalition that replaces Podemos, is running neck and neck with Vox for 3rd, projecting ~35 seats. “Other” is projected at around 30 seats–the Spanish electoral system uses proportional representation in relatively small multimember districts (average is 7 seats, brought up considerably by Madrid and Barcelona, which are over 30 each), so it’s very difficult for small parties to break through unless they have geographically concentrated appeal. Therefore, almost all minor parties are regional in appeal. This system also makes the electoral prospects of parties like Vox and Sumar, both polling in the low double digits, as a minor shift in support might lead to them getting shut out in many districts.

If Conservatives even slightly overperform polling, the far right will almost certainly be in government for the first time in the post-Franco era. If Conservatives underperform, the outcome is a bit more uncertain. PSOE+Sumar is vanishingly unlikely to get to 176, and “other” is, as noted above, mostly Basque, Catalan, Galacian, and Canarian nationalists/separatists who are some combination of “difficult to work with” and “averse to entering governing coalitions for ideological reasons.” Nonetheless, more of these small parties are willing to support the formation of a left-wing government than a right-wing one (although there will be some on both sides), so a strong performance from PSOE+Sumar could get them just over the finish line.

This analysis, taking into account the historic accuracy of polling in Spanish national elections, assigns outcome probabilities accordingly:

1% PP alone government
55% PP+Vox coalition
5% PP+Vox coalition with an an assist from some minor parties
1% PSOE+Sumar coalition on their own
15% PSOE+Sumar coalition with an assist from some minor parties
23% None of the above, chaos, hung parliament? grand coalition? We do this again in 6-8 months?

I can’t vouch for this analysis but it seems like a reasonable assessment to the available data. The situation is grim, but not hopeless.

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