Far right loses in Spain’s hung parliament

27 July 2023
Tom Sullivan

As millions of Spaniards went to the polls on 24 July during a blistering European heatwave, many breathed a cool sigh of relief as the results came in. The widely expected parliamentary majority of the centre right People’s Party (PP) and the far-right Vox party did not eventuate. In fact, Vox’s vote went down markedly from the last election in 2019, as it lost 19 of its 52 seats.

Many were concerned that the far right was going to enter government for the first time since the overthrow of Spain’s fascist dictatorship in 1975. But the final outcome remains unclear. The governing Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, PSOE, improved its vote but still fell short of a majority in its own right. It will likely need the support of several separatist parties in both Catalonia and the Basque Country to form government.

The election was called in response to a significant rejection of the PSOE in municipal elections across the country in May. Vox achieved strong results in those elections, which gave it momentum going into the federal election. But despite its poor result at the national level, the party has risen quickly since its formation in 2013 and is seeking to emulate the rise of other far-right parties across Europe in recent years. Forging links with these parties, they invited Italian fascist leader Giorgia Meloni to speak, via video link, at one of their campaign rallies.

Vox made a name for itself when the Catalan independence movement was at its height in 2017. Its platform is fiercely against all separatist movements in Spain and seeks to consolidate power in Madrid. On top of this, the party’s policies are in line with other far-right parties in Europe in calling for immigration cuts, with particular vitriol aimed at African refugees and migrants, attacking LGBTI rights and opposing laws against sexual violence.

But despite Vox’s poor result, the election was no glowing endorsement of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his government. Since his election in 2019, Sánchez has ramped up military spending, unleashed the security forces on refugees and repressed progressive protests. He also mishandled the pandemic disastrously.

The PSOE was accompanied in these efforts by the Podemos party. Born out of a wave of anti-austerity protests in 2013, Podemos catapulted into the Spanish electoral arena winning 8 percent of the vote only four months later in the European Union elections. The party was a popular expression of the mass discontent in Spanish society and a rejection of the political class following the global economic crisis. It gained popularity through its unorthodox party organisation, which includes online voting, a youthful leadership that rejects the suit-and-tie appearance of establishment politicians, and a platform that includes higher taxes on corporations and an expansion of welfare.

Podemos quickly replaced the United Left coalition, which includes the Communist Party, as the main left-wing force in the country. But the Podemos leadership rapidly moved to the right and has continued to do so. Early in the formation of the party, the leadership around academic Pablo Iglesias quickly isolated the leftist elements in the party and gained control.

After the 2019 election, Podemos joined a PSOE coalition to install Sánchez as prime minister. As a deputy prime minister, Iglesias has provided left cover for a government that has made deals with the International Monetary Fund to implement austerity and has continually opposed Catalonian independence.

On this issue, Podemos’s lurch to the right is particularly clear. When the regional government of Catalonia declared independence in 2017, Iglesias called it “illegal”, instead calling for “dialogue” and “breathing room”. In government with the PSOE, Podemos has helped Sánchez to quell the independence movement by bringing important separatist parties into government.

In 2021, Iglesias resigned as deputy prime minister. This was not because of any major political disagreement with the PSOE government. It was so that he could run in the Madrid regional elections, where the party’s declining support risked it becoming irrelevant in the most important part of the country.

In the 2023 elections, Podemos ran as part of the recently formed Sumar coalition, led by the Communist Party labour minister in the current government. Compared to the similar left coalition in 2019, Sumar lost seven seats, while Podemos lost nine seats.

The rejection of both Sumar and Podemos is a result of their complicity in a PSOE government that has implemented conservative, anti-worker policies. Barely a decade ago, Podemos was an encouraging step forward for the Spanish left, but its leadership has watered down its platform and demobilised its members and wider social movements in order to earn a place in government. The recent electoral result will raise questions about the future of the party.

It is unclear whether Sánchez will be able to gain the support of separatist parties and pull together a coalition government. A return to the polls remains a possibility. Whoever ends up governing Spain, they face a number of challenges.

While the separatist movement in Catalonia may have fallen from the heights it achieved in 2017, the issue has not gone away and the potential for another wave of struggle always exists. At the same time, the Spanish economy continues to stagnate and the PSOE has no answer to the rise of the far right—except to embrace its hardline position on refugees and other issues. A second Sánchez government with the support of Podemos and Sumar would be no step forward for the millions of Spaniards looking for an alternative to the political establishment.

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