Spain’s centre-left Socialist Party won significantly in Sunday’s election, but forming a government on its own is out of reach. Far-right Vox party enters parliament for first time. Prof. Sebastiaan Faber analyzes the result
SHARMINI PERIES It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. In a relatively surprising development, Spain’s traditional conservative party, the People’s Party, suffered a crushing defeat at the polls last Sunday, securing only 66 seats, down from the 137 they had in the 2016 election. Meanwhile, Spain’s center-left Socialist Party, PSOE, increased its representation in parliament to 123 seats, up from the 84 they had before. It is now expected that Pedro Sanchez, the leader of PSOE, will form a minority government. Meanwhile, the far right-wing party, Vox, also made inroads, winning representation in parliament for the first time when it gained 10 percent of the vote and 24 seats. Joining me now to discuss the results is Sebastiaan Faber. Sebastiaan is a professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College and author of the book Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War. Welcome back, Sebastiaan.
SEBASTIAAN FABER My pleasure.
SHARMINI PERIES So Sebastiaan, a big victory for PSOE last night in spite of the fact that over the last few years, center-left governments have been losing ground in Europe, but that changed last night in Spain. What happened?
SEBASTIAAN FABER Well the left in Spain and I think in the rest of Europe, breathed a sigh of relief last night because for a while, it looked like Spain might see the victory of three right-wing parties who were predicted by some polls to be able to win a majority in the parliament and form a right-wing government, including that new radical-right party you just mentioned, Vox. That would have meant walking back decades-worth of progressive achievements, from women’s rights to LGBTQ rights to animal rights, and including a scaling back of Spain’s territorial division into autonomous regions. So the big sigh of relief that happened last night was because these three right-wing parties failed to win the parliament majority in large part because of the Partido Popular— the P.P. you just mentioned, which is traditionally the biggest center-right party— had a crushing defeat and lost a whole big chunk of its parliamentary representation. Instead, the big winner last night was the Socialist Party, which currently has been governing the country by itself with a parliamentary minority since last summer. And in a way, the voters confirmed that this is their way they want the country to go. They gave Pedro Sanchez, the current prime minister, more than a passing grade. They gave him a very good grade. And the Socialist Party is coming out of these elections stronger than it was before. That said, the Socialist Party still does not have, by itself, a majority of seats in government. It has more than it had, but still no majority. So to pass any legislation, they will need the support of any other parties in the parliament. Whether they will do that by forming a formal coalition with other parties on the left— such as Unidas Podemos, which is a relatively new party to the left of the Socialists— whether they’ll form those coalitions, is up for question. Currently, the signals since last night seem to be that Socialists are going to try to go it alone and rely on opportunistic or ad-hoc agreements with parties in the parliament, but I think all that remains to be seen. Everybody in the left in Spain is saying they’re taking things very slowly by taking their time to sit down and talk through things. And the reason they’re doing that, in part, is because within less than a month, the Spaniards are going back to the polls again. This time around, to vote for regional, municipal, and the European Parliament and many parties will tread very carefully in the coming weeks with an eye to these other elections. Nobody will want to be caught making concessions or partnering up with parties that may disenchant their own base. So everybody will be very careful, quite secretive, as they figure out what’s the next step. People do agree though that what is in Spain’s best interest at this point is a stable government that can pass legislation, including budgets and that might be able to make some progress in solving this incredible conundrum that has had the country paralyzed and polarized for the last two years, which is what to do with Catalonia— which two years ago, tried to become independent through referendum and since then, has been caught in a stalemate with Madrid.
SHARMINI PERIES Explain further, Sebastiaan, how Catalonian independence played out in this election.
SEBASTIAAN FABER Well the three parties on the right decided to take an extreme hard line in the campaign leading up to these elections last Sunday on Catalonia. So they called any of the Catalan politicians who are in favor of independence or even self-determination, they called those “golpistas,” which is “perpetrators of a coup.” So in their mind, the referendum that happened two years ago was in fact a coup, comparable to the coup in 36′ that unleashed the Spanish Civil War. And they called these people basically traitors to the fatherland, traitors to the homeland. They took an extreme hard line and in a way, the voters on Sunday indicated that they don’t think that is a viable line to take. One way to interpret Sunday’s results is to say the Spanish electorate understands that whatever their position might be in Catalonia, the only way forward is dialogue. Madrid has to sit down with Barcelona and talk through things and see what solutions might be available that could please all parties, rather than this hard, confrontative crack down line that even on the right, included a proposal to make any party that’s in favor of Catalan independence illegal in Spain. It basically excluded them from the political game altogether. So in a way, the Spanish electorate has said, that’s not the line we think makes sense. That’s not the approach we think Spain should take because in the end, we have to find a way to all live together.
SHARMINI PERIES Now explain further how this, Catalonian independence, played out in the right-wing parties because, as you stated earlier, the People’s Party had lost quite a bit of seats. It settled at 66 seats. So obviously, this was a fracturing issue in the right as well.
SEBASTIAAN FABER It was. Just as a side note, Spain’s electoral system tends to exaggerate differences. So the PP’s loss and the Socialist’s win, in percentages, was a little bit less than those seats seem to indicate. That said, it is really telling that those parties that the three right-wing parties— including the PP that took this very hard line on Spain’s territorial question— lost even more seats than they had already been losing in the past couple of years, precisely in those regions who have a big stake in regional autonomy. Namely, Catalonia and the Basque Country. In Catalonia, I believe that the PP has been reduced to a single seat in the national parliament in Madrid. And in Basque Country, it has disappeared from the map altogether, and that is really telling. So those peripheral regions that strongly believe in their right to self-government have basically told the PP, look, as long as you take this hard line, we’re not going to vote for you anymore.
SHARMINI PERIES Now PSOE has indicated that they are willing to actually govern, even though they have a minority status as a government, and the option of forming a coalition with Podemos is out there, but they haven’t committed to that. So give us a little bit here in terms of where does this leave Podemos? And also, in terms of how did they do in the election? They seem to be in favor of forming a coalition with PSOE. Where does this leave Podemos?
SEBASTIAAN FABER Podemos has had a really hard couple of years marked by intense internal strife, publicly-displayed fights among the leadership, leading even to the breakaway of basically Pablo Iglesias’s number two, Inigo Errejon, [who] went on to found his own party not too long ago. So Podemos has had a really hard time. Given that, it didn’t do so badly. The lowest it polled at one point was around 12 percent. They ended up winning about 14 percent, which is indicative of a recovery of some sort. That said, they did lose 29 of their 71 seats on Sunday, which is not a good result and Pablo Iglesias admitted that very frankly. He said, we are not happy with this result. In the campaign, Podemos’s main pitch was: you need to vote for us. We need to be in the government because we are the only ones who can keep the socialists to the left of the line. The Socialists are center, they’re mainstream, and if nobody watches them, they’ll easily slide back into a centrist position and they will renege on their progressive promises. However, if we are part of the government, if we govern with the Socialists, then we will keep them honest in a way. So therefore and since the election on Sunday, they said we want to be in the government with the Socialists. We want to form a real progressive government in Spain to continue the progressive agenda we initiated last summer when Pedro Sanchez became prime minister. And the Socialist leader became prime minister through a vote of no-confidence and an agenda that so far, has been bogged down a couple times. With Podemos’s support, the Socialists did manage to pass a couple of important pieces of progressive legislation, including prominently, hiking up minimum wage in Spain. It was a major victory. So Podemos is looking forward to doing more of those kinds of things and to help the Socialists keep their electoral promises. The Socialists are careful. They know they won the elections. They can bask in their victory. They know other elections are coming up in less than a month. So they are very careful not to make any moves that might alienate any part of their base. So my prediction is that things will not actually be clear in terms of who is going to govern with whom, until after May 26th when those other elections occur.
SHARMINI PERIES Alright. So let’s go to the party that won. PSOE-— in the victory speech, Pedro Sanchez said the following.
PEDRO SANCHEZ The Socialist Party has won the elections. [crowd cheers] We have made it happen. The Socialist Party has won the general election and with that, the future has won, and the past has lost. Because they are also watching us and listening to us outside Spain, particularly in Europe, we will form a pro-European government to strengthen and not debilitate Europe.
SHARMINI PERIES Now with the growing anti-EU sentiments in Europe, Sebastiaan, what does this victory for Sanchez actually mean and how is this going to be now played out as far as the EU elections that are coming up?
SEBASTIAAN FABER I think of the different countries in Western Europe, anti-EU sentiment in Spain is among the lowest. Even parties on the right, like the Partido Popular, would not dream of really being Euro-skeptical. That new radical right-party, Vox, is very Euro-skeptical. It got 10 percent of the vote, but I think Spain’s attitude towards Europe will not so fundamentally change. The Socialist Party, like other social- democratic or left parties in Europe, does believe that the European Union should move to the left in terms of its economic policy, in terms of its thinking about social justice, but I don’t see any major move from Spain toward the European Union. We’ll see what happens in the European elections. The key point of interest for European elections, which like I said are in less than a month, is to what extent the trends that we saw happen at the national level in Spain on Sunday will continue, and the same is true for those regional and municipal elections. So the question is whether the Partido Popular, the main center-right party, will continue its decline; whether the new radical-right party, Vox, will continue with its ascent; and whether the socialists will continue their growth as well. That’s the big question.
SHARMINI PERIES Alright. Sebastiaan, I thank you so much for joining us. Sebastiaan Faber, professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College. He has just filed a story in The Nation about the election. So if you want to know more, go there. Thank you so much for joining us.
SEBASTIAAN FABER You’re welcome.
SHARMINI PERIES And thank you for joining us here on The Real news Network.