The Spanish Election was meant to see the fragile coalition of Socialist PM Pedro Sanchez swept away and usher in a right-wing coalition government of The People's Party (PP) and the far right extremist Vox party. With all the votes now counted, no one party or coalition has won enough seats in the Congress of Deputies to declare victory. Both PSOE, the mainstream social-democratic party of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, and their conservative opponents PP fell short of the 176 seats needed for a majority, even when combined with parties likely to ally with them.
One of the big surprises was far right Vox losing 19 seats. Sanchez, against the odds, has managed to see off the challenge from the right and has a small chance of bringing together a governing coalition with left supporting Sumar and other smaller regional parties. The balance of power lies with the Junts group of Catalan nationalists. To understand what they might do, you have to go back to the Catalan referendum of 2017.
was the phrase that came to mind as I observed the Catalan independence referendum that year. 'Si' was the word on posters, flags and banners from building to building all over Barcelona and Girona as I holidayed there that summer. It was deja vu
in the sense that it brought flooding back memories of the very visible Scottish 'Yes' campaign. But in another sense it was quite different.
In Scotland 2014, the UK Government accepted that the question had to be put and engaged along with all the political parties and groupings in the campaign. The Catalan vote was declared unconstitutional, those opposed largely abstained and the international observers declared the vote invalid and unsafe. If the constitutional status of that referendum was very different from what happened in Scotland, the political and economic arguments were very much the same. The nationalists talked up the social and economic benefits that would flow from a 'Si' vote and independence, raising a false public expectation of what could be achieved in an independent Catalonia. The political leaders of the abortive referendum ended up being prosecuted, imprisoned or fleeing into exile.
Fast forward to Spain today. Perhaps we should have been more sceptical of the prediction that Sanchez was signing his own political death warrant by calling a snap election after a poor showing in the regional vote. In the UK, inflation currently is still far too high at over 7% and the Bank of England is having to raise interest rates and lower its growth forecast. In Spain, Sanchez has managed to get inflation down to meet his 2% target. In spite of having the slimmest of majorities, he has achieved this by forceful management of the economy. He took quicker, more concerted action than our government did.
Spain capped energy prices by more than the UK, lowered the cost of public transport, taxed excess profits and put in place limits on how much landlords can raise rents. This kept inflation from spreading more widely and more persistently than elsewhere. When they came to vote, the Spanish public seemed more influenced by these bread and butter issues than the far right extremist rhetoric of Vox. Vox's hardline attitudes were epitomised by their massive banner unfurled in central Madrid showing a hand tossing symbols representing feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, Catalan independence, climate crisis action and communism into a bin.
When you look deeper into why Sanchez performed better than expected, that phrase deja vu
comes back to mind. PSOE recovered their strong position in Catalonia while the nationalists slipped right back. A similar pattern can be seen in Scotland with Scottish Labour on the rise while the SNP have fallen back.
Miriam Nogueras, a Junts candidate in Barcelona, said: 'We will not support Mr Sanchez in return for nothing... our priority is Catalonia – not the governability of the country'. Only a few weeks ago, SNP Leader, Humza Yousaf, said much the same when asked what he would do if Keir Starmer got the most seats but not a working majority. He talked about any support being conditional on getting something in return. Mind you, he did this while ruling out any SNP support for a Tory Government, thus throwing away his one bargaining chip.
Junts are in a similar position. It would be virtually impossible for them to support a right-wing coalition including Vox who are in favour of banning nationalist parties altogether. With a much weakened vote, they are in no position to demand major concessions from Sanchez, who has already been far more sympathetic to Catalan aspirations than the previous PP Government. They just might be able to secure an amnesty for their political leaders currently facing extradition back to Spain to face trial.
On the other hand, the threat of sitting on their hands, making Spain ungovernable and forcing a fresh election by the end of the year is a very real one – one they have the numbers to make happen. But history shows that forcing an unwanted election on people is a two-edged sword that can leave you badly wounded.