Spanish elections: Vox threat scares PSOE and UP into government deal


By Dick Nichols

November 21, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The apparent winner of the November 10 Spanish general election was Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) acting prime minister Pedro Sánchez, whose party picked up the most seats (120) in the 350-seat Congress.

The contest was the fourth general election in four years. Sánchez had won the most seats but not an absolute majority at the previous poll on April 28 with a scare campaign about “holding off the right”. Afterwards, however, the PSOE decided that it could gain still more by refusing to enter a governmental alliance with the more left-wing Unidas Podemos (UP). UP is an alliance between Podemos and the older left coalition, the United Left (IU). 

That option for government would have been possible on the basis of unity between these two all-Spanish groupings and the parties—left, centre-left and centre-right—representing so-called “third Spain”. This term refers to the historic nations within the Spanish state: Catalonia, the Basque Country in Spain (Euskadi and Navarra) and Galicia, along with the regions like the Valencian Country, Balearic Islands, Canary Islands and Aragon.

However, the PSOE’s plan after April 28 was to manage negotiations with UP so as to ensure their breakdown and then blame UP leader Pablo Iglesias’s ambition and arrogance for dragging Spain into yet another election. The extra support that the PSOE hoped that this strategem would garner was mainly to come from centre-of-the-road voters for the neoliberal Citizens (“the Podemos of the right”), supposedly alienated by leader Albert Rivera’s crusade to overtake the People’s Party (PP) as the hegemonic force on the right.

Stubborn Spanish reality

However, this scheme clashed with a stubborn reality of Spanish politics—voters rarely cross the right-left divide, whose origins go back to the 1936-39 Civil War, and elections are decided more by the rise and fall in the participation rate. When this increases, it is usually a sign that the PSOE and the parties to its left have managed to mobilise the more politically apathetic and alienated sections of the working and popular classes, as happened on April 28.

That reality was reasserted on November 10 when only 5% of those who had voted for Citizens in April are estimated to have passed over no-man’s land to the PSOE. Moreover, within the left bloc there was only a slight change in the balance between the PSOE and UP, with the PSOE losing three seats (from 123 to 120) and UP seven (from 42 to 35). Newcomer Más País (More Country), led by former Podemos “number two” Iñigo Errejón, won two. Total left bloc seats thus fell from 165 to 157, while the right bloc—the PP, Citizens and far right Vox—grew by only three (from 149 to 152). The bloc of “third Spain” parties grew by five seats (from 36 to 41).

The first prong of the PSOE’s two-prong strategy therefore failed. Two million fewer voted than in April—the participation rate fell from a very high 75.7% to a still high 69.9%—and Spain’s social democracy lost 728,000 voters, while UP lost 636,000. Most of UP’s losses went to Más País, which won 399,000 votes (1.6%) at its first outing. 

The hundreds of thousands of disillusioned Citizen’s voters who were marked to come across to the PSOE went overwhelmingly went to their right, as the party’s seat haul collapsed from 57 to 10. Previous supporters deserted either to the PP or went directly into the arms of the real winner on November 10, the ultra-right Vox, whose leader Santiago Abascal is the Spanish equivalent of France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini. Both those xenophobes rushed to salute Abascal for his party’s successful climb from fifth- to third- largest party in the Congress, with 15.1% support.

In contrast with the stasis within the left bloc, the right bloc thus experienced a huge convulsion with the rise of Vox. Propelled from 24 to 52 seats by an extra 962,000 votes, it is now placed to use Spain’s parliamentary institutions to intensify its holy war against the Catalan movement for self-determination and to “normalise” its agenda of standard far-right social hatreds. As a parliamentary group with more than 50 MPs, it can be expected to bombard the Spanish Constitutional Court with demands for the illegalisation of pro-independence parties and with challenges to the legality of Catalan, Basque and Galician institutions.

Even where such initiatives fail, they will help Vox promote its prize project—a constitutional counter-reform that eliminates Spain’s autonomous communities (states) and returns the country to the territorial uniformity and compulsory Spanish patriotism of the Franco dictatorship.

In a sign of what’s to come, on November 7 the “triple-headed” right majority in the Madrid regional parliament adopted a Vox-promoted resolution that called on the central Spanish government to immediately outlaw “separatist parties that threaten the unity of the nation”, to have the National High Court place the Catalan Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs) on the European list of terrorist and criminal organisations and to overturn any funding by regional governments of the CDRs and of “any organisation having a direct or indirect relation to them”. 

This resolution, which the Sánchez government will challenge in the Constitutional Court, dramatises the fact that Spain is not living through a return to bipartisan “normality” under returning PSOE and PP hegemony, but a deepening of the crisis that has gripped its political life since the 2010 Constitutional Court ruling against the Catalan Statute of Autonomy and the 2011 outbreak of the indignado movement. At this election the polarisation became greater, despite the increase in the PSOE and PP vote.

On November 12, largely in reaction to the menace of a radicalised right that the PSOE’s decision to go to repeat the election had provoked, Sánchez and Iglesias stitched up a pre-agreement for government in less than 48 hours. It was either that or increase the possibility of yet another election that would give the “tripled-headed” right another opportunity to reproduce its Andalusian and Madrid administrations at the level of the Spanish state.

A plebiscite about Catalonia

Why did Vox, which until the April 28 general election had never won a seat in any Spanish parliament, gain most? Why has Spain, where it was common to boast that “we don’t have a far right”, now become just another European country with the usual gang of haters occupying seats in parliament?

The immediate reason is that the election campaign amounted to a competition between the unionist parties (the PSOE, PP, Citizens and Vox) as to who could best deal with the Catalan movement for sovereignty and independence. In that context Vox’s “the enemy-is-at-the-gates” alarmism projected it as most fit to confront this menace to Spain’s unity. The result on November 10 confirmed what a poll published in El País had shown a fortnight earlier: that 30% of PP voters, 15% of Citizens’ voters and even 8% of PSOE voters regarded Vox as the party “best equipped to confront the Catalan conflict”.

Abascal had previously exploited Vox’s role as “popular prosecution” in the trial of the 12 Catalan political and social leaders to project his party as the most heroic and reliable defender of Spanish state unity. Javier Ortega Smith, Vox number two and leading “popular prosecutor”, demanded a collective jail term of over 700 years for these “coup-mongers”, guilty of helping organise the October 1, 2017 independence referendum. 

The most visible form of the Catalan challenge has been the ongoing wave of protest against the October 14 Supreme Court verdict that condemned nine of the leaders to a total of 99.5 years jail on charges of sedition and embezzlement. This upsurge, driven by the Catalan National Assembly, Òmnium Cultural, the CDRs and the internet-based network Democratic Tsunami and many other initiatives, completely dominated the election campaign. The Spanish media, political and judicial establishment reacted to it with extreme alarm, provoking the PSOE government to a panicky response that was most helpful to Vox.

Sánchez attempted to defuse the right-wing’s aggressive hysteria by adopting versions of its proposals for containing the Catalan threat. These come from the most reactionary elements in the judiciary, police and Civil Guard, those directly committed to “nailing” the Catalan movement and government once and for all, irrespective of who might be running government in Madrid. The PSOE’s retreat before this pressure reached its lowest point in the one televised candidate debate when a flustered Sánchez stated that he would make sure that exiled Catalan ex-president Puigdemont was brought back from Belgium to face trial. When later reminded by a journalist that this was a job for the prosecutor-general’s office, he asked: “And who appoints the prosecutor-general?”

With that remark, Sánchez torpedoed his own government’s justification for not suspending the prosecution of the Catalan leaders when asked to—out of the PSOE’s much-vaunted respect for the separation of powers. The next day, Sánchez retreated, ascribing his dangerous slip into truthfulness to the stress of campaigning: “Of course, we respect the independence of the judiciary.” 

The PSOE’s other main concessions were a promise to reinstate the law prohibiting regional governments from holding referenda--even though it had been repealed by a previous PSOE government in 2005—and the adoption of the right’s own narrative about Catalonia as a problem of social co-existence, as if Catalonia were Belfast or Kosovo. Throughout the campaign Spain’s acting prime minister also refused to answer the phone when told that Catalan president Quim Torra was on the line.

Sánchez was preceded down this path by his ministers. Attorney-general Fernando Grande-Marlaska sought to deflect right-wing rant about Democratic Tsunami with the statement that “we have very good secret services and they will soon find out who’s behind it”. On October 17, Abascal demanded that Belgium be declared an “unfriendly power” and the border with Gibraltar closed in the event of Belgian and/or British court refusal to extradite exiled Catalan ex-president Carles Puigdemont and his former ministers. Deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo then said that the PSOE government “would not understand” if the Belgian courts did not hand over the “fugitives from justice” of a legal system that is equal in prestige to Belgium’s own and threatened Spain’s fellow European Union member state with “consequences”.

UP alone of the all-Spanish parties called for treating the conflict with Catalonia as a political problem to be solved by dialogue and negotiation. Its campaign did not, however, focus on the aggressively defending the central issue of the democratic right to self-determination of the Catalan people, given that it clearly judged this would have risked it losing support in the rest of the Spanish state. Leader Iglesias’s line was to contrast his own “patriotism” as a supporter of social rights for all in the Spanish state to the neofrancoist ravings of Vox.

The hyenas devour Citizens…and Rivera

All of this only helped Vox surge on November 10: the atmosphere of crisis produced by the sentencing of the Catalan leaders gave it a golden opportunity to combine unabashed anti-Catalanism and extreme (and unconstitutional) Spanish unionism with the classic messages of the European far right—all presented as issues that “ordinary people” want to discuss but the political establishment wants to censure.

Delivered in a Spanish national football match atmosphere by leaders who are “people just like you and me”, Vox’s diatribe scapegoated illegal migrants for lengthening waiting times in the health system and worsening rape statistics; demanded unaccompanied refugee minors be sent “home”; blasted feminism and LGBTI rights as undermining the family and promoting persecution of men and manliness; celebrated bull-fighting as an integral part of Spanish culture and a heritage value; and claimed a recentralised state could simultaneously improve services and cut taxes.

Vox was helped by a free run in the right-wing media, including a prime-time interview with Abascal on Spain’s most popular TV chat show. The result was that millions of right-wing voters found to their delight that Vox was “the real thing”. Unlike Citizens, it was untainted by any suspicions of liberalism and would never get involved in the formation of a PSOE government (as Citizens had done in the past).

Vox was also helped by the splits and desertions that Citizens had suffered throughout 2019, as those who believed in its original rhetoric of being a liberal, modern alternative to the archaic political families became increasingly disillusioned with leader Rivera’s ambition to overtake the PP as the hegemonic force on the right, a daydream encouraged by Citizen’s winning 57 seats to the PP’s 66 in April. 

On November 10, Vox tore hundreds of thousands of voters away from Albert Rivera’s media-created pseudo-party. It was joined in the job by the PP, whose 660,000 extra votes lifted it to second place with 20.8% of the vote (up 22 seats to 89). Most of this looks to represent PPers coming back home after punishing their party in April for its failure to stop the humiliating Catalan independence referendum. Devoured by the hyenas of Vox and the PP, Citizens lost 2.5 million of its 4.1 million April vote, being reduced from 57 seats to 10.

What proportion of the lost Citizens’ vote went respectively to the two other right-wing parties will only be really known when the results of the traditional post-election survey of the Centre of Sociological Research (CIS) are released. What seems highly likely, however, is that the Vox vote represents a legitimisation, a “coming out of the cupboard”, of the Spanish-chauvinist and racist vote that was long housed away inside the “old” PP and a sizeable portion of which initially went to Citizens because of its rabid anti-Catalanism. Now it has deserted that party because of Citizens’ apparent concessions to modernity in areas like immigration, feminism and sexual and identity rights, anathema to the Francoist nostalgists and macho tough guys who are Vox’s most enthusiastic supporters.

A side benefit of Citizens’ implosion was that it brought an end to the political career of the narcissistic Albert Rivera. He began public life in 2006 as a rabid opponent of the Catalan education system and built Citizens as the “outraged” voice of unionism in the Catalan parliament before being adopted—and lavishly funded—by parts of the Spanish ruling elite as leader of the “Podemos of the right”. Increasingly abandoned by his patrons once it became clear that Podemos would not be a lethal threat to them, Rivera promptly ended his career of insolent provocations and stupid media stunts, returning to the job that Spanish financial giant Caixabank had kept open for him.

The farce of Rivera’s end, however, provides only very slight relief from the pain of Vox’s leap forward. In April, Vox’s gains came mostly from the richest of central Spain’s regions, such as the northern suburbs of Madrid, seduced by its message of massive tax cuts funded by the elimination of regional government. The rest of its April vote came from some of the poorest regions, such as the Region of Murcia, with a higher immigrant population than the rest of the state.

On November 10, this second component of the Vox vote expanded most of all, as the some of the poorest and most neglected parts of the population bought the Vox narrative of a Spain under siege from a pincer of rich, disloyal (and violent) Catalan independentism and Islamic communities who “don’t want to integrate”. This was the case of the Region of Murcia, where Vox came in first with 28% of the vote and where the poorly paid work in market gardens is mainly done by immigrants from Eastern Europe and North Africa. A November 16 study of the vote in El País found that there was a significant relation between North African immigration and the Vox vote across all regions and income levels, but in particular along the Mediterranean coast.

Growth of the ‘third Spain’ 

The rise of Vox was mirrored in the growth of the “third Spain”. As support for the all-Spanish right and left continues to fade in what Madrid-centred commentators persist in calling “the periphery”, the all-of-Spain vote for these variegated forces increased from 9.7% to 11.6%. 

In Catalonia, the overall pro-independence vote—shared between Together for Catalonia (JxCat), the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the People’s Unity List (CUP)—rose from 39.4% to 42.6%, increasing the pro-independent tally of Catalonia’s 48 Congress seats from 22 to 23. It overtook the overall unionist vote—for the PP, Vox, Citizens and the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), the PSOE’s Catalan branch—which fell from 43.2% to 39.8% (down by one seat to 18). The vote for the pro-sovereignty Together We Can (ECP), UP’s Catalan sister party, fell slightly, from 14.9% to 14.2%, while it maintained its seven seats. Thirty of Catalonia’s 48 MPs in Madrid, elected by 56.8% of the vote, now support the country’s right to decide—the highest proportion ever.

The convulsion within the right bloc was marked in Catalonia, with Citizens losing three of its five seats and the PP and Vox picking up one apiece, reducing the right’s total presence in the Catalan seats in Congress to six out of 48.

The leading parties within both independence and unionist camps both lost support, with 168,000 voters deserting the PSC but with no change in seats. Within the independence bloc ERC, which had unconditionally offered to help invest Sánchez before the sentencing of the Catalan leaders (and had actually criticised UP for holding out too much for better deal), lost two seats as the CUP won two and JxCat one. This result indicated that after the sentence of its leaders independence sentiment in Catalonia had strengthened in favour of not supporting any Spanish party for government unless it made meaningful concessions to Catalan demands. The CUP, which stood for the first time in a Spanish general election, represents that position at its strongest, making any support for the PSOE conditional on its accepting a Scottish-style referendum for Catalonia.

In Euskadi, the centre-right Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) initially won an extra seat at the expense of UP, but this went to the PP on a recount while in Navarra the left-independentist EH Bildu took a seat from the PSOE. EH Bildu’s overall vote in Euskadi increased, from 16.7% to 18.7%, with its absolute vote also increasing despite the 5.6% decline in the participation rate. Besides Más País, standing for the first time, the only other party to win an absolute increase in votes was the PP, probably helped by stressing its “Basquist” character and support for the Basque economic compact. This arrangement gives the Basque regional government taxation powers not enjoyed by any other regional administration except Navarra and has been criticised as privileged from within the PP itself.

In Galicia, the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG) returned to the Congress with one seat. The fifth gain for “third Spain” went to Teruel Exists!, a party that champions the cause of a depopulated and underserviced rural Aragon. Elsewhere—the Valencian Country, Canary Islands and Balearic Islands—the vote for the regionalist parties held up or increased slightly, without any gain in seats.


What kind of government can now emerge from the even more fragmented Congress produced by this election? The option of Spain’s business elites—a PSOE government invested with PP abstention—seems out of the question for the moment, given that the PP now has Vox as a strengthened rival that would never allow it to forget such a “crime”. A PSOE-PP deal would also have demoralised PSOE members and ended the party’s pretence that “We Are The Left”. On election night PSOE rank-and-filers greeted Sánchez’s victory speech with cries of “With [PP leader Pablo] Casado, No!” and “With Iglesias, Yes!”.

The dream of restoring the PP as the common home of the entire right foundered on November 10, guaranteeing ongoing Vox-PP rivalry over which can best defeat the Catalan threat and the “complicit” PSOE’s incapacity to contain it. Nonetheless, given the PSOE-UP pre-agreement for government, the party’s more “moderate” sectors, led by Galician premier Albert Núñez Feijóo, are urging that the PP be prepared to offer abstention for a PSOE-only government if that can stop what Feijóo calls “a coalition that is atypical, strange and lethal for constitutional Spain”.

On November 14, he told the PP’s Galician executive: “What is at stake for Spain is not a change of government but of model, of territorial, institutional, economic and social model. And changes of model cannot be carried out by parties that have been weakened at the ballot box [the PSOE and UP]. To do this in the midst of the pro-independence turmoil in Catalonia, with the Catalan independentists holding the key to government, is an irresponsibility of historical proportions.”

That sentiment is shared by the PSOE’s regional leaders (“barons”), who had adopted Sánchez’s UP- and Catalonia-bashing election campaign as their own. Now they are once again up in arms over their leader’s chameleonic reversion to the populist progressivism with which he won back the PSOE leadership after they had deposed him in 2016. As now, the issue then was one of stable government: Sánchez had to be dumped in order to allow a PP government under former prime minister Mariano Rajoy to form via PSOE abstention.

On November 15, Emiliano García Page, PSOE premier of Castila-La Mancha said “the government can’t depend on independentists”, Juan Carlos Rodríguez Ibarra, the former PSOE premier of Extremadura, promised to tear up his party card if there was a PSOE-UP deal with independentists, and former PSOE prime minister Felipe González, while not rejecting a PSOE-UP government outright, said be felt “deprived of political representation”. These shots across Sánchez’s bow have taken place before the PSOE-UP agreement has been concretised or a Congress majority found to back it. Sánchez’s response to the alarmed barons was to schedule a plebiscite of PSOE members on the agreement, knowing that the party’s rank-and-file will overwhelmingly endorse it.

The main immediate result of the agreement is to give UP cabinet positions and Pablo Iglesias a deputy prime ministership. Its ten “axes of a progressive coalition government” promise progressive policies in general terms but avoids concreteness on critical issues like repealing labour reforms that have destroyed wages and conditions for millions. On the burning issue of Catalonia the agreement follows the PSOE’s unionist line, seeking “recipes for understanding and coexistence, but always within the framework of the Constitution”.

A PSOE-UP government could introduce long-due and welcome reforms in areas like the extension of women’s rights, the right to euthanasia and the fight against corruption. If it were voted in, expectation of change for the better would also intensify and it would be greeted with rising hope from working people who have largely not yet recovered the income they lost in the recession following the 2008 financial crisis. If Spain’s important social movements—like the feminist movement, the Mortgage Victims’ Platform and the emerging climate movement—took the opportunity of the new government to mobilise in support of their demands, the mood of the “people of the left” could rise out of its present rather apathetic state.

However, the chances of the government even forming will depend critically on its concrete commitments about the sorest and most important point in Spanish politics—Catalonia. ERC agreement to abstain on the second round of voting, which requires only a relative majority to invest a proposed new prime minister, will be needed to get the necessary numbers. On November 13, ERC leader Pere Aragonés said that his party, whose abstention will be necessary for Sánchez and Iglesias, would not change its stance until tables of negotiation between Madrid and Barcelona abandoned earlier this year were re-established. At the time of writing, negotiations continue, with the ERC, JxCat and CUP trying to thrash out a common stance towards the PSOE-UP accord.


However, even if the high hurdle of ERC abstention is jumped and a PSOE-UP government finally formed, more serious problems will soon emerge, given the UP’s strategic choice to govern with the PSOE and leave all opposition in Congress to a radicalised right and “third Spain” parties. The latter will increasingly assume the mantle of opposition from the left, further eroding the position of UP’s partners in the historic communities. The first acid test for these forces will come in Catalonia, where ECP is caught between loyalty to the PSOE-UP deal and its commitment to a Catalan independence referendum.

UP’s decision to enter government contrasts with the “Portuguese option” adopted by the Left Bloc and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), that of issue-by-issue support or opposition to the Socialist Party government. This approach leaves a pole of left opposition visible, exercises permanent progressive pressure on the government and frees these parties to campaign for their own programs and initiatives.

It is not hard to list the issues that wil sorely test the UP as junior partner to the PSOE in government. Assuming a PSOE-UP administration gets endorsed by Congress vote, what degree of austerity will UP ministers, who would have no control over the core economic portfolios, accept if and when the looming recession arrives—especially as making the rich pay was a key message of the UP’s election campaign? Will the UP just accept draconian European Commission directives of the kind that were visited on Greece in 2010-2012? Will UP accept the degree of repression of the Catalan movement that is presently being prepared by reactionary, PP-driven, elements of the judiciary, acquiescing in the PSOE argument that the “separation of powers” prevents any action to the contrary? Will it continue to champion a referendum for Catalonia that more than 40% of people in the Spanish State now accept as necessary? How will it react to the protest that disappointment with the government is very likely to produce? 

How, in short, will UP reconcile being a “party of government” with being a “party of struggle”? The prospects are not good, as the agreement will make impossible the already weak and fading commitment of UP to a popular process of radical constitutional reform: that—beginning with a plebiscite on the monarchy and entrenching the right of self-determination—is the only way that the persistent and powerful Francoist continuities within the Spanish state can be liquidated.

UP will also arrive in government in very poor condition as an activist organisation. In the words of former UP MP Manolo Monereo in Cuarto Poder on November 16:

The serious problem isn’t just the decline in votes and seats, but the real loss of influence in society, the lack of strong social links and the progressive disappearance of the already little that was left of an active membership working in the branches […] UP arrives at this government almost in a state of exhaustion. Its political, organisational and theoretical foundations have degenerated a great deal in recent times, and the most serious danger UP runs as mere parliamentary-electoral front is that of trying to substitute these shortcomings with government management.

As matters stand the majority of UP’s membership and supporters still accept the Iglesias leadership’s argument that meaningful change in Spain can only come from UP being inside government—to purge the institutions and keep the PSOE honest. If a plebiscite of the Podemos membership is held, as has already been decided by IU, the agreement with the PSOE will certainly be endorsed.

The challenge for the forces within IU and Podemos who oppose this perspective is to strengthen—on the basis of important elements that already exist, such as the Anticapitalists’ current in Podemos and dissident currents within IU—an alternative to the current orientation of the Iglesias leadership that is visible and credible: one that speaks to the growing masses of people who will start to experience a PSOE-dominated government for what it can only be—a rescue operation of the post Franco dictatorship regime that “changes everything so that it can remain the same”.

Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An initial version of this article has appeared on its web site. Written with welcome help from Julian Coppens and Jamie Doughney.