Spain Elects a New Parliament – Will There be a Government this Time?

Spain elects a new parliament for the fourth time in four years on 10 November


Spain will elect a new parliament for the fourth time in four years on 10 November (“10N”), after the failure of a coalition between the Social Democratic PSOE and the left-wing populist Unidos Podemos party. The elections are influenced by the worsening crisis in Catalonia, which has been shaken by violent protests since the judgments against the leaders behind the illegal independence referendum of 2017. There could also be further riots in Barcelona on the coming election Sunday. The central government is therefore sending additional security forces to the region to ensure that the elections run as smoothly as possible.

Due to the election marathon of recent years and the political “bloqueo” (blockade), most Spaniards do not regard Sunday’s vote as a democratic high mass, but at best as an almost annoying civic duty. Many Spaniards will obviously renounce their right to vote altogether – the voter turnout in postal votes is already well below the April figures, when the ballot box was called for the last time. A low voter turnout in Spain traditionally weakens the left-wing parties, but the overall outcome is still completely unclear. Whether or not the current prime minister, Pedro Sánchez (PSOE), will succeed in forming a stable government this time, remains to be seen. He had hoped to blame the frustration about failed government building on Unidos Podemos, but the PSOE did only marginally improve in the polls. Some pre-election polls even predict a loss: Sánchez’s calculations of betting on new elections may therefore not work. Another effect was that the new left-wing group Más Madrid (“More Madrid”), which until now had only competed in the capital, will now for the first time also compete in nationwide elections under the name of Más País (“More Land”), thus continuing the fragmentation of the leftist camp.

The liberal party Ciudadanos (“citizens”) will have to adjust to a loss of votes and is currently at only 9 percent in polls. Many Spaniards blame party leader Albert Rivera in particular for having ruled out a coalition with the PSOE after the last elections, above all because of his position in the Catalan conflict. Ciudadanos could also see Spanish electoral law as a disaster, as proportional representation only applies to regions that send a fixed number of deputies to the Madrid Congress according to their size. The distribution of seats in Madrid therefore reflects the nationwide distribution of votes only to a limited extent. If a medium-sized party such as Ciudadanos has lost votes, especially in large regions with many deputies, such as Catalonia, it can hardly compensate for this with better results in many small regions. Ciudadanos, for example, could therefore record heavy losses in Congress despite an acceptable proportion of votes.

Unfortunately, the conflict in Catalonia, as a decisive election campaign issue, also leads to a further increase for the right-wing populist party VOX (Latin for “voice”). Among other things, it advocates a particularly harsh crackdown by the central government in Catalonia, cleverly picking up on the growing impatience of the Spanish population with the violent protests and Chuzpe of the Catalan regional government. The latter condemns the riots half-heartedly at best. Pablo Casado could emerge from the “10N” as the relative surprise winner. Casado is the opposition leader of the conservative Spanish Partido Popular (“People’s Party”), which has been able to grow continuously in polls and seems to have overcome its trough phase after the overall unfortunate performance of its last prime minister Mariano Rajoy (2011 to 2018).

This could lead to a mathematically possible centre-right/right government with the participation of the PP, VOX and possibly even Ciudadanos. But the conflict potential within the coalition would be great (especially between Ciudadanos and VOX) and a Prime Minister Pablo Casado would have to declare, especially in Europe, that he has made right-wing populists hopeful at the national level in the shortest possible time. One can also assume that in this case not only Barcelona would face violent mass demonstrations, but that protests would also be unleashed in Madrid and other parts of the country. The defensive reflexes against any kind of nationalist rhetoric are still great some 45 years after the Franco era.

The most stable would be a grand coalition between the PSOE and the PP, which as a transitional solution would certainly have some advantages for overcoming the country’s most pressing problems. Spain needs a new social contract based on a broad political agreement. Due to the largely peaceful, exemplary transition after the dictatorship at the end of the 1970s and the underlying consensus to let the past rest in the sense of a future-oriented cooperation, there has never really been a substantial reappraisal of the dictatorship in Spain. The right and left camps are particularly irreconcilable with each other in comparison with other European countries, and a “It wasn’t all bad” attitude towards the Franco era is frighteningly widespread. On this basis, an appreciation of the compromise as a political value in itself can hardly be achieved, however necessary it may be right now.

For a long-term solution to the conflict in Catalonia, a fundamental discussion on a constitutional amendment would also be necessary. The central government has granted Catalonia many (too many?) autonomy rights in recent decades. De facto, there is hardly anything left to be outsourced to the autonomous regions, because Spain, with Germany, is one of the most subsidiary countries in the world. However, an improved participation of the regions in national decision-making processes regarding an upgrading of the Spanish Senate and greater financial autonomy could be part of a solution. Possibly in return for a withdrawal of some powers in the education and media sectors, which are notoriously misused by the nationalist Catalan government to radicalise its own population. Both are only possible with constitutional majorities in Congress and cannot be achieved in four years. But against the backdrop of these fundamental challenges, which paralyze the country, important current problems such as the budget deficit and weakening economic growth are fading. The prelude to a social discourse on a non-party project for “Nation-Rebuilding” with the support of a broad government majority in parliament would be a first step.

So far, the PSOE has excluded a GroKo for the reasons mentioned above, and this could well lead to another “Bloqueo” after the 10N. To the chagrin of the entire continent, the bull would again bite its tail, for Europe and Germany in particular could benefit extremely from a united and strong Spain without gruelling internal conflicts.


David Henneberger

Project Director Spain