Gambled Away: Government Formation in Spain More Complicated Than Before

Strong right-wing populists come in third – liberal party Ciudadanos crashes


Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his Social Democratic PSOE (“Partido Socialista Obrero Español” – Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) have once again become the strongest force in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, they have clearly missed their ultimate goal: to win votes in order to form a stable government. In fact, PSOE lost three mandates and now has 120 seats in Congress. The absolute majority requires 176 seats, but with the support of the left-wing populist party Unidos Podemos (“Together we can do it”) and the new Más País (“More Land”) the left-wing bloc only has 158 seats. For a progressive government majority, Sánchez would be dependent on the votes of various Catalan parties, which strive for the independence of the autonomous region and emerged strengthened from the 10N – it would be political harakiri.


Grand Coalition as Best Option
The best option for the country would be a grand coalition between PSOE and the conservative PP (“Partido Popular” – “People’s Party”), which was able to gain 88 seats (formerly 66). However, the incentive for PP party leader Pablo Casado to form such a coalition is low, because for some time now a storm low has been coming from the right, which could be further boosted by a grand coalition. Within only 11 months, the right-wing populist party VOX (Latin for “voice”) has managed to move from a few seats in smaller city councils to the third strongest force in the Spanish Congress – it profits in particular from the discontent with the Catalan separatists in the Spanish majority population and the inability of the political class to overcome its ideological divisions in order to form majorities. VOX therefore more than doubled its seats in Congress and now has 52 seats (formerly 24).

The big election losers are the liberal Ciudadanos (“citizens”), who fell from 57 to only 10 seats. Especially bitter: They are only the sixth power in parliament and are even overtaken by the independence party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (“Republican Left of Catalonia”), which, unlike Ciudadanos, only takes office in Catalonia. In their Catalan homeland, the liberals only occupied eighth place behind the Partido Popular and VOX – a slap in the face for the young party, which was once successful with the electorate as a hope for a new, hitherto lacking centrist force. The Spaniards have blamed party leader Albert Rivera for his refusal to form a coalition with PSOE. The position in the Catalonia conflict may also have cost votes. This shows once again that anyone who tries to fend off radical parties like VOX with a comparable discourse will strengthen the original. On Monday, Albert Rivera announced his resignation from the party presidency after 13 years at the head of Ciudadanos. He is thus drawing the consequences from the election debacle. A special party conference will quickly decide on the new leadership team of the liberal party – the favourite is Inés Arrimadas, spokeswoman for the parliamentary group in Congress.


Putting Democracy to the Test
The pressure on politicians to quickly form a government is now enormous – but the situation is so protracted that forecasts are hardly possible. The only thing that seems clear is that those who are counting on further new elections could pave the way for VOX to power in the medium term. It is perhaps the greatest test of the Spanish democracy since the end of the Franco dictatorship, since it raises the question of whether the state parties are still in a position to implement the voter mandate. The coming weeks will show.



David Henneberger

Project Director Spain