Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies

Spain goes to the polls for fourth time in four years—and again no party has a majority

Spanish Acting Prime Minister and Socialist party leader Pedro Sánchez celebrating yesterday’s election.
November 11, 2019

On Sunday, Spanish voters went to the polls for the fourth time in the last four years. And as happened in December 2015, June 2016, and last April, no party won a majority. The fact that elections have become almost an annual event and that no party has been able to win a majority of the 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies, the lower house of the parliament, reflects the erosion of support for the two parties — the center-left Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the center-right People’s Party (PP) — that alternated control of government during much of the democratic era and, conversely, the growth of support, in the wake of the eurozone financial crisis and years of fiscal austerity, the continuing crisis over Catalan independence, and the recent surge of immigration, for new parties on the left (Unidas Podemos/United We Can), the center-right (Ciudadanos/Citizens or Cs), and the far-right (Vox). Neither PSOE nor PP has won a majority in the Congress since 2011. And so the question facing the country today is the same question that has faced it after every election since 2015: Who will govern Spain? 

For much of the post-Franco era, Spanish politics was dominated by two large parties — PSOE and the PP and the latter’s predecessor, the People’s Alliance (AP) — that constituted in effect a duopoly, each controlling government for long stretches before turning power over to the other party. Felipe González served as prime minister of PSOE governments from 1982 to 1996. José María Aznar served as prime minister of PP governments from 1996 to 2004. And José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero served as prime minister of PSOE governments from 2004 to 2011. But PSOE, which won 44 percent of the vote in the March 2008 election, has never recovered fully from the catastrophic electoral consequences of the economic and financial crisis that hit Spain and much of the European Union in 2008-09. In the wake of the sharp contraction in the economy and increase in unemployment to more than 25 percent as the Zapatero government pursued a policy of prolonged fiscal austerity, PSOE not surprisingly experienced a dramatic electoral contraction in the November 2011 election; its share of the vote dropped from 44 percent in 2008 to 29 percent in 2011 while the PP, led by Mariano Rajoy, won 44.6 percent of the vote and a majority in the Congress.

2011 was the last election in which one of the two major parties won a majority in the Congress. After presiding over a continuation of fiscal contraction for four years, Rajoy and the PP not surprisingly suffered in the December 2015 election the same fate PSOE suffered four years earlier. In the 2015 election, the PP’s share of the vote dropped to 28.7 percent, in large part because of the appearance of a new party on the center-right, the Ciudadanos (Citizens or Cs), a center-right, liberal market-oriented party that won 13.9 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, PSOE continued to lose support; its share of the vote dropped to 22 percent as a new left-of-PSOE populist party, Podemos (We Can), that grew out of the anti-austerity movement and was formed in early 2014 took 20.7 percent of the vote. Neither the PP nor PSOE had a majority and after six months of unsuccessful negotiation regarding formation of a new government another election took place in June 2016. But that election didn’t produce a majority either and, instead, more or less preserved the status quo ante. The PP won 33 percent of the vote, an increase of four percentage points; PSOE won 22.6 percent, an increase of less than a percentage point; the Cs won 13.1 percent, a drop of less than a percentage point; and Podemos, allied with the United Left in Unidos Podemos, won 21.2 percent, a gain of less than a percentage point. After the election, Rajoy and the PP formed a minority government that was supported in the Congress by the Cs and the Canarian Coalition.

A series of party and financial scandals, coupled with the Catalan independence crisis in the autumn of 2017, greatly weakened Rajoy and the PP minority government, and after a court convicted 29 businessmen and politicians, and the PP itself, in May 2018 of a wide-ranging kickbacks-for-contracts operation that benefitted both the individuals and the party, Pedro Sánchez, the PSOE leader, put forward a motion of no confidence in the government. According to parliamentary rules, as the author of the motion, he would automatically become prime minister if the motion were supported by a majority. The Socialists held only 85 of the 350 seats in the Congress and the UP, which had brought forward a similar motion the previous year, held only 71 seats so it was by no means certain the motion would be approved by a majority. But on June 1, 2018, it was approved by a vote of 180 to 169. In addition to the PSOE and UP deputies, those of two Catalan parties — the Left Republicans (ERC) and the Catalan European Democrats (PDeCAT) — and two Basque nationalist parties — the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and Basque Country Unite (EH Bildu) — voted for the motion. Those regional parties did so largely in opposition to the Rajoy government’s use of its powers under Article 155 of the Constitution to dismiss the Catalan government headed by Carles Puigdemont, take over administrative control of the autonomous community, and call new elections after the Catalan government called a referendum on Oct. 1, 2017 that asked whether Catalonia should become an “independent state in the form of a republic” and then, after 92 percent of those voting said yes, declared its independence on Oct. 27, 2017. Because the Congress approved the no confidence motion, Sánchez replaced Rajoy as prime minister — despite the fact that PSOE held only 85 of the 350 seats in the Congress.

Prior to the no confidence vote, Sánchez had said he intended to remain in power only long enough to ensure passage of the 2019 budget and enact some reforms in social, economic and educational policy, after which he would call new elections. While he had supported the Rajoy government’s use of the powers granted under Article 155 to dismiss the Catalan government headed by Puigdemont and call new elections, Sánchez began a dialogue with the new Catalan government aimed at ameliorating, if not resolving, the contentious relationship between Madrid and Catalonia. But after he rejected that government’s proposal of a new referendum on independence, the Catalan parties withdrew their support for the government’s 2019 budget and he was forced to call another election last April.

As Spanish voters went to the polls on April 28 for the third time in the last four years, media attention focused on the anticipated increase in support for Vox, a right-wing populist party founded by former members of the PP in 2013 and led by Santiago Abascal that is anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and opposed to Catalan independence. Vox won only 0.2 percent of the vote in the 2015 and 2016 elections and commentators were quick to attribute the weakness of the extreme right in Spain, compared with that in France, Italy and other European countries, to the country’s long experience with, and continuing memory of, Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.  But drawing on resentment fueled both by the drive for Catalan independence in 2017 and the recent increase in refugees coming from North Africa — last year Spain received more than 65,000 refugees by land and sea, more than Greece and almost three times the number Italy received, and in the first four months this year it received almost 8,000, most of them arriving by sea from Moroccan ports — and building on the 11 percent it won in last December’s regional election in Andalucía, Vox increased its share of the vote to 10.3 percent and won 24 seats in the Congress. The westward shift in the flow of Mediterranean migrants to Spain, rather than to Italy and Greece, coupled with the still-unresolved issue of Catalan independence, generated anxieties about the cultural and political integrity of Spain that attracted voters to Vox, with its brand of xenophobic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Catalan nationalism. Vox proposed, for example, that Spain deport all arriving refugees, all illegal immigrants, and all those who are legally in Spain but have been convicted of a crime. And it proposed that Madrid use Article 155 again to take control of Catalonia and that all pro-independence parties in Catalonia be banned.  

The growth in support for Vox came very largely at the expense of the PP, which won only 16.7 percent of the vote — only half of the 33 percent it won in the 2016 election — and 66 seats in the Congress, a loss of 71 seats. It was the PP’s worst performance ever. Moving to the right under Pablo Casado, who had replaced Rajoy as the party’s leader, as it chased after the voters attracted to Vox, the PP barely outpolled the Cs that, like the PP, moved to the right in the campaign and won 15.9 percent of the vote, an increase of nearly 3 percentage points over the 13.1 percent they won in 2016, and 57 seats in the Congress, compared with the 32 seats they won in 2016.

Some had assumed before the election the anticipated increase in support for Vox would lead to the formation of a new center-right government by the PP and the Cs, possibly, as is now the case in Andalucía, supported by Vox in parliament. But as it turned out, the three parties together won only 147 seats, almost 30 short of the 176 needed for a majority in the Congress. As a result, the only potential government after last April’s election seemed to be a PSOE-UP coalition, perhaps supported by one or more smaller regional parties. PSOE won 28.7 percent of the vote and 123 seats in the Congress, compared with 22.7 percent of the vote and 85 seats in 2016.  But much of that gain came at the expense of the UP, which saw its share of the vote drop from 21.2 percent in 2016 election to 14.3 percent last April and its number of seats in the Congress from 71 in 2016 to 42. As a result, although PSOE picked up 38 additional seats in the Congress, a PSOE-UP coalition would have only 9 more seats than it would have had after the 2016 election and would still be 11 seats short of a majority. 

After the votes were counted in last April’s election, Pablo Iglesias, the leader of UP, called Sánchez to congratulate him and express his party’s willingness to work with PSOE in a coalition government. Nevertheless, in the weeks that followed, PSOE and UP were unable to resolve their differences over such matters as whether UP would, as it preferred, be a full-fledged partner of PSOE in a coalition government and hold several ministries or would, as PSOE preferred, simply provide support in the Congress for a PSOE government. After five months of haggling over policies and portfolios, during which PSOE refused to share power with UP, it became clear the only alternative was yet another election. And so, after two days of talks with the party leaders in late September, King Felipe VI announced that he would not put forward a candidate for the position of prime minister since no candidate was likely to win an investiture vote. Instead, the parliament was dissolved and a new election called for Nov. 10.

There was some evidence in the aggregate totals from yesterday’s election that some voters were frustrated with the failure of PSOE and the UP to reach a coalition agreement after last April’s election and, more generally, with the need to have another election. Voter turnout dropped by several percentage points, from 75.8 percent in April to 69.9 percent yesterday, and both PSOE and the UP won slightly smaller shares of the vote and slightly fewer seats in the Congress. Thus, PSOE won 28 percent of the vote and 120 seats, compared with 28.7 percent of the vote and 123 seats in April, and the UP won 12.8 percent of the vote and 35 seats, compared with 14.3 percent of the vote and 42 seats in April. As a result, they are now more than 20 seats short of a majority in the Congress. The Catalan Left Republicans, one of the principal advocates of independence, also suffered a slight setback, with their share of the national vote dropping from 3.9 percent to 3.6 percent and their number of seats dropping from 15 to 13. The only party on the left that could claim some success was a new one, Más País (More Country), created by a former member of the UP leadership, which won 2.3 percent of the vote and 3 seats.

While support for PSOE, UP and the ERC dropped off slightly, the big news from yesterday’s election concerned the three parties on the right. The biggest winner was Vox, which won 15.1 percent of the vote and 52 seats, compared with 10.3 percent of the vote and 24 seats in April. But the PP, although still far below the vote it won in 2011 and earlier elections, also did well, winning 20.8 percent of the vote and 88 seats, compared with 16.7 percent of the vote and 66 seats in April. In contrast, the big loser in yesterday’s election was the Cs, which won only 6.8 percent of the vote and 10 seats compared with the 15.9 percent of the vote and 57 seats it won in April. Whether voters turned their backs of the Cs because they refused to consider forming a coalition with PSOE after the April election, or because as the Cs moved to the right they increasingly echoed the PP’s positions, or because Vox presented a much more forceful rejection of Catalan independence than Albert Rivera, or because of some combination of all three, won’t be known until the pollsters go through their exit polls in detail. But what is known is that yesterday’s election was an unmitigated disaster for the Cs. Earlier today, Rivera, who led the Cs since their founding in 2006, resigned as the party’s leader.

After yesterday’s election, the question now is who will govern Spain. As the largest party in terms of both share of the vote and number of seats in the Congress, PSOE may attempt to form a majority coalition with UP and others. But as noted above, PSOE and UP are now further from a majority than they were after the April election; together they will have 155 seats in the Congress, ten less than they had after the April election and 21 less than the 176 needed for a majority. They could conceivably form a majority government with several small regional parties, although putting such a coalition together and keeping it together would be, at best, challenging. An alternative, of course, would be for PSOE and UP to form a minority coalition government, relying on the parliamentary support or abstention of one or more other parties. 

Before yesterday’s vote, one could imagine, as an alternative to some variant of a left-of-center majority or minority coalition, a right-of-center coalition of the PP and Cs, supported in the parliament by Vox, as has existed in Andalucía since last December’s election. But that was before the Cs lost 47 of their 57 seats. As a result, the PP and Cs together will have only 98 seats in the new Congress and even if they were to agree, as distasteful as it might be, to rely on the parliamentary support of Vox with its 52 seats, they would still be more than 25 seats short of a majority.

There is, of course, an obvious alternative that would avoid the potential instability of a multi-party majority coalition government or a minority government and would also avoid doing a deal with Vox that would either include it in a government or in the parliamentary base of a government. That alternative would be a German-styled “grand coalition” of PSOE and the PP. A PSOE spokesman today said such a coalition was out of the question. But if PSOE and a diminished UP can’t put together either a majority or minority coalition, a “GroKo” may be not only the best but the only alternative for Spain — unless, of course, it wants another election!

David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and director of the MacMillan Center’s Program in European Union Studies.