The Spanish Election Is a Triumph of Logic
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Sunday’s Spanish election was keenly watched by people seeking confirmation for theories about the direction of European democracy. The inconclusive outcome made sure no one was wrong — but it also showed that, broadly, the old left-right political paradigm is still alive and each flank still can win on its traditional strengths.
In one European election after another, political fragmentation has made countries difficult to govern with increasingly difficult coalitions required, and Spain was a prime example of this trend. Center-left political forces were struggling everywhere, and Spain’s Socialists, led by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, were incapable of winning a majority even despite the huge negative ratings dragging down their historical rival, the center-right Popular Party. The far-right populist resurgence continued, and even in Spain, where anti-immigration sentiment is weaker than almost anywhere in Europe, a far-right party, Vox, was doing surprisingly well in the polls.
Well, all of this held true. Though the Socialists dramatically increased their representation in parliament, going to 123 seats from 85 in 2016, they only won 28.7 percent of the vote. The PP was a distant second on 16.7 percent. The fragmentation means Sanchez will find it hard to cobble together a majority government. Even for a minority one, he may need the cooperation of the Catalan separatists who caused the early election in the first place by refusing to back Sanchez’s budget proposal.
And Vox got into parliament, the first time such a hard-core rightist force has done so since the last ally of Francisco Franco lost his parliament seat in 1982. Sanchez may be determined to move Franco’s remains from their lavish mausoleum near Madrid, but the dictator’s spirit will be kept alive (with some modern restrictions imposed) by the 24 Vox members in the 350-seat lower chamber of parliament.
On the other hand, if one wanted to argue that establishment parties can successfully fight off nationalist populists if they take a principled stand on the issues and pick charismatic leaders, the Socialists’ performance would allow that, too. Sanchez, telegenic and a persuasive campaigner, took a risk in calling the election when the combined right-wing forces polled better than the left and emerged a clear winner, in part thanks to the Spanish electoral laws that reward the front-runner with extra parliament seats. Vox only won 10.2 percent of the vote, less than comparable parties have been getting in other western European countries.
“It’s the case everywhere: Social democracy is the force against the right!” Katarina Barley, Germany’s justice minister and the German Social Democrats’ lead candidate in the upcoming European election, tweeted triumphantly, congratulating Sanchez on his win.
A nonpartisan look at the outcome, however, would suggest somewhat different conclusions. Spain — like most other European countries — has roughly similar numbers of right-wing and left-wing voters. About 11.2 million Spaniards supported the Socialists and their likely coalition partners, left-wing populist force Podemos; slightly fewer than 11.2 million voted for PP, the liberal Ciudadanos (or Citizens) party and Vox, which would have formed a coalition had they gained a combined majority. In 2016, when the turnout was lower, 9.5 million backed the Socialists and Podemos and 11 million voted for PP and Citizens.
The fracturing of traditional two-party systems doesn’t mean the left-right divide has been erased. It merely means voters on each flank have a broader menu of more precisely targeted options. The right-wing vote in Spain is now more evenly split between liberals, conservatives and nationalist populists than it used to be when PP was the umbrella party for all three persuasions. And Sanchez’s win has, to a large extent, come at the expense of Podemos, which lost 15 mandates.
Apart from the prime minister’s charisma and campaigning skill, both that redistribution and the higher turnout gains are likely explained by the Sanchez government’s generosity: It has increased the minimum wage by 22 percent. So the traditionalist leftist method of buying votes with social spending still seems to work. Now, Sanchez will seek to cement his victory by more handouts — pension and benefit hikes and increased spending on science and education.
Europe’s current political fragmentation is only a problem where the established parties are squeamish about teaming up with populists on their flank and seek to exclude them from governing coalitions. In Germany, for example, the creepy nationalism of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party rules it out as a partner for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, and the Communist heritage of Die Linke, the far-left party, makes it hard for the Social Democrats to team up with them on the national level. The result is an uneasy grand coalition of the center-right and the center-left.
In Spain, the traditional parties appear to have no qualms about forging alliances with other forces on their flanks. That’s also the case in some other European countries: In Austria and, since this month, in Estonia established center-right parties have partnered with nationalist populists, and in Portugal, the successful socialist government is propped up in parliament by the extreme left.
Such alliances are not necessarily more stable than centrist grand coalitions, but, at least in some cases, they can make more sense when it comes to issues and policies, precisely because most voters only shift allegiances within their chosen flank, left or right. A united right would have cracked down on Catalan separatism and fought to tighten the budget — but, for now, this is not to be. Sanchez will seek partners that help set Spain on a more socialist course after years of austerity and de-escalate tensions in secessionist Catalonia, to the relief of both Catalans and international investors.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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