Part Two of our Summer Series on the Latest Developments in EU Member States

In this GED Summer Series, we analyse what’s taking place in several EU countries and how these developments are impacting Europe less than a year before the 2024 European elections. This week, we focus on the outcomes of Sunday’s general election in Spain.

Spain’s electoral outcome paints a murky picture of the political landscape

Spain took to the polls on Sunday to elect a new government. Despite being held under ill-fated conditions – in extreme heat and during peak holiday season – the voter turnout was stronger than in 2019, which shows the stakes were very high during this election. Nevertheless, the results indicate that political stability appears a distant prospect, which will also have implications for the course of the European Union, as Spain has just taken over the Presidency of the Council of the EU.

Contrary to what recent polls had been projecting, a landslide victory of the right has failed to materialise. The left in Spain avoided a sweeping defeat in the election, thanks in part to the centre-right Partido Popular (PP) and far-right Vox underperforming in the final stages of their electoral campaign. The left, on the other hand, has recently put up a strong front in a display of unity against the common threat from the right.

Strong performances by Yolanda Diaz, the leading candidate of Sumar, and incumbent prime minister Pedro Sanchez, gave parties on the left of centre new momentum during the public debates. These performances ultimately contributed to Alberto Feijóo and the Partido Popular failing to meet up to pre-election expectations.

While the PP received the most votes with 136 seats in the parliament, their margin over Sánchez’s Partido Socialista y Obrero (PSOE) – which won 122 seats – is thin and far from sufficient to form an uncontested majority.

On top of that, Feijóo did not get the expected help from his potential coalition partner and right-wing populist party VOX, who also were dealt a surprising defeat (losing 19 Seats) after riding a wave of poll successes in the election’s build-up.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal stated that the results spelled “bad news” for them. On the other side of the political spectrum, PSOE and its allies are gloating over the right’s misfortunes, with Pedro Sánchez recently jubilant about the failure of the “block of decline”.

What does this electoral outcome mean for the Spanish government going forward?

On August 17, the parties will come together in the national assembly to form the new parliament, and from there, the parliament will have the opportunity to vote on prime minister candidates. As things stand, PP, Vox, and other parties that voted against Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in 2019 now have a combined total of 170 seats in the Spanish parliament.

The bloc that originally supported Sánchez has two seats more, giving the government a razor-thin hypothetical majority. For an absolute majority it would take 176 seats. From here, there are several possible scenarios for the situation to unfold.

Political blockage and possible re-elections

Alberto Feijóo was quick to urge the PSOE to avoid a scenario of blockage and a political standstill as soon as he realized that an absolute majority was not in the cards. Spain has experienced political deadlock several times, which mostly culminated in new elections.

This is a scenario that everyone is keen to avoid, but the outcome of uncertainty has set the scene for another period of limited government capacity. The haggling over potential coalitions will now resume, but incentives for cooperation are sparse for all sides.

Feijóo has not ruled out a minority government, but this is likely to be a rhetorical tactic. The prospect of a minority government “à la Belgium” is most likely off the table, as the Spanish political landscape is too heterogenous and political trench warfare between parties would make such an arrangement largely inviable.

After the first candidate, who is likely to be Feijóo, stands for election, the parliament will have two months to elect a prime minister. If no absolute majority can be found, the King of Spain will disband the legislative chambers resulting in re-elections.

Separatists as the kingmakers

The current state of uncertainty could lead to small local parties tipping the scales once again. If Sánchez is willing and able to broker a political deal with local parties, he could maintain his position as prime minister.

For this, he would need to again seek the support of the Basque nationalist party Euskal Herria Bildu (which holds six seats in the parliament) and Catalan separatist party Junts (seven seats), whose notorious de-facto leader Puigdemont is still officially a fugitive after inciting an illegal referendum for independence in 2017. Many in Spain now fear that the “country is in the hands of Bildu and Puigdemont”.

Even if Sánchez could win their support, he is certainly not enamoured with this option, as one major reason for the population’s dissatisfaction with him was his willingness to cooperate with separatist parties in the first place. This public anger led to PSOE’s sweeping defeat in the regional elections in May.

A grand coalition

The underwhelming performance of VOX has left Feijóo and the PP with little room for manouvre if they aspire to turn their technical election victory into an active government. Feijóo’s only viable option would be a grand coalition with Sánchez’s PSOE. However, it would take serious convincing for Sánchez to enter such an arrangement and as a result would likely not occur.

First, PSOE would much rather test its chances in a new election instead of functioning as a junior partner to its grand rival. On top of that, Spanish political history shows that grand coalitions are much less likely to happen in Spain compared to in other European countries. It has never occurred at the national level.

Uncertainty in Spain and uncertainty in Europe

The eyes of European officials were set on the Spanish elections, because of what is at stake at the European level. On a positive note, there certainly was a sigh of relief felt by many in the European Union after the disappointing performance of Eurosceptic Vox at the polls.

Suddenly, it appears unlikely that a far-right party will co-govern the fourth-largest European economy. After experiencing an upswing of Eurosceptic parties in large member states, such as France and Italy, the Spanish election is surely perceived as a welcome change for the EU.

However, the uncertainty surrounding the Spanish political landscape is a cause for concern for the EU, as it will impact Spain’s ability to chair the EU Council presidency. Pedro Sánchez has recently set out his priorities for the Council, but with no clear path to forming a government in sight, it is unclear if he will be able to focus on European affairs, as he will be primarily concerned with domestic issues in the immediate future. This could hamstring the Council’s ability to address pressing issues less than a year before the European elections.

About the author

Lucas Resende Carvalho is a Junior Project Manager at the Bertelsmann Stiftung in the Europe’s Future Program.

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