Spain election: A win for “No pasarán”?

Pedro Sánchez united the vote in the face of the Vox threat. The other big winner was Ciudadanos – which could now supplant the conservative PP as the main opposition

Elections in Europe seldom produce conclusive results these days. Not in Spain, however, where Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Party clearly won Sunday’s election. The far-right Vox made a significant breakthrough and entered parliament too; but it is set to exert only a marginal influence. Compared to the rest of Europe, Spain now appears a bastion of social democracy, and a defender of pro-European and progressive politics.

The Spanish election story is one in which the moderates triumphed and the radicals failed

Sánchez brought his party back from a historical low of just 84 seats in 2016, securing 123 seats (out of 350). Key to his success was his ability to convince voters of the need to unite around him to stop Vox, which in December staged a surprise by entering the Andalusian parliament on nearly 11 percent of the vote.

Vox has leaped from 46,781 votes in 2016 – just 0.2 percent of the vote – to 2.6 million votes now – 10.3 percent and 24 seats. Fears were that the opinion polls had, as in the past, severely underestimated its strength, thus opening up the possibility of it becoming the kingmaker. Compared to Austria (where the Freedom Party won 29.4 percent of the vote), Italy (Lega; 21.7 percent), France (Rassemblement National; 21.3 percent), Sweden (SD; 17.5 percent), or Finland (True Finns; 17.5 percent), Vox is smaller and less influential.

The Socialist Party’s contemporary echo of the “No pasarán” sung by the defenders of Madrid back in the 1930s helped mobilise the left-wing vote: turnout jumped to 75.75 percent, the fourth highest since 1977. But the mistakes of the conservative Partido Popular (PP) played their part. Led by Pablo Casado, the party misinterpreted voters’ mood and abruptly shifted to the right both rhetorically and policy-wise. In doing so it not only failed to stop votes haemorrhaging to Vox but also opened the way for the rise of Albert Rivera’s party Ciudadanos (Citizens), which ran the PP close, just 220,000 behind it.

In a Europe dominated by the centre-right, often in coalition with the far right, Spain’s conservatives have fallen from the heights of an absolute majority of 186 seats in 2011 (on 44.63 percent of the vote) to 66 seats now, won on a paltry 16.7 percent. Austerity had a role, but principally the legacy of corruption and the PP’s sharp rightward turn exacted a heavy toll.

The progress of Ciudadanos and the retreat of Podemos shows that the Spanish election story is one in which the moderates triumphed and the radicals failed. Indeed, Rivera’s party is the night’s second winner. Starting on only 32 seats and 13 percent of the vote, Ciudadanos now commands 57 seats in parliament won on 15.9 percent of the vote. Given Casado’s poor results and Rivera’s great success, Ciudadanos will try and use the next European, municipal, and regional elections on 26 May to beat the PP and turn Ciudadanos into the effective main opposition party. And it might well achieve this if a leadership crisis takes hold in the PP. As for Podemos, the radical left party which rocked the 2016 election with 71 seats and 21.10 percent of the vote, its territorial fragmentation and leadership crises has brought its seat tally down to 42, and a 14.3 vote share. This is likely to see the party continue to moderate its rhetoric and policies so as to secure influence over the Sánchez government, which it is eager to enter.

What next? Little will happen in term of coalitions before 26 May. Sánchez is in a comfortable position: he can look left and aim to build a parliamentary majority with Podemos and the nationalists. Or, depending on how things evolve to his right, he may even turn to Ciudadanos and discuss updating a policy agreement the two parties signed in 2016. This is unlikely given Rivera’s wish to become the leader of the right, and given the proximity of the next round of elections. But it could emerge at a later point if nationalist demands of Sánchez go too far.

As in the past, Catalonia will be Sánchez’s weakest spot: remember that this was a snap election called after the government failed to pass a budget following Catalan pro-secession party demands unacceptable to the Socialists. Sánchez has seen off the threat of the right wing of the political spectrum uniting against him on the basis of his dealings with pro-independence forces in Catalonia. But it remains to be seen how pressures from Catalonia for a referendum will play out. The issue of a pardon for the imprisoned leaders of the 2017 secession attempt will also not go away. Both the Republican Left of Catalonia and Together for Catalonia parties are in parliament – and the referendum and pardon form key demands of both, even if they divided on other issues.

Spanish voters were asked a simple question in this election: Should we go right on policy and tough on Catalonia, or left on policy and soft on Catalonia? The answer is clear: Spaniards have rejected polarisation around national identity and gone for moderation and progressive policies. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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