On 23 July, Spain will go to the polls. The conservative People’s Party (PP), led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo, is likely to win. But what will happen next is unclear. The elections could result in a fast agreement between the PP and the radical right party Vox and a new government starting in office in September, protracted negotiations between these two parties, or a blockade that requires a rerun. Even if quite unlikely, a disagreement between the PP and Vox or a consensus on preventing Vox from entering government could also allow for a coalition of all the other forces in parliament, allowing the Socialist Party (PSOE) and prime minister Pedro Sánchez to stay in power.
Spain currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union, but domestic uncertainty is unlikely to affect the day-to-day management of the EU. However, observers are predicting that the EU will move further to the right after the European Parliament elections next year. Spain’s general election will help determine whether Spain will be part of that shift.
The PSOE suffered significant losses in the municipal and regional elections held on 28 May. The PP gained ground, winning 31.5 per cent of the votes in the municipal elections compared to the PSOE’s 28.2 per cent, a nine-point increase for the PP from 2019. The PP also dominated various regions and key cities previously held by the PSOE. Meanwhile, Vox secured 7.2 per cent of the municipal vote. This “blue tsunami”, as it was described by the media, prompted Sánchez to bring forward the general election, initially scheduled for December.
The PP has led the polls since May 2021, except for during its brief leadership crisis, when Pablo Casado was replaced by Feijóo. It benefitted from the demise of Ciudadanos, the centrist party that emerged in the wake of the crisis in Catalonia and which has subsequently lost votes in every election since 2019. While the right competed in the 2019 election under three different brands (PP, Ciudadanos, and Vox), it now fields just two parties, which further increases Feijóo’s chances of overtaking the PSOE in the elections.
But, crucially, winning the elections does not necessarily mean that Feijóo will be Spain’s next prime minister. The PP would need to win 176 of the 350 seats in parliament to obtain an absolute majority and elect Feijóo as prime minister in the first round. If it fails to do this, the prime minister can be elected by a relative majority in the second round. Polls are divided about whether PP and Vox will win 176 seats or a number very close to that between them. It is also unclear whether Vox will vote for the PP in the first or second round. The PP and Vox are most likely to play chicken, which could go badly for both. The PP will want Vox’s support for free, insisting that the priority is to oust the PSOE, independentists, and left-wing Sumar party. However, Vox’s support will not come cheap; in return it will want to enter government and secure a strong commitment to implement policies favourable to its interests. Letting Vox into government would present issues for the PP, not only in terms of some key policies, especially related to gender or the environment, but also in presenting such a coalition to the population. Vox is not a pro-Franco party, but many people in Spain, including within the PP, view it as an unacceptable governing partner.
The real challenge for Feijóo is therefore how much he can impose himself on or weaken Vox, either at the ballot box or later in the negotiations. For this, he will need to capitalise on fears among right-wing voters that their divisions may help Sánchez stay in power.
On the other side, Sánchez will need to mobilise the PSOE’s voters if he wants to stay in office. Back in May, despite not running himself, Sánchez engaged in a very personal campaign against the PP. This helped Feijóo frame the elections around Sánchez’s leadership, which did not go well for the PSOE. Many voters responded by ousting regional leaders and mayors with high approval rates, while some 7 to 10 per cent of PSOE voters abstained or voted instead for the PP. Many PSOE voters are dissatisfied with the coalition government, which they consider too left-leaning due to its governing partner Unidas Podemos and which they think has relied excessively on Catalan independence parties or those born from movements associated with ETA terrorism in the Basque Country to pass its policies. Some are also displeased with the management of certain cultural policies, particularly those related to feminism and transgender people.
To mobilise his voters, Sánchez needs to emphasise the areas where his government has performed well: the economy and social policy. After a sluggish performance during and immediately after the pandemic, Spain’s economy is doing better in terms of growth, inflation, and job creation than the average European one. The government has also passed important social policies, including a steady increase of the minimum wage, a reduction in the number of temporary work contracts, and social support measures during the pandemic and the inflationary crisis resulting from Russia’s war on Ukraine. In addition, Sánchez needs to make it clear that a right-wing government including Vox will threaten key policies on gender equality and energy transition policies.
Sánchez’s success also depends on the performance of his coalition partners on the left. In May, the left’s division was another major contributing factor to the PP’s success. The rival left-wing parties Unidas Podemos, led by Pablo Iglesias, and Sumar, led by the deputy prime minister Yolanda Díaz, contended to occupy the political space to the left of the PSOE and participated separately in the municipal and regional elections. As they fell short of the 5 per cent electoral threshold in many constituencies, their votes were wasted. They are no longer competing, but after Unidas Podemos was humiliatingly absorbed into Sumar, tensions remain and mean that Iglesias and his followers are not actively campaigning for Sumar. The new party is therefore finding it difficult to maintain the levels of support which Unidas Podemos enjoyed in the past.
As uncertain as this situation is, it is unlikely to harm Spain’s EU presidency. This is a “golden presidency” (the last full presidency before the European Parliament elections in June 2024). There are therefore many important dossiers on the table, including Ukraine’s EU accession, but also discussions on fiscal rules, the electricity market, and migration. However, three factors protect the EU from domestic turmoil. Firstly, the EU machinery is used to running on semi-automatic pilot despite the presidencies. Secondly, despite their domestic disagreements, the PP and the PSOE agree on most foreign policy issues and both are deeply Atlanticist and pro-European. Thirdly, Spain’s EU policymaking machinery, comprising the State Secretary for the EU and the Permanent Representation in Madrid, is well-oiled and can efficiently liaise between the European Council, parliament, and commission on the pending dossiers. Beyond that, even if Vox made it into government, the PP would likely keep it away from foreign and EU policy, much like Sánchez has with Unidas Podemos.
The outcome of the election is too close to call. It might not affect Spain’s EU presidency, but it could have consequences for the European Parliament elections next year, where another blue tsunami is in the making. A victory for Feijóo may add to this, while a continuation of Sánchez could weaken it.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.