Although the Spanish Socialist Party won the most seats in the Andalusian regional elections on December 2, this was not a victory to celebrate. In an area where the socialists have ruled unchallenged since the first autonomous elections in 1982, to be reduced to 33 seats with 27.9% of the votes was a humiliation.
This humiliation was sharpened by the fact that the Socialist premier of Andalusia, Susana Diaz, called the elections early (they were scheduled to take place in March 2019). She believed that her mandate would be strengthened and her assumed victory would consolidate the Socialist government at a national level. The very opposite happened.
This regional election, with a low turnout of 58.65%, demonstrated both the decline of the Spanish left in general, and a corresponding rise in the rise of the right across Andalusia.
The rise of Vox
The two real winners of the election were the centre-right Cuidadanos and the extreme-right Vox parties. Opinion polls before the vote predicted Vox might make a breakthrough and gain one seat, but it surpassed all expectations and won 12 seats, going from 0.46% of the vote in 2015 to 10.97%.
An absolute majority requires 55 seats in the Andalusian parliament. There is no easy combination of forces to form the next regional government in Andalusia. The left in the form of the Socialist Party and Adelante Andalusia – which only won 17 seats – can only total 50 seats together, five short of the 55 required. Only a combination of right-wing forces, the Popular Party, Ciudadanos and Vox would provide the necessary number of 59 seats. It’s significant that neither the Popular Party or Ciudadanos have ruled out the possibility of seeking the support of Vox.
Pablo Casado, the leader of the Popular Party, said on December 4th that he was considering negotiating with both Ciudadanos and Vox, including offering each party ministries in the regional government. He argued that the real danger was not Vox but Podemos, the left-wing populist party, who he called “the most radical party of democracy”. Meanwhile, Vox candidate Francisco Serrano argued that his party’s victory marked the beginning of “the reconquest” of Spain.
The far-right French leader Marine Le Pen was the first to congratulate Vox on its unprecedented victory. This is no coincidence. Vox is an extreme right-wing party which campaigned on an anti-immigration, anti-feminist and nationalist platform. Its call for tougher immigration controls has worked particularly well in Andalusia, which receives the majority of immigrants who cross the Mediterranean to Spain.
The Catalan issue
Yet the key issue which galvanises Vox and which has fuelled its rise from 2014 is its complete rejection of Catalan independence. Vox rejects Spain’s current semi-federal state and demands the unity of the country in a tone reminiscent of the Francoist dictatorship. Its electoral manifesto demanded the immediate suspension of autonomy in Catalonia and the trial of those who had pushed for independence following the referendum in October 2017. Vox depicts Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, as a separatist puppet who governs thanks to “the enemies of Spain”.
The rise of Vox in Andalusia has serious consequences for the weak Socialist government in Madrid which has been punished, among other things, for the perception that it has been too easy on the Catalan independence movement. Although Diaz’s campaign was a regional one with a markedly Andalusian focus, Sánchez was conspicuous by his absence from the campaign trail, the result is a clear verdict on his government.
There are also serious consequences for Catalonia and the upcoming trial of the nine politicians and grassroots activists who have remained in jail for over a year without trial on charges of rebellion and the misuse of public funds. Vox was not alone in focusing on Catalonia: both Ciudadanos and the Popular Party also focused on the need to quash the Catalan independence movement and to defend the unity of Spain.
Yet the victory of the extreme right also has its roots in the long reign of the Socialist Party in Andalusia, which has led to the abuse of power on a number of fronts. Their time in power in the region became marred by corruption crises and an inability to solve the region’s longstanding economic problems, not the least unemployment. Two former Socialist premiers of Andalusia, José Antonio Griñán and Manuel Chaves, are currently on trial over allegations relating to illegal severance payments to laid-off workers. In this sense, Andalusia’s regional election is Spain’s Brexit moment, when left-behind communities give their political class a wake up call.
Yet it is the Catalan issue that adds a particular dimension to this result. Sánchez’s Socialist government has been punished for its dependence on the Catalan regional parties to pass the budget and other legislation. It might well have to call an early election in 2019, though with some of the jailed Catalan independence leaders now on hunger strike as a backdrop, political uncertainty looks likely to continue in Spain.