Biggest loser: Why has Spain’s main right-wing party lost so many votes?

Spain’s conservative Popular Party (PP) has recorded the worst election results in its history. Why have things gone so wrong for the country’s most longstanding right-wing party?

Biggest loser: Why has Spain's main right-wing party lost so many votes?
Pablo Casado has been the PP's least voted leader ever in Spanish general elections. Photos: AFP

Spain’s Popular Party, once the default choice for conservatives in the country, on Sunday recorded just 16.7 percent of the vote in the country’s general elections, giving it a lowly 66 seats.

The party headed by 38-year-old Pablo Casado have lost more than half of their seats since 2016 (137 down to 66, a record drop and record low), with centre-right Ciudadanos making major gains (from 32 to 57) and radical-right outsiders Vox barging into national politics (0 to 24 seats). 

That’s in stark contrast to the PP’s landslide victory in 2011, when crisis-hit Spain gave Mariano Rajoy 44.6 percent of the vote (186 seats), the party’s best ever general election result.

Why has the PP done so badly?

A lot can happen in eight years. For the PP, this time period has been largely spent fending off allegations of corruption which have seen them, the Socialists and the country’s political status quo as a whole called into question.

This lack of confidence in the political establishment saw the emergence of left-wing Podemos and centre-right party Ciudadanos, the latter starting to nibble away at the PP voter base in the 2016 general elections with 14 percent of the vote.

In May 2018, a motion of no confidence forced Mariano Rajoy to stand down after Spain's National Court ruled that his party had profited from funds obtained illegally through “an authentic and efficient system of institutional corruption” including a slush fund.

But it was perhaps the recent irruption of far-right newcomers Vox that has caused the most harm to the ‘Populares’.

Founded by a former member of the Popular Party (PP) – Santiago Abascal – Vox have routinely accused the PP of going soft on pressing issues such as immigration and the separatist cause in Catalonia. 

Conversely, Ciudadanos’s leader Albert Rivera has continued to gain the support of younger conservatives with more moderate views on matters such as religion and women’s rights compared to the PP’s traditional stance.

This fragmentation of the Spanish right has resulted in the PP losing votes on the edges of each side of the conservative spectrum.

The situation has not been alleviated either by the choice of Pablo Casado as new PP leader, a hard liner in principle who opposes euthanasia and Catalan independence, but who in practice doesn’t have the charisma of Abascal or the progressiveness of Rivera. 


When have Spain’s PP reached power?

In 1996, Spain’s Popular Party edged past the socialists with 9.7 million votes, only 300,000 more than the PSOE, allowing Jose María Aznar to take power and become the country’s first conservative leader in post-dictatorship Spain..

Four years later, the PP won again, this time with 10.3 million votes (44.5 percent), giving Aznar an absolute majority.

But the tables turned for Aznar’s party in 2004 with a shock victory for the country’s socialists, just three days after the Madrid train bombings cost 193 people their lives.

The Socialists governed in Spain until 2011, after which Mariano Rajoy took office for the Popular Party following a landslide election win. Rajoy was Prime Minister until he was ousted in 2018.   

José María Aznar and Mariano Rajoy, Spain's only two PP Prime Ministers. 


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Madrid puts off separatist talks over Catalan snap election

Spain's central government on Thursday said the announcement of snap elections in Catalonia would delay planned talks between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and the region's separatist leadership.

Madrid puts off separatist talks over Catalan snap election
Catalan regional president Quim Torra (R) meets with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez at the Palacio de Pedralbes in Barcelona on December 20, 2018.Photo: AFP

News that the regional election would be brought forward was announced by regional president Quim Torra on Wednesday but he did not give a date, suggesting some time after mid-March.

The date was brought forward following a major dispute between Catalonia's two ruling separatist parties, Together for Catalonia (JxC) and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC).

The announcement came ahead of a key February 6 meeting in Barcelona between Torra and Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to lay the ground for talks on resolving the separatist conflict.

In response, Sanchez's office said the meeting would go ahead but that the negotiations would not begin until a new regional government was in place.   

“The government is hoping to be able to begin the dialogue after the Catalan people have spoken… as soon as the elections are over and there is a new (regional) government, then we will begin talking,” said a statement.

“The government remains willing to start the process of dialogue with the Catalan institutions to resolve the political conflict.”

The talks had been agreed as part of a deal with ERC in exchange for its support in getting Sanchez through a key investiture vote earlier this month.   

But the delay was swiftly denounced by the ERC as a “flagrant breach of the agreement which was completely irresponsible,” its party spokesman Sergi Sabria said.

Sanchez, who himself is in a fragile position at the head of a minority coalition government, still needs ERC's support to pass Spain's own much delayed national budget.

In a radio interview Thursday, Torra said he would bring up the right to self-determination and amnesty for the nine jailed Catalan separatist leaders when he meets Sanchez — both of which have already been rejected out of hand by the Socialist leader.