ANALYSIS: Spain chooses left-wing regional diversity while Vox divides the right
Matthew Bennett takes a look at the election's winners and losers and explores what's next for Spain.
Published: 29 April 2019 08:18 CEST
Pedro Sanchez celebrates at the PSOE headquarters on election night. Photo: AFP
The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) won Sunday's 2019 general election, increasing its share of seats in Congress, Spain's lower house of parliament, from 85 to 123, but still 53 seats of an overall majority (176). Pedro Sánchez took his party's share of the vote up 6 percent, or 1.75 million ballots.
The Prime Minister said Spaniards had voted to defend “rights and liberties, equality and social justice”.
A coalition will be needed, but the prospects for some kind of a deal increased on Sunday night. Spanish pollsters could claim victory: in the end, their version of what was going on before and during the campaign was broadly right, with parties finishing in the same order as the polls had modelled for the preceding month. The media and social media buzz over-hyped expectations for Vox.
But Vox also won, at least compared to where the party was in 2016, when it had no seats at all. Santiago Abascal's party took 2.5 million votes on the Spanish right, 10.3 percent of the total, and 24 seats. In Spanish politics, that is a very decent sized chunk from a standing start. Spain now has its “far-right” or “national populist” or “ultra-conservative” party in parliament, depending on one's preferred label.
Abascal said “the resistance” had now arrived in Congress: “united, Spain will never be defeated”.
Ciudadanos picked up 2.7 more percentage points, another 25 MPs, nearly doubling their 2016 total (32) to 57. Albert Rivera brought his party almost neck-and-neck with the Popular Party (PP) in terms of actual ballots: both parties over the four million mark, Rivera now just 200,000 votes shy of Pablo Casado, who had a disastrous night.
Rivera said Ciudadanos “has a future. One day, there will be a government that does not look left or right, but to the future”.
The PP's future was uncertain on Sunday evening: the party lost more than half of its 137 MPs from 2016, dropping 71 all the way down to 66 in one go. 3.8 million voters gave up on the party that until last May was governing the country, under former leader Mariano Rajoy.
After his historic loss, Casado said that, for now at least, that the PP would lead the opposition “responsibly” as it decided what to do next.
Podemos (or rather the group of parties that is normally labelled Podemos) also had a terrible night, shedding 28 MPs, 6 points and 1.3 million ballots. Pablo Iglesias said “we would have liked a better result” but that it was “enough to fulfil our two goals: stopping the right and the extreme right and to build a left-wing coalition government”.
Regional nationalists as a block—and Republican Catalan Left (Esquerra) specifically in Catalonia—had a good night, increasing their joint share of seats from 25 in 2016 to 37. Esquerra added six MPs to bring it up to 15 in total, and passed the one million votes mark. Mr. Puigdemont's party, Junts per Catalunya, increased its votes slightly to 494,000, but dropped one seat to seven.
In the Basque Country, both flavours of Basque nationalism—the conservative PNV and the radical-left EH Bildu—did better than three years ago, increasing from five to six seats and two to four seats respectively, another 176,000 votes between them.
This general election also sees another seat for the Canary Islands Coalition, two for Navarra Suma, and one for the Regionalist Party of Cantabria.
Altogether, a total of 2.4 million Spaniards voted for some kind of regional-nationalist party, up 744,000 from 2016, without including the regional bits of what is considered to be Podemos.
Very importantly, given the Catalan separatist issue, Spain's upper house of parliament, the Senate, changed hands from the Popular Party to the PSOE. The chances of another suspension of home rule in the north-eastern region now fall drastically, if not to zero, then nearly.
Five men elected tonight as either MPs or senators for Esquerra and Junts per Catalunya are currently in prison on remand and on trial at the Supreme Court: Oriol Junqueras (MP, Barcelona), Jordi Sánchez (MP, Barcelona), Jordi Turull (MP, Lérida), Josep Rull (MP, Tarragona) and Rául Romeva (senator, Barcelona).
All of which brings us to the question of coalitions, not as difficult an issue with these results as it might have been with others.
There is no option for a three-way right-wing coalition (PP, Ciudadanos and Vox) to govern. They only add up to 147 seats, nearly 30 short. A left-wing coalition with just the PSOE and Podemos doesn't work either at 166 seats, still ten short.
That means Pedro Sánchez and Pablo Iglesias would need some kind of support from some kind of regional nationalists. Would they go with Esquerra and the Catalan separatists or try to do a deal with the Basques? Would Catalan separatists demand anything remotely realistic in return or stick to their unconstitutional demands for independence or for the Spanish government to trash the separation of powers and free the accused at the Supreme Court?
The now powerless Spanish right, split in three and with the Vox part rampantly national populist, would anger greatly at such a deal.
So there is another option that will be put on the table tomorrow morning: a centre-left PSOE and Ciudadanos deal, which adds up to 180 MPs in Congress, four over the line for a majority.
Sánchez and Rivera will gnash their teeth and struggle and kick and shout loudly in public that they cannot possibly do such a dastardly deal after everything that has been said during the campaign, and with high levels of personal animosity between the two men. But Brussels and the markets would look favourably upon such a deal, it is a realistic option and it would provide more stability for the next four years than a Super Frankenstein further-left government with a disjointed bunch of regional nationalists.
Waking on Monday morning, political leaders will not only have the election victories and defeats in mind but will also have a keen eye on the local, regional and European elections that take place on May 26th. This year's campaigning isn't over yet.
Matthew Bennett is the creator of The Spain Report. You can read more of his writing on Patreon, and follow him on Twitter. Don't miss his podcast series with weekly in-depth analysis on Spain.
Add the favourable epidemiological indicators to the almost 80 percent rate of full vaccination of Spain’s entire population and the immunity claim doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
But if there’s one thing this pandemic has taught governments around the world – or should have – is to not assume Covid-19 can be eradicated after a few encouraging weeks.
Not that Spain is letting down its guard, the general public continues to take mask wearing in indoor spaces seriously (outdoors as well even though not required in many situations) and there are still some regional restrictions in place.
And yet, Covid infections are on the rise again, although not at the pace seen during previous waves of the virus.
On Thursday November 4th Spain re-entered the Health Ministry’s “medium risk” category after the national fortnightly infection rate surpassed 50 cases per 100,000 people.
From Friday 5th to Monday 8th, it climbed five more points up to 58 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.
It’s the biggest rise since last July but this shouldn’t be cause for alarm, especially as hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths all remain low and steady.
A closer look at the stats shows that 1.52 percent of hospital beds across the country are currently occupied by Covid patients, 4.41 percent in the case of ICU beds.
Daily Covid deaths in October were under 20 a day, the lowest rate since August 2020.
With all this in mind, is a sixth wave of the coronavirus in Spain at all likely?
According to a study by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, Spain will have a sixth wave.
The Seattle-based research group predicts an increase in infections in Spain from the second half of November, which will skyrocket in December reaching the highest peak towards the end of the year.
The country would reportedly need about 24,000 beds for Covid patients (4,550 for critical ones) and there would be almost 2,000 deaths.
Increased social interactions would mean that on December 30th alone, daily Covid infections in Spain could reach 92,000, the study claims.
If restrictions were tightened ahead of the holiday period, including the use of face masks, the sixth wave’s peak wouldn’t be as great, IHME states.
It’s worth noting that the IHME wrongly predicted that Spain wouldn’t be affected by a fifth wave whereas it ended up causing more than a million infections and 5,000 deaths.
The latest message from Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias is that currently “the virus is cornered” in the country, whilst admitting that there was a slight rise in cases.
“I do not know if there will be a sixth wave, but first we must remember that immunisation is not complete in all patients despite vaccinations,” Dr. José Polo , president of the Spanish Society of Primary Care Physicians (Semergen), told El Periódico de España
“That’s because 100 percent effectiveness doesn’t exist in any drug, or in any medicine”.
Despite having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, Spain still has around 4.2 million eligible people who haven’t been vaccinated, mostly people aged 20 to 40.
The majority of Covid hospitalisations across Spain are patients who have not been vaccinated: 90 percent in the Basque Country, 70 percent in Catalonia and 60 percent in Andalusia.
Among Covid ICU patients, 90 percent of people in critical condition across all regions are unvaccinated.
“Although there are many people vaccinated in Spain, there will be an increase in cases because we know how the virus is transmitted and when the cold comes and the evenings are darker we will tend to go indoors, and the virus spreads there,” Cesar Carballo, Vice President of the Spanish Society of Emergency Medicine of Madrid, told La Sexta news.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has already warned that Europe is at a “critical point of regrowth” and that it has once again become the “epicentre” of the pandemic, due to the generalised spike in cases in recent weeks.
Does that mean that Spain’s daily infections won’t be in the thousands again as winter nears? Or that regional governments won’t reintroduce Covid measures ahead of Christmas to prevent this from happening?
Nothing is for certain, but as things stand Spain’s epidemiological situation is the most favourable in the EU and a sixth wave seems unlikely, but not impossible.
The Spanish government continues to push ahead with its vaccination campaign, reopening its vaccination centres, administering booster shots to its most vulnerable and considering vaccinating under 12s to meet an immunity target of 90 percent.
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