Spanish election: Socialists battle to stop right-wing surge

A composite image shows the five leaders of the main five political parties, left to rightImage copyright
AFP / Getty Images

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Leading players: Pedro Sánchez, Pablo Casado, Albert Rivera, Pablo Iglesias, Santiago Abascal

Spain holds its third general election in four years on Sunday, in a battle between the established parties, Catalan and Basque nationalists, and a rising far right.

This time, however, the electoral game has changed.

Support for the previous winner, the conservative People’s Party (PP), has collapsed amid a corruption scandal. Its main opponent, the Socialist party, has climbed to the top of the polls after taking over the prime minister’s job last year.

Podemos on the left and Ciudadanos (Citizens) on the right are seeing their support fall, amid a boom for the controversial far-right Vox party.

The last pre-election polls suggested that up to four in 10 voters had yet to make up their minds.

What are the possible outcomes?

Opinion polls may not tell the full story, particularly with so many undecided voters. But potential outcomes for a government include:

  • Socialists, left-wing Podemos, plus small nationalist parties
  • Centre-right PP, liberal Ciudadanos and far-right Vox
  • Socialists and Ciudadanos

But there is a problem with each of these combinations.

The Socialist and Podemos alliance of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s existing government needed the Basque and Catalan nationalists to support it. In the national televised debates ahead of polling day, his alliance with Catalan nationalists was used as a key weapon against him – with his opponents claiming he was linked to “enemies of Spain” and wanted to “liquidate” the country.

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Vox was banned from taking part in the televised debate ahead of polling day

The Catalan pro-independence parties were partly responsible for the government’s collapse when they pulled their support in February; and the crisis over the failed Catalan independence bid has made the separatists hugely unpopular in much of Spain – making negotiations with them tricky.

Any Popular Party coalition with Ciudadanos would probably need the support of Vox.

As the campaign came to a close, PP leader Pablo Casado appeared to open the door to a coalition with Vox. If between them they had enough seats, why would they want to block a coalition, he said, aware that many former PP voters planed to switch to Vox.

But Ciudadanos voters are largely opposed to entering government with Vox. Vox was prevented from taking part in the debates by the country’s electoral commission.

Ciudadanos has also publicly said it will not form a coalition with the Socialists, and leader Albert Rivera has bitterly criticised the Socialist leader over Catalonia. During the election debates, Mr Sánchez said he had no plans to join with a party that had placed a “cordon sanitaire” around the Socialists.

What are the issues?

The Catalan crisis and the rise of Vox have changed the debate in Spanish politics.

“This is not an election about the economy – a different situation from what we have seen in more than 20 years,” says Juan Rodríguez Teruel, professor of political science at the University of Valencia.

Despite widespread concerns about unemployment – which remains high in Spain compared with its European neighbours – it barely featured during the campaign and was raised during the debates only briefly.


– Responsible immigration policies. Immigration should be legal, orderly and linked to work contracts and the wish to integrate and respect the customs of the nation.
– Statute of temporary protection for Venezuelans, granting them temporary residency, freedom of movement and work permits.
– Special plan to combat illegal immigration.
– Support the work of social services in the care given to refugees who have fled dictatorships, wars or religious persecution.
– Integration of legal migrants and advance policies which guarantee that second generations feel like full Spanish citizens.
– Enable the recruitment of migrants in their own country.

– Access to Spanish citizenship by residency must be seen as a result of a process of integration of foreigners in Spain.
– Prioritise countries in America and Africa for closer co-operation
– Put in place a “state pact for safe, orderly and regular immigration”.
– Promote the common European asylum and immigration policy.
– Promote full integration and equal opportunities for so-called second generations, paying special attention to education.
– Reinforce a fair border policy.

– Establish legal and safe entry routes into Spain and guarantee the civil rights of migrants.
– Make the process of family reunification, humanitarian visas and new visa programmes more flexible, such as job searches.
– Reinforce the Maritime Rescue Service, which will remain as a public and civil service and whose sole function will be the safeguarding of life at sea.
– Shut detention centres for foreigners (CIE).
– Build a country without racism.
– Promote a new asylum law that includes those who have to flee their homes because of environmental issues.
– Guarantee that unaccompanied foreign minors receive treatment according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

– Set up a “points-based” immigration system to attract the best foreign talent.
– Pursue mafia organisations that profit at the expense of the lives and safety of migrants.
– Protect the officers of the state security forces that monitor our borders.
– Increase resources for the state security forces dealing with irregular migration, reinforcing effective and non-aggressive action.

– Deport illegal migrants to their countries of origin.
– Deport migrants who are legally in Spanish territory but who have committed minor offences or serious crimes.
– Strengthen our borders. Build an insurmountable wall in Ceuta and Melilla (Spanish cities on the African continent bordering Morocco).
– End the attraction: any migrant who enters Spain illegally will not be allowed to legalise their situation, ever.
– Eliminate the “arraigo” process that allows illegal migrants to stay in Spain under exceptional circumstances.
– Raise the levels of language ability, tax contributions and integration as requirements for citizenship.


– Local offices for Assistance for Pregnant Women so that no woman stops being a mother because of her economic, social or family circumstances.
– Improve social protection and support for pregnant young women and young families, temporarily adapting, if necessary, their schooling, so that motherhood does not pose an obstacle.
– Reform the penal code to extend the option of permanent remand to cases of murder in which some gender violence is suspected.
– Training in equality and the fight against gender violence to be given to all professionals who might come across the issue in their career.
– Plan to close the wage gap in Spain.
– Encourage more women into the labour market to reach levels similar to the European average.

– End surrogacy (which is currently illegal in Spain).
– Reform of the criminal code to ensure that the lack of explicit consent of the victim is key in sexual crimes. If a woman does not say yes, it means no.
– Prohibit segregated education in schools supported by public funds.
– In schools, promote the prevention of gender violence and respect for sexual diversity.
– Reform gender identity law, eliminating the need for medical diagnoses and making it easier for under 16s to change name and sex records.
– Allow non-transferable parental leave for both parents.
– Implement urgent measures to ensure equal treatment and employment opportunities for women and men.

– Guarantee immediate housing alternatives for women and their children who suffer domestic violence.
– Introduce feminism classes.
– Equal and non-transferable paternity and maternity leave.
– Offer help with assisted reproduction and facilitate access to the latest contraceptive methods, emergency contraception and voluntary terminations for all women.
– Legal protection of trans people and the right to self-determination of gender identity and expression.
– Establish equality in local authorities.
– Launch a plan to fight domestic violence, with an annual allocation of €600m ($675m).

– End male-preference in the royal line of succession.
– Protect marriage between LGTBI people and include the right to non-discrimination based on sexual orientation.
– Approve a surrogacy law so that women who cannot conceive and LGTBI families can fulfill their dream of forming a family.
– Expand maternity and paternity leave to up to 16 weeks for each parent.
– Combat intolerance and hate speech, including on social networks.
– Promote a greater presence of women in visible positions of responsibility, guaranteeing an equality balance in public office.

– Protection of life from conception to natural death.
– Elimination of quotas (by sex or for any other reason) in electoral lists.
– Repeal gender violence law and any rule that discriminates against a person’s sex. Instead, enact a law of intra-family violence that protects the elderly, men, women and children alike. Suppression of subsidised “radical feminist” organisations, effective prosecution of false allegations.
– Extension of maternity leave to 180 days that would be extended to one year in the case of children with disabilities.

“The campaign is going to remain around identity issues, and particularly around the Catalan issue… it seems that the economy is not, any more, the completely fundamental issue,” says Prof Teruel.

Before the election, Mr Sánchez had been negotiating with Catalan parties to support his budget. But those talks broke down amid a public backlash over the meeting, partly stoked by Vox’s fervent opposition to any concessions on independence.

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As campaigning came to an end Pedro Sánchez accused his opponents of embracing the far right

Despite his political problems, support for the Socialists has risen during their time in government – at the expense of coalition partner Podemos.

Meanwhile, support for its tradition rival, the PP, plummeted in the wake of the corruption scandal that brought down previous leader Mariano Rajoy – leaving plenty of votes to fight for among a fragmented right.

Why is Vox doing well?

The nationalist party has set itself up in firm opposition to the separatists, despite Spain’s dark history with the far right under dictator Francisco Franco.

“The rise of Vox is clearly an earthquake in Spanish politics,” says Bonnie N Field, professor of political science at Bentley University – while warning against “exaggerating” the party’s success.

Opinion polls suggest it has around 11% support, while its leader Santiago Abascal has the lowest opinion rating of any party leader.

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Vox’s leader Santiago Abascal is the least popular leader – but polls well among his own voters

Nonetheless, she says “Spain has gone from what political scientists Sonia Alonso and Cristóbal Rovira called ‘no country for the populist radical right’ to one where the far right could support – or less likely, join – a right-wing government”.

Such an arrangement is precisely what happened in the regional government of Andalusia – where the PP, Ciudadanos, and Vox formed a right-wing regional government earlier this year for the first time in 36 years.

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Media captionActivists say rage over Spain’s ‘wolf pack’ case has ignited a feminist revolution

“If the right is in reach of a majority after the general elections, something similar may occur,” Prof Field says.

For Prof Manuel Arias Maldonado of the university of Malaga, Vox’s success is partly down to its awareness of history, and “adopting a low profile”.

“It should be noted that they do not display openly any Francoist imagery,” he said. “They are not making gross mistakes.”

“The big question [about the elections] is how strong will Vox be. There is the feeling that they could surpass expectations, despite the polls.

“But the main reason why Vox exists is Catalonia: it is a reaction to the unilateral secession attempt… that is where their strength comes from.”

Could the right really win?

A three-party coalition of the right is not out of the question.

But Prof Teruel warns that the surge for Vox is coming at the expense of other right-leaning parties – the PP or Ciudadanos. And for the first time since the 1970s, the right is “very fragmented” – something that could benefit opponents on the left.

“The main reason now to vote for the left-wing electorate is to avoid the potential coalition among right-wing parties,” Prof Teruel says.

Ciudadanos, meanwhile, could feasibly support a coalition with the Socialists, despite publicly dismissing the idea.

“I’m not sure they could keep this position if the numbers give the potential of a coalition,” Prof Teruel says.

“The pressure on Ciudadanos will be very, very high.”

Spain’s El País newspaper, publishing its final analysis of all the polls before the vote, concluded that the chances of a three-party right-leaning government was about 10%; far lower than any combination involving the Socialists.

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