- Interview by
- Eoghan Gilmartin
Spain votes today in one of the most tightly fought elections in decades. All the polls suggest Pedro Sánchez’s centre-left Socialist Party will come out on top, but it remains unclear whether he will be able to form a governing coalition. Overshadowing the campaign has been the breakthrough of the extreme right Vox party, which has packed out arenas across much of the country over recent weeks. The degree to which it can now mobilise new voters with its openly anti-feminist, anti-LGBT and anti-Catalan discourse is one of the great unknowns of the campaign.
A recent Financial Times editorial characterised the election as “a choice between two [Left and Right] electoral blocks that seek to portray each other as an existential threat to Spain’s future”. For the Left the fear has been a regression to the worst of the country’s past with the election of a hard-right coalition that would include Vox, while for right-wing voters a new Sánchez administration would represent a threat to national unity.
Yet if this has been the dominant framing of the campaign, the actual results could produce a much more complicated scenario. At least three possible governing coalitions are on the table while the potential of a hung parliament and months of political deadlock remains a real possibility. Eoghan Gilmartin sat down with Spanish journalist Antonio Maestre to look back on the campaign, discuss the rise of the extreme right and explore the possibility of a left-wing coalition between PSOE and Podemos.
Pedro Sánchez called these elections in February after his budget failed to get parliamentay approval. How would you explain the background to this campaign?
These elections are taking place in the shadow of 2017’s Catalan independence crisis. Sánchez came to power less than a year ago after a motion of no confidence brought down the previous right-wing administration but he needed the support of the Catalan parties to secure his majority. He had begun a process of dialogue with these pro-independence forces but in the end they pulled their support for his budget after Sánchez was unable to meet their demands on various issues, such as holding a referendum.
His government could have tried to soldier on by carrying over the previous year’s budget but Sánchez saw an opportunity to call snap elections on favourable terms. The Right called a demonstration in Madrid against his government’s supposed betrayal of Spain – framing negotiations with the Catalans as a shameful surrender of national sovereignty in exchange for remaining in office. Yet the poor turnout at the demonstration and photos showing the leaders of the two major right-wing parties shoulder to shoulder with Vox’s Santiago Abascal created an opening: Sánchez could fight the election against the threat of a radicalised right-wing bloc – the so-called “three rights.”
So if the elections in 2015 and 2016 were fought along post-ideological lines [i.e. between the new and old or insurgent versus established forces], in 2019 we have returned to two ideological blocs – left and right. On the Left you have the left-populist Podemos and Sánchez’s social democrats while on the Right you have the supposedly liberal Ciudadanos which unlike in other European countries is willing to govern not only with the conservative Popular Party but also with the support of the extreme right. So the elections are being fought between two blocs and its more a question of which bloc comes out on top with a governing majority.
All the polls say the centre-left PSOE will be the largest party when the results are read out tonight. Whatever about his politics, Sánchez has shown himself to be a resilient and agile leader and has bucked the trend of social democratic decline across much of Europe. How would you explain his electoral success?
Yes, his capacity for survival and overcoming odds is impressive. He has been left for dead on more than one occasion and managed to come back. He won back the PSOE leadership in 2017 after an internal coup by literally driving in his own car from one regional city to the next without any organisation behind him, at least at the beginning.
In these elections he has positioned the Socialists as the only force able to stop the advance of the extreme right. He is looking to benefit from a certain tactical vote from both those who might have opted for Ciudadanos in 2016 as well as from former Podemos voters. There are many people who now fear what a strong showing for Vox would mean.
This distinguishes him from Corbyn whose gains in 2017 mobilised people around a programme of reform. Can we say that Sánchez’s surge more resembles that of Emmanuel Macron, in that it is based on being bulwark against the extreme right?
Sánchez has always been a social-liberal and is closer in ideological terms to the Third Way than the radical social democracy of Jeremy Corbyn. Looking at the Spanish political field Corbyn would be closer to Pablo Iglesias. Though right now we are seeing Sánchez move to the left for electoral reasons as he tries to eat into Podemos’ vote. This is being made easier by the fact that Ciudadanos have abandoned the centre ground and aligned themselves to the extreme right. This has left the PSOE largely uncontested on this flank and able to dominate amongst moderate voters.
In this scenario defined by two polarised blocs, what is Podemos’ strategy?
Podemos is trying to position itself as the only guarantee for a left-wing government – claiming that without its presence within a coalition, the PSOE will never secure social advances. It is also emphasising that a vote for the PSOE risks ending up being a vote for Ciudadanos, the preferred coalition for many within Sánchez’s party. In this sense Iglesias and the leadership are aiming to minimise the number of voters being lost to the Socialists for tactical reasons. The line is that if you vote for the Socialists, you still might end up with a right-wing coalition.
The social advances of the last year, such as the 20 percent increase in the minimum wage, were clearly down to Podemos’ pressure on Sánchez’s government. The PSOE would never have sought such an increase alone but, as a minority administration, they were forced to seek Podemos’ support to pass anything. In contrast, their failed pact with Ciudadanos in 2015 only envisaged a 1 percent raise of the minimum wage. And so right now Iglesias is asking left-wing voters to return his party with enough seats to continue exerting such influence.
Pablo Iglesias was widely seen as the winner of the last leaders’ debate, meaning Podemos’ campaign managed to gather renewed momentum over the last week or so. Given the historic level of undecided voters going into the last week of the campaign (estimated to be around 42 percent), what margin is there for increasing their share of the vote? In the final polls they were on around 14 percent, a third down on their 2016 result.
Obviously, they cannot outperform their 2016 result but the objective has been to recuperate as much of their lost votes as possible. It is clear that the campaign and Iglesias’ performance in the debates has reactivated the party’s electorate to a certain extent. He was measured – concentrating on his party’s proposals – and even found time to defend Sánchez from the attacks from the Right. In this sense if Iglesias won the debate, he was also winning it on behalf of the left bloc and not just his own party. The debate gave weight to the idea that PSOE and Podemos can now cooperate. They looked like potential coalition partners.
What would be a good result for this left bloc?
A good result would be one which allowed it to govern. For example, if the two left-wing parties secured enough seats to govern with only the support of the Basque nationalists that would be a great result for Podemos as it would allow them to really push their social and ecological agenda without the national question [i.e. the status of Catalonia] dominating. Ideally, they would also remain the third largest force ahead of Ciudadanos and Vox, though this was not their expectation before the campaign.
The main doubt, however, is whether PSOE would accept a coalition. Its first preference is to continue governing alone, counting on the external support of Podemos and with the two parties reaching punctual agreements like last year’s budget deal. But Podemos are going to resist this and demand to enter the government directly. This way they believe they can influence policy more clearly.
There are a lot of variables at play as this will not only depend on the number of seats Podemos is able to maintain but also whether the combined force of PSOE and liberal-right party Ciudadanos is sufficient to form an alternative majority. There will be a lot pressure from the economic elites to avoid a left-wing government in this scenario particularly if a left-pact also requires Catalan support.
Podemos MP Manolo Monereo has said his party have been naive in their relations with the PSOE. Is it fair to say that over the last year Sánchez has out-manoeuvred Podemos?
Well, I think it is obvious that the PSOE has benefited most from the two parties’ increased cooperation since the formation of the Sánchez government. The Socialists currently have 85 MPs and are looking at 130 seats in today’s poll. But I don’t know if Podemos had any other option but to back a Sánchez government last year. The Right were surging in the polls, commanding a ten point lead after the Catalan crisis. What was Iglesias meant to do – refuse to back the motion of no confidence and leave Mariano Rajoy and the right-wing PP in power?
Sometimes in politics you find yourself in a situation in which there are no beneficial lines of action. For me, both before and after the motion of no confidence, Podemos acted as they should have – using their support for the PSOE government to push through as many social measures as possible – but the circumstances thrown up by the Catalan crisis in the end imposed themselves. If the budget had been passed and the Sánchez had continued on until 2020, probably the party would have found itself in a much stronger position.
Moving to the right side of the field, how do you see the increased competition between these three right-wing parties – Ciudadanos, the PP and Vox – playing out at the polls?
As has happened elsewhere, the breakthrough of the extreme right in Spain has caused the existing Right to adapt their message and seek to win back votes. We have seen the PP radicalise their discourse on various themes, while Ciudadanos have chosen to impose a cordon sanitaire not around Vox but around the Socialists. This is unimaginable in other countries, that a party from the liberal ALDE group in the European parliament would choose to side with the extreme right over the centre-left. But ultimately Ciudadanos believed the major part of their vote depended more on competing with Vox and the PP to the right than disputing the centre with the PSOE.
This fragmentation of the Right will probably hurt it under the current Spanish electoral system and make it more difficult to reach the number of seats necessary to govern. Clearly, after the upsets of Brexit and the victory of Trump, you cannot rule out such a scenario. But even if the Right ended up mobilising a higher overall number of voters, it could win less seats than in 2016 because these votes will be divided between three parties.
How did you see [Ciudadanos leader] Albert Rivera’s performance in the debates?
I think he was the obvious loser of both debates. Although it is true there were some people whose message was targeting them – and they claim he won. So, that may be true for the converted. But the PP and Ciudadanos have to convince people who are undecided. These people do not like overheated debates. I think, in this case, the debates have been a misstep from both Rivera and PP leader Pablo Casado.
I think Casado performed much better in the first debate. He projected a certain impression of normality, and of management, which is a successful message for the PP’s electorate. But I think Rivera came across as hot-headed, almost histrionic. He displayed a very radical posture, he was aggressive, and I think this brought him closer to Vox’s discourse than it did to a centrist one.
I think Rivera will pay a price for having applied a cordon sanitaire to the PSOE in the way he has, and for opening the door to the radical right. But let’s see whose analysis is correct – us journalists’ or Ciudadanos’ internal polling. Going off their own surveys, they obviously believe it is better to position themselves closer to the extreme right.
Vox was excluded from the debates by the Electoral Commission. In some ways, was that actually a positive for them?
I think their own strategy was to be excluded from the debates, and position themselves as a victim. But the terms the debates were fought on might have suited them. Apart from Iglesias the other leaders offered almost no proposals – there weren’t policies, there wasn’t any real ‘debate.’ The right was aggressive, and Vox specialises in that.
In a slagging match, Vox will inevitably come out the winner. So, because of the way the debate developed, they would have thrived had they participated. It is always better to be seen – even, arguably, if you don’t perform that well – by the approxiately 10 million people that tuned into the TV debates than not. I think it is a good thing for democracy that they were not there, though, because they are a dangerous party.
In the Andalusian elections Vox obtained the majority of its vote among people with higher than average income. There is a difference between their discourse and that of Trump or Le Pen in that it does not seek to exploit social vulnerability but rather utilises a purer identitarian appeal. In this election they seem to be targeting the abstention vote. To what extent can they succeed?
In terms of Vox’s ability to reach out to different voter demographics, the party’s scope for that is largely located in an appeal to ultranationalist voters, in a message foregrounding Spanish national identity. We can’t overlook the potential for such a message to win over the popular masses in Spain. Ultranationalist sentiment has a considerable purchase here. In the non-peripheral regions, Spanish national sentiment is very strong and Vox could potentially mobilise a lot of voters.
But it is clear that, at the moment, they are not seeking to go beyond this electoral base. When you compare their discourse to Marine Le Pen’s protectionist rhetoric, which is able to find support in an economic sense among traditional working-class communities and even former Communist voters, it is clear Vox isn’t interested in this demographic at the moment. Theirs is an ultraliberal vote, economically-speaking. A libertarian vote, or, in other words, a vote for the economic elites in Spain, a reflection of the values of the Spanish aristocracy.
You have published a lot on Vox over the past few months, for example on the background of its leadership and its candidates. Can you say a bit about Vox’s links to Spain’s traditional far-right, such as group as the Falange?
For a long time now, the post-Francoist far-right has been searching for a party that can both represent and bring together its dispersed vote. A marginalised far-right always existed within the Popular Party that attempted to secure representation but never managed to do so. But now it has found a more truly representative force in Vox.
All those groups made up of neo-Nazis, Falangists, Francoists, and fascists that have had marginal parties have seen the opportunity to gain representation on a more minimal program. They obviously don’t see eye-to-eye with Vox on everything, but they see it as the vehicle through which they can make significant gains. This has prompted an almost Trotskyist tactic of entryism on the far-right.
There are a number of such groups that have entered into Vox. For example, the Association of European Members – a Nazi organisation that disappeared in 1993 after a news piece revealed its links to a number of other European Nazi parties. Many of its members have reemerged in Vox. Almost all of the leaders from the National Democracy group, another neo-Nazi party, are now in Vox. So are many Falangists, and many former members of the New Force group, the erstwhile Francoist party that disappeared in the 1980s.
So, Vox has attracted all of these various figures and groups with clear roots in the Spanish far-right. That’s not to say that tomorrow morning they’re going to assume all of their policies. But without doubt it is the national political party that best represents the interests and objectives of these far-right groups that have existed in Spain. And it is a party with clear fascist, pre-Transition [to democracy] links. It is a container party of far and extreme right groups of all stripes that have existed in Spain over the past 40 years.
Do you think it can feasibly gain 3rd place and around 15% of the vote, as some predict? What would have to happen for this scenario to emerge?
Many polls point to there being only 3-4 points difference between 3rd and 5th place. This is the margin of error we’re talking about. 1 or 2 points could make a huge difference. From what I’ve seen, we can’t discount anything among Podemos, Ciudadanos and Vox. It is feasible that Vox will finish third.
It will be interesting to see what the margin is between the conservative PP in second place and the third-placed party. Perhaps the left and right blocs are so clearly delimited that one right-wing party gaining a point or two will necessarily rob another right-wing party of one or two points. There has also been a theory that Vox will mobilise many voters that previously would abstain and so would result in an unexpected majority for the Right. It is very open-ended and almost impossible to call. We will have to see.