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Uncertain Future for the Spanish Left: A Guide to the 2023 Spanish General Elections

In November 2019, Spain voted for its congress and therefore Prime Minister. Since we’re talking of a parliamentary monarchy, the general elections hold incredible power for the country’s future despite not being a presidential one. A left-wing government was formed by the coalition of PSOE and Unidas Podemos. PSOE’s leader and the new Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez rose to power. However, since 2019, a lot has changed. Besides the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing immigration to Mediterranean Europe and the gain of strength on the pro-Catalan independence front have favored the rise of the far-right in Spain, represented by VOX, a party that held 52 seats out of 350 since 2019.

The leader of the Socialist Party (PSOE) dissolved the Parliament on May 29th following a very disappointing result in local and regional elections with the hopes of gaining some momentum without waiting for the governmental ship to fully sink, as popularity and trust in the left were down. (Europe Elects) The objective was clear— the call for early elections would allow Pedro Sánchez to rally the left behind him and mobilize in an intense campaign against the opposition. (La Moncloa)

This 23rd of July was the culmination of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's political plan against the seemingly inevitable rise of the right. Voter turnout also increased compared to 2019 with a jump from 68 to 70 percent. Despite the excruciating heat, a lot of citizens had already voted by 14:00.

In the evening of July 23rd, after a tense vote count that defied surveys, the political bet that Sánchez put on the table seemed to have worked out. However, the future is far from certain or reassuring for the Spanish left. The changes in Parliament and the political discourse to come in the following years remain as the key concerns. How successful will Pedro Sánchez be in forming a new and stable government?

Parliament changes (RTVE, El País)

  • Partido Popular (PP) fails to hold a substantial majority on its own but remains the biggest political group with 135 seats in parliament after skyrocketing in comparison to the 2019 General Election results. Diaspora votes help them gain a 136th seat. PP's main ally, the relatively young far-right populist party VOX loses momentum and 40% of its seats, going from 52 to 33.

  • PSOE shyly expands with 2 more seats (122 in total), while the new-born far left coalition Sumar doesn't obtain the growth it expected after an intense campaign with 31 seats. Podemos, the second leftist group from the 2019 elections, practically disappears and is assimilated as another small integrant of Sumar.

  • Catalan nationalists, regardless of political orientation, lose seats but right-wing pro-independence party Junts per Catalunya holds a solid ground with 7 seats, tied with Esquerra Republicana. Basque nationalist group Eh Bildu grows, further dividing the Basque country as PNV (the historical representatives of Basque nationalism) fails to hold representation for the entire region.

2023 Spanish general election results showed on a map

The difficult task of forming a government

After these results, forming a government is practically impossible for the PP, regardless of its victory as the biggest political group. The only partner it could align with to form a government would be VOX, which not only has lost 19 seats but is also completely incompatible with any other party in the hemicycle. Coalitions that we have seen in the past like PP and PNV are simply impossible with VOX on board.

This means only one thing: PSOE will form a government again. Sumar, the new-born leftist conglomerate of smaller parties, accumulated 31 seats. This, added to the nationalist parties of the country, can be enough for PSOE to reach the 176 seats necessary to have a majority in parliament and thereby legislate.

But it won't be that easy. Catalan right-wing nationalist party and de-facto leader of the independence movement Junts per Catalunya is tied with its leftist counterpart, Esquerra Republicana, the easier party for PSOE to negotiate with. It must be kept in mind that Junts per Cat. is the party of Puigdemont, who is among the imprisoned Catalan nationalists tried for sedition in 2019. Pedro Sánchez will only be able to form a government and obtain the majority if Junts per Cat. allows it. After the recount of the diaspora votes, the PP won another seat in Madrid, tensing the situation even more. Because of this, PSOE will imperatively need Junts's aye. Catalan nationalists have a very powerful hand to play and they can force the way of politics in their favor. This means the Madrid government will probably have to do more and more concessions to the nationalists, entering uncharted territory for Spain as a political entity.

Political discourse to come

After the election results, the PP, despite being the most-voted party with the most seats in parliament, simply cannot form a government. As explained earlier, a coalition with VOX would not numerically be enough to gain an absolute majority and further pacts would be impossible. Therefore, we can expect the discourse of the conservatives to promote their own legitimacy. They want to be able to form a government by themselves and argue that it is their right to try even if it goes directly against the Spanish Constitution of 1978 which was approved shortly after dictator Francisco Franco’s death, and still remains as the supreme law of Spain.

Partido Popular governs in several regions like Madrid or Castilla y León without having a majority or being the most-voted party of the regional Parliament. They govern through coalition, not through a relative majority like the Constitution says they can.

Concerning VOX, the party is in downfall. In 2019, the right-wing vote shifted towards extremism. Now, the tables have turned towards-albeit very relative- ideological moderation. The electorate betted for the "strong vote", preferring one strong block over a divided right. It is therefore foreseeable that VOX will only radicalize itself even further. The party will continue to present itself as the only solution against the 'inevitable downfall of Spain' and a 'descent into totalitarianism and socialism'. (Libertad Digital) (Vox España)

Attacks on the legitimacy of PSOE will only intensify. The right will denounce how the socialists are ready to give some slack to separatists and how they will be governing excluding the bigger party in the room. (El Diario)

From the left, both PSOE and Sumar will continue to solidify the idea of a progressive Spain which has decided to keep the far-right at bay. Sánchez already declines the possibility of redoing the elections, something that many from the right ask for. The results consolidate the vision of Spain that PSOE has been building for the past four years and it's possible Sánchez reaches his goals without much trouble. However, if Junts per Catalunya refuses, Spain may indeed have to prepare for a second little trip to the polls.(Ondacero)

The lights are turning green for the right and things are tense on the leftist front. Regarding the rest of the Mediterranean EU, Spain isn’t the only member state to experience a turn to the right. Italian right-wing party Fratelli d’Italia’s leader Giorgia Meloni, who has been in power since the last Italian general elections last year, is a close ally of Vox’s Santiago Abascal. While the situation in Spain cannot be considered extraordinary as of now since both sides have been passing the government back to each other for the last few decades, the next few years and elections hold great importance for a political analysis of the region.

Edited by Simay Cemre Tülübaş and Yağmur Ece Nisanoğlu

Works Cited

Cover image from The Live TV debate, REUTERS/Juan Medina

“Abascal: ‘Para Pedro Sánchez Proteger La Democracia Es Que Le Voten Violadores, Golpistas, Ladrones, Txapote y Mohamed.’” El Diario, 9 July 2023.

Fedriani, Irene. “Resultados de Las Elecciones Generales, Última Hora.” RTVE.

“Institutional Declaration by the President of the Government of Spain.” La Moncloa, 29 May 2023.

Loureiro, Maite. “Abascal, Contra Sánchez: ‘Esta Investidura Es Una Emboscada a La Constitución.’” Libertad Digital, 4 Jan. 2020.

“Meloni Phones Vox Leader Abascal after Spain Election.” ANSA, 24 July 2023.

Pino Cabeza, Matías. “Spanish Regional and Local Elections: Right Advances While Left Defends.” Europe Elects, 27 May 2023.

“Resultados Elecciones Generales 2023.” EL PAÍS, 23 July 2023.

“Sánchez Rechaza La Reunión Con Feijóo y Le Emplaza a Hablar Tras La Constitución de Las Cortes.” Ondacero, 30 July 2023.

“Santiago Abascal, En VIVA 22: ‘Este Es Un Acto de Rebelión Contra El Intento de Destruir Nuestra Identidad.’” Vox España, 8 Oct. 2022.


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