30 April 2019

Spanish parliamentary elections held on 28 April ended with a victory for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). The party gained 29% of the vote and 123 seats, up from the 84 seats it currently holds. However, as a majority in the Spanish parliament requires 176 seats, a delicate and long process of coalition-building is due to begin in Madrid.

The conservative Popular Party (PP), considered to be the biggest loser, lost over half their seats – from 137 to 66. The centre-right Ciudadanos were close behind them with 57 seats (up from 32 in 2016), while left-wing Unidas Podemos garnered 42 seats (down from 71 last time).

In most of Europe, the Socialists’ victory has been painted as a message of reassurance for those worried about the rise of Eurosceptic and nationalist politics across the continent, even though most commentators acknowledge that difficult coalition talks are ahead.

Many reactions also mention the rise of the far-right party, Vox. Despite gaining less seats than expected, Vox entered parliament with 10.3% of votes – the first time an openly far-right party has won seats since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

Meanwhile, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), which advocates for Catalan independence, won 15 seats. Its potential role in the coalition-building process has also attracted interest in the European press.

Below is an overview of how European politicians and commentators have responded to the results of the elections, and their predictions for the formation of the new Spanish government.

 

Spain

An opinion piece in Spanish daily El Pais titled “The victory of Sánchez boosts morale for Social Democrats ahead of 26 May” argues that after setbacks in France, Italy and Greece, progressive EU parties see the light at the end of the tunnel. After recovering first place in Finland and Spain, the polls show good results for social democrats in Denmark, Portugal and Belgium – and even a rebound in Italy.

A comment in El Confidencial argues that Sánchez’s objective was to achieve a result which guarantees that he can form a government without depending on the support of the pro-independence parties. Meanwhile, the objective of Albert Rivera [leader of Ciudadanos] was to abandon the dream of becoming ‘the Spanish Macron,’ and instead replace the PP as the main centre-right party in Spain. El Confidencial argues that Rivera succeeded in his aim and ended as the second winner of these elections.

Spanish daily El Mundo states, “These elections have shown more than any other time the definite death of bipartisanship in Spain and generated one of the most fragmented parliaments in the history of Spanish democracy…It is true that the new PP president took over the leadership in one of his worst moments, but it is clear that Pablo Casado [PP leader] has not been able to stop the haemorrhaging of votes towards Vox and Ciudadanos, nor has he managed to instill enthusiasm in an electorate disappointed with the last Rajoy government.”

 

Germany

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, from the German Social Democrats, said Sánchez’s victory was a “strong signal for social democracy in Europe.”

German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung strikes a more pessimistic note, writing, “The excitement in the central offices of the Spanish Socialist Party will not last long… Everyone knows this is a difficult victory. Sánchez has not won a left-wing majority. He now has to negotiate with the small regional parties who he no longer wants to become dependent on. This is especially true of the two separatist parties from Catalonia.”

A comment in the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily newspaper argues, “As a backlash to Catalan nationalism, Spanish nationalism has also been strengthened. There is now an extreme right-wing party in Spain that dreams of past greatness and stands against migrants and separatists.”

Elsewhere, the Spiegel notes, “Spain’s right-wing radicals have urged conservatives and liberals to leave the centre. This hampers the formation of a government for the election winner, the Spanish Socialist Party.” The piece explains that the “shift to the right” by the centre-right PP “had devastating consequences for the PP and helped Ciudadanos catch up. Only one percentage point separates Ciudadanos, who competed in Spain for the first time in 2015, from PP.”

 

France

An editorial in French daily Le Monde calls the election results “a vote of moderation,” adding that the Spanish voters’ verdict is one “of a dynamic democracy and a mutating system of political parties.” It notes,

With neighbouring Portugal successfully conducting a new social-democratic experiment, the Iberian Peninsula, going against the tide, is about to revitalise a reformist left which is declining almost everywhere else in Europe.

Elsewhere, the daily Libération comments, “Unlike a large part of Europe, the Spanish have contained the populist far-right wave and given a triumph to the Socialists, a scenario which only one and half years ago was described as moribund.”

Le Figaro, meanwhile, argues that “an alliance between PSOE and Ciudadanos would present several advantages. First, one of simplicity. It is easier to lead a team of two than it is to maintain discipline over small parties with multiple and contradictory interests. An alliance which breaks the logic of the left-right blocs and governs in the centre would receive also the favour of Brussels and the markets.”

Separately, the leader of the right-wing National Rally, Marine Le Pen, congratulated Vox for its entry into parliament, adding, “Nations need enthusiastic defenders!”

Portugal

The Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa said Spanish elections were marked by “strong civic participation.”

In Portuguese daily L’Expresso, an opinion piece comments, “If just over two years ago someone had told Sánchez that he was going to win the Spanish elections of this day with wide margin over his political opponents, he would have been considered delusional. It was at that time that Sanchez faced a humiliating defeat in the national council of his party, that forced to him to resign from his position as PSOE leader.” The piece adds,

Sánchez reaped the benefits of a moderate and intelligent electoral campaign. He also benefited from the Right that was immersed in fratricidal struggles.

Italy

Calling the PP’s performance a “débâcle” and a “political disaster,” Il Sole 24 Ore argues these were “the most confusing elections in Spanish democratic history.” The paper also notes the role of Catalan pro-independence parties, who are now “ready to exploit their seats in Madrid to at least achieve greater autonomy in the Barcelona region,” adding, “It will be up to Sánchez to govern over this issue too.”

The daily Corriere della Sera notes that elections ended with two certainties: a socialist victory (“a miracle in today’s Europe”) and breaking the taboo of the extreme right. It also notes, “The divisions are dramatic, not as much between right and left but between nationalists and secessionists, or between Catalan and Spanish patriots. But a solution, after many years of sufferance, will be good for everyone.”

Nicola Zingaretti, the leader of the Democratic Party, which sits in the same group as PSOE in the European Parliament, said, “The alternative to sovereigntists, populists and the right-wing exists, and it can win.”

Meanwhile, the leader of the right-wing anti-immigration Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, said she was waiting for Vox to join the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the European Parliament in order to “overturn the majority which has governed the EU until today.”

 

UK

The Daily Telegraph suggests the rise of Vox in Spain shows some “stark warnings” for the Conservatives in the UK “as they contemplate their own  populist rebellion over Brexit.” The paper adds, “The centrifugal political forces on show in Spain, with its heady mix of nostalgia-nationalism and a narrative of betrayal are very similar indeed. As is the prospect of a weak and divided socialist coalition government, waiting in the wings.”

 

Ireland

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar suggested the election gives hope for “mainstream pro-EU parties.”

An Irish Times editorial stroke a more careful tone, arguing “For Sánchez, winning the election may come to seem like the easy bit. He now faces the huge challenge of finding enough support from other parties to form a government, without giving ammunition to his right-wing critics by making rash concessions to Catalan nationalists. More importantly, if he survives into the medium term, he faces the much bigger challenge of shifting Spanish political culture away from the drift to the hard right that this election has revealed.”

“Spain’s socialist success reverses trend that swept through Europe,” the Irish Independent comments, adding, “The open-ended nature of this election – with surveys indicating record levels of voters undecided before the ballot – reflects in some ways the wild swings in the country’s national polls over the course of the past five years.”

Addressing the rise of far-right Vox, the Irish Examiner notes, “The extreme right is not, in fact, new to politics in democratic Spain. The traditional conservative PP party has always embraced the full spectrum of right-wing sensibilities, from the moderate right through to the extreme right. Many of those who voted for Vox come from the far right of the PP, having become disillusioned with the latter.”

 

Belgium

Belgian daily De Standaard says “Spain chooses dialogue,” also noting that “the Catalan issue was at the heart of the campaign.” It states that there “is a huge gap between the three parties supporting unionism and the two left-wing parties that were for dialogue with Catalonia,” also mentioning that the Catalan ERC party “which looks the most open to compromise, out of all separatist parties,” could be a coalition partner.

 

Netherlands

Dutch daily NRC highlights that Sánchez “is probably the last PM to lead a government completely composed of PSOE” as “he will have to share power,” praising him for “making a comeback” as “the rival PP was getting embroiled in one corruption affair after another.” It also notes that he “will need Catalan support,” adding that in Catalonia, “a surprisingly big voting share went to the left-wing moderate separatists of ERC over the hardliners of JxCat [Junts per Catalnuya].”

 

Sweden

A comment in the Swedish Daily News (SVD) states, “As the extreme right-wing party Vox gain seats parliament in Madrid, Spain joins the growing number of countries in Europe where right-wing populists and extremists are in the fine halls of power. Spain has thus far been a celebrated exception: a country where old dictatorship romantics were muttering in their couches but seldom went out to see the daylight.”

The Minister for Foreign Trade from the Social Democrat Party, Ann Linde, said it was a victory “for progressive values.”

Denmark

Danish daily Information comments,

After the election the political landscape is divided and a strong right-wing party has entered parliament. Thus, another period of political instability in Spain seems to have been set up.