Spanish Socialists Benefit from Division on the Right

Three parties split the right-wing vote, allowing the Socialists to come out on top.

Pedro Sánchez Christian Kern António Costa
Spanish, Austrian and Portuguese social democratic party leaders Pedro Sánchez, Christian Kern and António Costa attend a meeting in Lisbon, December 2, 2017 (PES)

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez benefits from a three-way fight on the right. With the conservative People’s Party, the liberal Citizens and the far-right Vox splitting the right-wing vote, Sánchez’ Socialist Party is likely to come out on top in elections later this month.

The question will be if Sánchez can form a coalition government with the far-left Podemos and regionalists from the Basque Country — or if he will need the support of Catalan nationalists, who sunk his previous government when Sánchez refused them a legal referendum on independence.

Rise of the far right

Since Vox won 11 percent of the votes in a regional election in Andalusia in December, it has become the fifth party of Spain, tying with the far-left Podemos in the polls.

The rise of Vox has come at the expense of the People’s Party and the Citizens. Both are down in the polls.

Both tried to preempt the rise of the far right by taking a harder line on Catalan independence. The new People’s Party leader, Pablo Casado, went so far as to accuse Sánchez of treason for offering to negotiate with Catalan parties about more autonomy. (His government collapsed before the negotiations could start.)

Casado has also called for stricter abortion and immigration laws.

Far from preempting the far right, it legitimized its positions. Vox is opposed to abortion, gay marriage and Muslim immigration and wants to revoke the Basque Country’s and Catalonia’s autonomy.

Possible outcomes

The People’s Party and the Citizens have nevertheless formed a coalition with Vox in Andalusia. Regionalist parties couldn’t possibly do a deal with it. The Citizens have ruled out a coalition with Sánchez. The Catalan branch of his Socialist Party has ruled out a coalition with the Citizens. As a result, there are only two possible outcomes:

  1. Another Socialist-led (minority) government with the support of Podemos and regional parties.
  2. A government of the People’s Party and Citizens supported by Vox.

Neither has a clear lead in the polls.

Rural power

The balance of power could hinge on a few seats and Spain’s electoral system makes the outcome difficult to project.

348 of the 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies are assigned proportionally to the provinces of Spain, with a minimum of two seats per province. The two remaining seats are allocated to Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish enclaves in North Africa. There is a 3-percent electoral threshold in each constituency.

Rural constituencies have more power. Diego Torres reports for Politico that the 28 most sparsely populated constituencies have just 20 percent of the population but 30 percent of the seats in Congress.

On top of that, the electoral system becomes less proportional in these areas because of the reduced number of seats per district, giving the winning party a bonus.

In the past, it was the People’s Party that benefited. It won 40 percent of the rural vote in 2016 but 51 percent of the seats.

The province of Cuenca, for example, gave the People’s Party 46 percent support and two seats in Congress against 30 percent support and one seat for the Socialists.

That could be reversed if the People’s Party must share the right-wing vote with the Citizens and Vox and if the Socialists grow at the expense of Podemos.

One projection in El País shows the conservatives losing half their rural seats and the Socialists going up from 29 to 48.