Everything You Need to Know About the Election in Spain

A guide to the Spanish electoral system, the parties, their leaders and possible coalitions.

The Palacio de las Cortes, seat of the Spanish Congress of Deputies, in Madrid, August 16, 2017
The Palacio de las Cortes, seat of the Spanish Congress of Deputies, in Madrid, August 16, 2017 (Shutterstock/Vivvi Smak)

Spaniards return to the polls on Sunday for their fourth general election in as many years. The outcome may not be very different from the election in April.

Bottom lines

  • The Socialists are likely to remain the largest party but again fall short of a majority.
  • Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez may need the support of several far-left and regional parties to stay in power.
  • The independence crisis in Catalonia is the major issue. Sánchez has taken a harder line. The right argues for revoking the region’s autonomy.

The Spanish electoral system

All 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies and 208 of the 265 seats in the Senate will be contested.

The Senate is a relatively weak upper body. The lower house can override its vetoes with an absolute majority.

348 of the 350 seats in Congress 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.

208 of the seats in the Senate are elected by popular vote. Each of Spain’s peninsular provinces elects four senators, giving small provinces more power, which tends to benefit the right. Ceuta, Melilla and the Spanish islands in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea have twenty seats combined. The remaining 57 seats are filled by regional legislatures.

A short history

After democracy was restored in the late 1970s, Spain was for decades almost a two-party system with the center-left and center-right frequently splitting between 70 and 80 percent of the votes. Catalan nationalists were able to exploit this division by giving one side or the other a majority in exchange for autonomy.

The far-left Podemos (“We Can”) and the liberal Ciudadanos (“Citizens”) broke this duopoly in 2015, winning 35 percent of the votes between them. Neither the Socialists nor the conservative People’s Party have been able to form a majority government since.

The last year

Spanish party leaders Pablo Iglesias and Pedro Sánchez speak in Madrid, February 5, 2016
Spanish party leaders Pablo Iglesias and Pedro Sánchez speak in Madrid, February 5, 2016 (PSOE)

Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez came to power in June 2018 with the support of Podemos and regional parties.

This fragile coalition collapsed in February, when the two Catalan parties joined the right-wing opposition in voting against Sánchez’ budget.

The Catalans had demanded a legal referendum on independence for their support, which Sánchez refused.

Sánchez called an election in April in an attempt to break the deadlock. His party went up from 23 to 29 percent, growing at the expense of Podemos. The far-right Vox won seats in Congress for the first time with 10 percent support. Negotiations between the Socialists and Podemos failed when the former refused to give the smaller party cabinet seats.

Key issues

  • Catalonia: The conviction of nine of the region’s separatist leaders for sedition against the Spanish state, carrying prison sentences of up to thirteen years, has pushed the Catalan issue to the top of Spain’s political agenda. Sánchez, who previously said he was willing to negotiate with the ruling separatist parties in Catalonia, now wants to ban independence referendums and limit regional government control of public media. Right-wing parties argue for the suspension of Catalan home rule. Vox even wants to criminalize separatist parties. Only Podemos still calls for compromise.
  • Spending and taxes: The Socialists campaign on spending and tax increases worth €5.5 billion. With relatively high inequality and a relatively low tax burden (35 percent of GDP compared to a eurozone average of 42 percent), they argue there is both a need and room for more transfers. The right, by contrast, sees slowing growth and still-high unemployment (14 percent) as reasons to make Spain more competitive. It calls for abolishing the estate tax and reducing corporate as well as the top income tax. Neither may get its wish. The European Commission warns that Spain will need to reduce its structural deficit by €6.6 billion to remain in compliance with EU fiscal rules.
  • Labor: More than a quarter of Spanish workers are on temporary contracts, the highest share in the EU. The left wants to expand their rights. The Citizens in the past argued for introducing a single type of contract that would be somewhere in between fixed contracts that are difficult to break and temporary contracts that give workers no security.
  • Pensions: Pension cuts and a raise in the retirement age to 67 have barely helped close the gap between what Spaniards pay into the social security system and what they take out. The difference grows by around €18 billion per year. The only party with a concrete plan to reduce the shortfall is Podemos. It wants the wealthy to pay more.

The parties and their leaders

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez greets Albert Rivera, leader of the Citizens party, outside his residence in Madrid, October 16
Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez greets Albert Rivera, leader of the Citizens party, outside his residence in Madrid, October 16 (La Moncloa)

Fifteen parties could win seats in the new Congress, including three regional parties from Catalonia, two from the Basque Country and one from the Canary Islands, Cantabria, Navarre and Valencia each.

Support for the Catalan parties adds up to around 6 percent nationally, good for at least twenty seats. The Basques should get another ten or more. The remaining regional parties are unlikely to win more than one or two seats each. But combined, they could form a powerful bloc, especially if neither the Citizens nor Podemos wins enough seats to give the Socialists a majority.

The national parties are:

  • Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, with an allied but independent branch in Catalonia, was founded in 1879 and a major force in the Second Republic that was defeated by Franco in the Civil War. After the restoration of democracy, it formally abandoned Marxism, U-turned on NATO membership and eventually adopted “Third Way” social democracy. It remains more popular with working and union voters than other center-left parties in Europe. Under Pedro Sánchez, it has become explicitly pro-European, feminist and more willing to do deals with the far left than the center-right.
  • People’s Party, allied with Asturias Forum, was originally constituted as the People’s Alliance by reformist veterans of the Franco regime. Under Mariano Rajoy, it cut public spending and reformed labor law to avoid the need for a European bailout. Rajoy’s refusal to negotiate with a growing Catalan independence movement exacerbated discontent in the region. His successor, Pablo Casado, has pulled the party to the right on abortion rights, Catalonia, Gibraltar and immigration.
  • Citizens, allied with the tiny Union, Progress and Democracy and led by Albert Rivera, was founded in Catalonia in 2006 in opposition to the region’s independence movement. The party is reluctant to call itself liberal, but it mixes center-right economic policies with progressive social views and support for the EU.
  • Unidos Podemos (“United We Can”), led by Pablo Iglesias, is a merger of the anti-establishment movement Podemos and small far-left parties. Its policies include introducing a basic income, withdrawing from international trade deals and abolishing spy agencies. It has also campaigned for nationalizing energy companies and withdrawing from NATO.
  • Vox (“Voice”), led by Santiago Abascal, was founded in 2013 but only gained popularity in the wake of Catalonia’s attempted secession from Spain in 2017. It proposes to abolish Spain’s system of autonomous communities altogether and argues for the return of Gibraltar. It also opposes abortion, feminism, gay marriage and immigration from Muslim countries.
  • Más País (“More Country”), founded by former Podemos deputy leader Iñigo Errejón in September, is an alliance of small Green parties and Podemos defectors who felt Iglesias was too uncompromising.

The polls

  • The Socialists have lost a few points in the polls since the last election but are still faraway the largest with 26-28 percent support.
  • The People’s Party is recovering from its worst election result ever, up from 17 to 19-22 percent.
  • Its gains are the Citizens‘ loss, who have fallen from 16 to under 10 percent.
  • The far-right Vox also attracts unionist voters. It is up from 10 to 12-13 percent.
  • Podemos and Más País are projected to split 16-17 percent.

Possible coalitions

  • Socialists + Podemos + Catalans: Would likely require a full, as opposed to confidence-and-supply, coalition agreement with Podemos as well as concessions to the Catalans, neither of which Sánchez has been willing to give.
  • Socialists + Podemos + other regionalists: Could maintain the status quo in Catalonia, although neither Podemos nor most regional parties believe that status quo is sustainable. Would also still require a deal with Podemos.
  • Socialists + Podemos + Más País: Unlikely Iglesias will team up with Errejón.
  • Socialists + Citizens: This is the coalition Sánchez tried and failed to put together in 2015. The Citizens ruled it out last time, but now seem more willing. The Catalan branch of the Socialist Party wouldn’t be happy, though, given that the Citizens are despised on the Catalan left for taking such a hard line on independence. It could cause the Catalan Socialists to lose voters to other left-wing parties in the region.
  • Socialists + People’s Party: Has been ruled out by Sánchez but apparently still seen as an option in Madrid. I’m skeptical they could get to a grand coalition. More likely, if all else fails, Sánchez will ask the People’s Party to abstain from his investiture vote and allow him to form a minority government. Ironically, Sánchez broke with his own party when it abstained from a similar vote in 2016 to allow the People’s Party’s Mariano Rajoy to form a minority government.
  • Citizens + People’s Party + Vox: Not projected to win a majority.