Analysis The Center Can Hold

Spain Better Get Used to Multiparty Democracy

You can’t return sixteen parties to Congress and not expect them to compromise.

António Costa Pedro Sánchez
Prime Minister António Costa of Portugal greets his Spanish counterpart, Pedro Sánchez, in Lisbon, July 2, 2018 (Governo da República Portuguesa/Clara Azevedo)

With no party or bloc winning a majority in Spain’s Congress on Sunday, the country’s politicians need to finally come to grips with coalition politics.

The center-left Socialists and center-right People’s Party are used to alternating in power. They split 80 percent of the votes as recently as 2011. But Spain hasn’t been a two-party system since 2015, when Podemos (“We Can”) on the far left and the Ciudadanos (“Citizens”) on the center-right took one out of three votes between them.

This pattern has now been confirmed in four elections in as many years and still the old parties continue as though nothing has changed.

Minority governments

Rather than go into coalition with the Citizens in 2015, the People’s Party formed a minority government, which could only come to power with the acquiescence of the Socialists.

When Pedro Sánchez, the current prime minister, took over in 2018, he did so with the support of Podemos and regional parties, including those from Catalonia.

But unlike his Portuguese counterpart, António Costa, who has skillfully held a similar coalition of left-wing parties together since 2015, Sánchez first lost the support of the Catalans, when his promises of dialogue and concessions came to nothing, and then Podemos, when he was unwilling to treat the smaller party as a full coalition partner.


Sánchez called Sunday’s election in an attempt to break the deadlock, but if anything the situation has become more complex.

The collapse of the Citizens, many of whose voters defected to the People’s Party or the far-right Vox, means a centrist government is no longer an option.

The People’s Party is calling for Sánchez’ head if they are to return the favor from 2015. They haven’t forgiven Sánchez for toppling their leader, Mariano Rajoy, in a confidence vote three years later. Even if Sánchez were to go, a minority Socialist government that relies on the good will of the opposition could be short-lived.

The Catalan independence parties are projected to gain seats. Although the largest of the three, the Republican Left, has said it is time for negotiation, not unilateral action, disappointment in the region runs high. The Catalan parties gave Sánchez their support hoping he would allow a legal referendum on independence. Instead, nine of the region’s separatist leaders have been convicted of sedition against the Spanish state for organizing an unsanctioned referendum in 2017, with the former leader of the Republican Left sentenced to thirteen years in prison.


Far from offering a solution that reasonable Catalans and Spaniards could live with, Sánchez campaigned on outlawing independence referendums and taking control of the Catalan public media away from the devolved government in Barcelona.

This is no way to run a multiparty democracy. Rather than compromise, the major parties are polarizing the population — and they’re not even the ones benefiting from it.

As recently as a decade ago, fewer than one in five Catalans wanted to break away from Spain. Now it’s close to half.

Outside the Basque Country and Catalonia, a majority don’t even want the Spanish government to negotiate with the Catalans, much less grant them more autonomy or a legal independence vote.

The Socialists defended their plurality in the election on Sunday, but they didn’t gain support.

The People’s Party is recovering from its worst election result ever in April, when it got only 17 percent. But with a projected 88 out of 350 seats in the lower chamber of Congress, it is still a shadow of its former self.

The Citizens, who for a time last year were the largest party in the polls, have lost their opportunity to become the third party of Spain.

That honor now goes to Vox, a neo-Francoist party that wants to expel migrants, decriminalize violence against women, outlaw separatism and abolish the entire system of devolved regional governments that has kept Spain together for the last forty years.

The rise of Vox is the failure of the mainstream right. Rather than ostracize the party, the Citizens and People’s Party tried to appease and outflank it, signaling to their voters that it was an acceptable alternative

Elections have consequences

The best thing for Spain would be a multiparty coalition, led by the Socialists and including regional parties. That would give Sánchez political cover to walk back his hard line and start appealing to the broad middle of Catalan society, which would still prefer more self-government, ideally within a federal Spain, over secession.

It could also help reconcile Spaniards to the consequences of their actions. You cannot return sixteen parties to Congress and not expect them to compromise. You either have a two-party system or you have a politics of consensus. Spaniards are right to demand more than a left-or-right choice, but they need to accept that means the outcome will often be something in the middle.