Sánchez Gambles by Calling Early Election in Spain

The prime minister is betting he can make the election a choice between him and the far right.

Pedro Sánchez
Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez visits UN peacekeepers in Lebanon, December 28, 2022 (La Moncloa)

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez has unexpectedly called an early general election after his Socialist Workers’ Party was defeated in local elections on Sunday.

General elections weren’t due until December. By bringing them forward to July, Sánchez is taking a gamble — and not for the first time.

Conservatives triumph in regions

The Spanish left lost power almost everywhere where elections were held on Sunday.

Nationwide, the Socialists didn’t even do so poorly, going down from 29 to 28 percent support in municipal elections.

But the conservative People’s Party (PP) gained far more than the Socialists lost, going up from 23 to 31.5 percent, and the Socialists’ far-left allies were wiped out. Hundreds of municipalities, and six of the twelve regions that voted, changed hands.

(The outcome in the Canary Islands and Navarre is still uncertain, but the Socialists could give local parties a majority.)

The PP decimated the liberal-nationalist Citizens. The party made the mistake of prioritizing Spanish nationalism — by opposing Catalan separatism — over liberalizing Spain. When an even more hardline Spanish nationalist party, Vox (Voice), emerged, the Citizens became irrelevant.

Vox won 7 percent in the municipal elections and will be needed for right-wing governments in the regions of Aragon, the Balearic Islands, Cantabria, Extremadura, Murcia and Valencia. The PP won absolute majorities in the regions of La Rioja and Madrid.

The Socialists didn’t benefit from the collapse of the far left, which suggests they must have also lost centrist voters to the PP. Far-left mayors were defeated in Barcelona and Valencia. Podemos (We Can), Sánchez’ coalition partner nationally, didn’t even clear the 5-percent election threshold in the Canary Islands and Madrid.

The Socialists lost their majority in the city council of Seville, Spain’s fourth-largest city. They defended their control of Asturias and Castilla-La Mancha, but in the case of the latter by a single seat in the regional parliament.

How a snap election could help Sánchez

  • Deny the far left time to regroup.

Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Díaz has left Podemos to create a new party, Sumar (Unite), which is polling at 8 to 15 percent support.

By holding the election in eight weeks, Sánchez gives Podemos little time to recover and Díaz little time to find candidates in the whole country. (Far-left parties in Catalonia, Madrid and Valencia have switched their support from Podemos to Díaz.)

  • Argue only the Socialists can prevent a national government with Vox.

Few Spaniards want Vox in power. The far-right party would abolish all regional autonomies, reverse Sánchez’ liberalization of abortion, euthanasia and sex-change therapy, and rewrite high-school curricula to paint Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in a better light.

By holding the elections at a time when the PP and Vox will either still be negotiating or have just formed coalitions in city halls and regional palaces, Sánchez makes the election a choice between him and the far right.

  • Avoid a leadership challenge.

To the extent there were rumblings in the Socialist Party about replacing Sánchez, he has staved those off. There is no time to find another candidate now.

  • Play the statesman.

Spain takes over the rotating presidency of the EU on July 1. Spanish ministers will chair all EU councils and Spanish bureaucrats will take the first stab at drafting compromise texts for their masters. With luck, Sánchez will be able to secure an EU victory for Spain.

Perhaps on the much talked-out, but so far elusive, Hydrogen Bank. Spain is already the largest producer of green hydrogen in the EU and Sánchez has put public money into expanding it.

Or on a revision of the EU’s fiscal rules, which formally limit debts and deficits to 60 and 3 percent of GDP, respectively. Spain has already convinced budget hawk the Netherlands to relax the rules. The remaining challenge is Germany.

Anything Sánchez can claim as a win will make him look bigger and PP leader and senator Alberto Núñez Feijóo look small.

Not the first time Sánchez takes a risk

Sánchez was forced out by party leaders after losing two elections in 2015 and 2016. Moderates argued for a grand coalition with the PP. Sánchez refused and went on a tour of Spain to rally his base. He prevailed in a leadership election with 50 percent support to 40 percent for his closest rival, Susana Díaz.

In 2018, Sánchez cobbled together an unlikely coalition of far-left and regional parties to oust the conservative prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, in a confidence vote. It was the first time in Spain’s democratic history that Congress replaced a prime minister without holding popular elections.

After two inconclusive elections in 2019, Sánchez did a deal with Podemos and Basque and Catalan separatists that critics predicted would soon collapse. He has managed to keep the coalition, and Spain’s most left-wing government since the Second Republic, together to this day.