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Spanish regional elections

07 December 2018 Laurence Allan, Ph.D.

In regional elections in Andalucía, the national government lost ground and the populist Vox party performed well above expectations, securing the first political representation for Spain's far right since the end of the Francisco Franco dictatorship.

  • Vox's success is widely attributed to government policies on migration and the Catalan issue, while also reflecting rising political support for more extreme parties elsewhere among weaker members of the eurozone (notably Italy).
  • Protests against Vox across Andalucía with sporadic instances of low-level violence are likely to continue while the government formation process takes place, and intensify if Vox becomes part of the regional administration.
  • We assess that Vox's entry into the Andalucían regional assembly and Ciudadanos's further electoral progress both indicate further movement away from Spain's prior two-party political model.

On 2 December, elections to the regional parliament of Andalucía shifted the political panorama in Spain as the right-wing nationalist Vox party, led by Santiago Abascal, emerged as a major new actor in Andalucían, and potentially national, politics. Against prior expectations, Vox won 12 of the 109 seats in the regional parliament, well above what opinion polls had suggested. Its success potentially makes it a power broker in Andalucía, Spain's largest and most populous region.

Although the regional incumbent Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español: PSOE), which also leads a minority government at the national level, remained as the single largest party, it lost ground, taking only 33 seats, down from 47 in 2015. The main traditional conservative opposition, the Popular Party (Partido Popular: PP), also slipped, from 33 to 26 seats. Along with the Vox party, the main beneficiary was the more mainstream, economically liberal conservative Ciudadanos party, which continued its recent surge - previously indicated when it was the largest single party in Catalonia's regional elections in 2017 - by winning 21 seats, up from 9.

The result further confirms the trend away from Spain's longstanding two-party system - which has in practice been atomized under the effects of the post-2010 financial crisis and well-publicized corruption cases affecting the PP and PSOE - towards a multi-party system. The election result also means that the PSOE will potentially lose its place leading the Andalucían government for the first time since 1978.

Protests likely to continue if Vox enters government

With the final shape of the new Andalucían government still undecided, on 4 December anti-Vox groups protested in multiple cities across the region ¬- including Granada, Malaga, and Seville. Protests varied in size from several hundred up to 3,000, and were generally peaceful. However, in the city of Cádiz, a demonstration by an estimated 2,500 protestors degenerated into confrontations with the police and vandalism against local business premises and attempts to block some streets by setting alight refuse containers as protestors moved through the city center. Anti-riot police used tear gas to disperse the crowd; there were no reported injuries. Further protests are likely throughout the region while the negotiations to form the regional government continue, and will be likely to extend if Vox eventually takes up a place in the administration. The protests did not affect operations at Cádiz port, important both for cruise ships and the transit of goods.

Outlook and implications

The likelihood of further Vox gains in other parts of Spain will be partly related to the factors that drove its success in Andalucía. These include first, disillusionment with the PSOE and PP, especially in relation to the long series of corruption cases seen in Andalucía (for the PSOE) and elsewhere across Spain (for the PP). It was notable that the PSOE manifesto for the regional elections paid no significant attention to any anti-corruption measures. Voter frustration with this was probably most concretely expressed by the low turnout of 56%, down 6 points from 2015, and which is assumed to have particularly affected the PSOE and PP. Second, Vox anti-immigrant rhetoric appears to have struck a chord, especially in parts of the region that have relatively high numbers of migrants working in agriculture, such as parts of Almería and Granada. The surge in numbers of migrants arriving illegally by boat along the coast of Andalucía throughout 2017-18 has also been cited by Vox as a concern. These factors sit in a context whereby Spain still displays an incidence of poverty higher than its European peers. Third, since its formation in 2014, Vox has been a vocal opponent of devolved power from Madrid to the regions. In that regard, the ongoing and unresolved Catalan issue has probably given it leverage with voters who believe that neither the previous PP national government nor the current PSOE administration has pushed back strongly enough against separatist tendencies.

It is likely, therefore, that those regions of Spain that most closely share the characteristics noted above - including Murcia and Valencia - are the most obvious geographies where Vox will seek to make an electoral impact in 2019. However, it is also notable that much of the Vox campaign rhetoric was focused not on regionally specific issues, but on national-level issues such as migration and regional autonomy. That suggests that even in areas that do not share many local characteristics with Andalucía, there is significant potential for further Vox gains, especially if the apparently stagnant PP does not notably improve its appeal to voters.

The success of Vox poses similar problems for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez as have been seen elsewhere in Europe. Notably, he is likely to struggle to address the clear dissatisfaction with the status quo, expressed in growing support for so-called "non-system" parties. Sánchez will clearly seek to marginalize Vox politically, but must plot a policy course that at least partly addresses the concerns of Vox supporters without losing sight of his own party's aspirations. Among other policies, this suggests heightened public spending on job creation and social programs to support communities potentially targeted by far-right parties. However, given Spain's debt profile and its commitment to fiscal responsibility, there is little obvious room for maneuver on that front. These factors indicate that in the 12-month outlook, at best the current government can only move minimally towards resolving its dilemma. Although the main headline beneficiary of this impasse is Vox, looking towards the next general election in either 2019 or 2020, it is Ciudadanos that has the greatest scope to take advantage: it has clear electoral momentum, is not associated directly with the widespread corruption issues already noted, and is therefore a strong bet to be Spain's leading party in the next general election. A strong indicator of its alignment and electoral appeal will therefore be its decision on whether or not to co-operate with Vox in Andalucía. In the absence of an early general election, the May 2019 European and municipal polls will serve as the next major indicator of Spain's political evolution. High-profile infighting within the PSOE, with mutual recriminations between current Andalucían President Susana Díaz and Spanish Prime Minister Sánchez, would be an adverse indicator for the incumbent administration's prospects despite favorable (if government-sponsored) poll results for the party from the Center for Sociological Research (Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas: CIS).



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