Fear of ‘the fascists coming back’ helped mobilise Spain’s left

There are some perverse dynamics behind Pedro Sánchez’s relative success in Sunday’s general election

Results of Spain's general elections may be critical for the survival of liberal democracy in Spain and EU. Photograph: Emilio Morenatti/AP

The results of Sunday’s general elections in Spain may be critical for the survival of liberal democracy, and social democratic politics, not only in Spain but in the European Union.

Almost all the opinion polls had foretold a humiliating collapse for the governing centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE) and its leftist coalition allies in Sumar, and a triumph for the right-wing Partido Popular (PP). However, even with an excellent result, the PP would have needed the support of its far-right rivals, Vox.

So Spain faced, for the first time since the democratic transition from dictatorship in 1978, the prospect of rightist extremists either in, or very close to, government.

Spain would thus have followed the trend towards authoritarian “illiberal democracy”, already entrenched in Hungary and Poland, and propelled towards the core of the EU by Giorgia Meloni’s victory in Italy. And since Spain has just assumed the EU presidency, the far right would have influenced Brussels on policies responding to a series of key issues in an era of multiple crises: immigration, biodiversity, climate, gender-based violence and LGBTQ+ rights especially.


The European Green Deal, already undermined by the evisceration of the Nature Restoration Law by the conservative European People’s Party under far-right pressure, would probably have collapsed.

In the event, most polls were wrong. Despite the complicated, inconclusive outcome, there is no realistic prospect of Spain following this trend right now. The PP gained 47 seats, a plurality of 136 deputies, but largely due to the disappearance of the right-wing Ciudadanos party, and a sharp drop for Vox from 52 to 33 seats. This leaves the conservatives well short of an overall majority, even with Vox support. And hardly any smaller parties will even consider supporting a PP-Vox arrangement.

Meanwhile the governing PSOE, far from collapsing, actually gained two deputies, leaving it 14 seats but only 1.3 per cent of the vote behind the PP. While hardly a victory, this vindicates the controversial decision by the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, to call unprecedented summer elections during a heatwave, after poor results in May’s local and regional elections. This charismatic and mercurial leader’s long-standing reputation for political resurrection has been confirmed yet again.

His coalition partners Sumar, dropped to 31 seats from 38 compared to its previous incarnation as Unidas Podemos and their associates, but this confusingly fractious group of leftist, green and feminist groups also did considerably better than expected.

As the party with most seats, the PP will probably be given first option to form a government, but will almost certainly fail. Sánchez then faces an uphill and complex struggle to win sufficient support (and/or abstentions) from small regional and nationalist parties to become prime minister again. And it is quite possible that he will fail too, and new elections will need to be called before the end of the year, perhaps sooner.

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He certainly faces wicked problems in his negotiations. He must win the support of left-wing Basque and Catalan independence groups. Their backing for his previous government prompted a “big lie” campaign worthy of Donald Trump or Boris Johnson by the PP leader, Alberto Feijóo, associating Sánchez, against all conceivable evidence, with the defunct Basque terrorist group ETA, and the Catalan independence campaign. This campaign was so ugly that it seems to have backfired badly, suggesting the Spanish electorate is more focused on facts and policies than the right might wish.

This time around, though, his investiture as prime minister would also require the abstention, at least, of the conservative Catalan independence party Junts. Their former leader, Carles Puigdemont, is facing extradition from his self-imposed exile in Brussels. He is charged for his role in the technically illegal Catalan independence referendum in 2017.

The wickedness of this problem lies in the perverse dynamic between pro-independence Catalan nationalism, and the equally irredentist Spanish nationalism represented by the PP and Vox

Sánchez has already been castigated by the PP and Vox, and by some powerful members of his own party, for pardoning other Catalan leaders imprisoned, controversially, for the same non-violent political activities. In doing so, he defused a crisis with Catalonia that had gravely threatened the stability of the Spanish state when it was polarised between an utterly inflexible PP government in Madrid and increasingly radical independence parties in the Catalan parliament.

The wickedness of this problem lies in the perverse dynamic between pro-independence Catalan nationalism, and the equally irredentist Spanish nationalism represented by the PP and Vox. Every concession made to the Catalan nationalists mobilises support for the right in the Spanish electorate in general, and even in the PSOE’s own base. Indeed, the irruption of Vox as a national party can be attributed, to a considerable degree, to the Catalan crisis in the 2010s.

So in moving to resolve Catalan issues, Sánchez risks cutting the ground from under him across the whole country. It is telling that the PSOE’s Catalan branch, and Sumar, performed well in Catalonia on this occasion, displacing the hegemony of the Catalan independence parties. Logically, this should enhance Sánchez’s national credibility, but as we are seeing across the world, rationality does not hold much sway in contemporary politics.

Another, and perhaps equally perverse, dynamic may help explain Sánchez’s relative success in Sunday’s elections. Fear that “the fascists are coming back” mobilised the left’s base.

Nevertheless, the PSOE also campaigned on grassroots issues like housing, which were almost invisible in the PP’s demagogic rhetoric, and this too counted.

Unlike many European social democratic leaders, Sánchez’s PSOE (and Sumar) deserve credit for not following the Blair-Clinton strategy of chasing the right across the political spectrum, but of standing firm on at least some of the traditional and decent principles of the left. It would be good to see them get another chance to put these principles into practice. And not only in Spain.

Paddy Woodworth is the author of two books on Spain and the Basque Country, including Dirty War, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL and Spanish Democracy (Yale, 2002).