The current political stalemate in Spain, following an inconclusive general election there last month, should give Irish political parties something to ponder as they ready themselves for the election contest here in a year or so.
One of the most notable features of the Spanish election was the failure of the right wing populist party, Vox, to make the significant gains that had been so widely predicted. The prospect of Franco’s political heirs taking office for the first time since the dictator’s death in 1975 became the dominant story of the election campaign in the international media. Local elections in May seemed to confirm the strength of the new force on the Spanish right, with Vox winning office in cities and regions across the country usually in coalition with the mainstream conservative Partido Popular (PP), which is part of the EPP group in the European Parliament.
The Socialist-led government of Pedro Sánchez appeared to be in a hopeless position, suffering a serious drop in support across the country, despite the strong performance of the Spanish economy under his stewardship.
However, instead of waiting for an apparently inevitable defeat in the general election due at the end of the year, Sanchez surprised everybody, including his own party, by throwing caution to the wind and calling a snap election for July. There were howls of protest from various quarters that an election in the middle of the hot Spanish summer was madness, and that the turnout would be poor.
In the lead-up to the election, the polls appeared to confirm the belief that Vox was on course to be part of the next government, which was expected to be led by the PP with its leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, becoming prime minister of a right-of-centre coalition. Right wing leaders such as Giorgia Meloni in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France were loud in their support for Vox and there was a lot of talk about a populist alliance developing across the EU.
Sánchez and the Socialists defied all the odds and actually gained a couple of percentage points in support in the election, winning an extra seat. It left the parliament evenly balanced between left and right
In the event, all expectations were confounded on election day, first by a turnout of around 70 per cent of the electorate, but more importantly by the fact that Vox obtained a much lower share of the vote than had been predicted. In fact, the party lost a substantial number of seats to the PP, dropping from 52 to 33, and talk of it having a role in government evaporated.
While the PP did make significant gains and emerged as the biggest party, it fell short of the numbers required to be sure of government. Even though Vox promised to back Feijóo, despite the fact that he had ruled them out of participation in government, the numbers still did not add up.
Sánchez and the Socialists defied all the odds and actually gained a couple of percentage points in support in the election, winning an extra seat. It left the parliament evenly balanced between left and right.
After weeks of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, the socialists managed to get their favoured candidate elected as speaker of the parliament with the support of a Catalan separatist party led by fugitive politician Carles Puigdemont, who is now living in Belgium after fleeing Spain, where he faces a lengthy jail term.
Sánchez is currently attempting to persuade Puigdemont to back him for another term in office, but the price being asked – which involves a pardon for the Catalan leader and his followers – may be too high.
The difference is that Vox was hoping to get into government as a minority party in a coalition, while Sinn Féin is far ahead of all other parties in the opinion polls and will be in a strong position to lead the next government here
As expected, King Felipe has this week asked Feijóo, as the leader of the largest party, to try to form a government but he is likely to narrowly fail, as he just doesn’t have the numbers to win a parliamentary vote. If Sánchez can’t get the numbers either in the coming weeks, another election will have to take place in December or January.
There are some obvious differences, but also some clear parallels with the political situation in this country. As in Spain, we have a Government that has performed well on the economy, with the strongest growth rate in the EU and a record level of employment. There is also a populist party of opposition promising to solve all the country’s problems at a stroke and appealing to a traditional form of aggressive nationalism as its core value.
The difference is that Vox was hoping to get into government as a minority party in a coalition, while Sinn Féin is far ahead of all other parties in the opinion polls and will be in a strong position to lead the next government here, if its current poll support is translated into votes on election day.
The big question is whether Irish voters will behave like their Spanish counterparts and have last-minute second thoughts about handing power to a party with a radical programme and no experience of government in the State. That could well depend on whether Leo Varadkar can emulate the courage of the Spanish prime minister in the unexpected timing of the election and, more crucially, the energetic leadership he displayed to turn the political tide.