What May’s local and regional elections tell us about politics in Spain ahead of July’s snap general election

Spanish Congress of Deputies, Madrid.

 Spanish Congress of Deputies, Madrid. Photo: Seisdeagosto from Spain (Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0).

The ruling Socialists’ defeat in May’s local and regional elections triggered a snap general election on 23 July and raised the prospect of significant change in the political landscape.

Swathes of the country turned blue at the end of last month. The centre-right Popular Party (PP) of Alberto Feijóo, who became the party’s leader only last year after running the PP fiefdom of Galicia for 13 years, captured five regions from the Socialists –Valencia, Balearic Islands, La Rioja, Aragón and Extremadura– where it will govern alone or with the support of the hard-right VOX. Extremadura has been a Socialist fiefdom since 1983 except between 2011 and 2015. The PP also finished first in seven out of the 10 most populous cities including Madrid where it won an absolute majority in the city council and again in the Madrid regional parliament, controlling both of them for first time since 2011. Voter turnout for the whole country at 63.9% was slightly down on 2019.

The hard-left Unidas Podemos (UP), the junior partner in the Socialist-led minority national government led by Pedro Sánchez, and loosely associated parties also did badly. UP lost all the deputies it had in the regional parliaments of Madrid and Valencia and, too, its Madrid city councillors. Overall, it only kept 14 of the 46 deputies it won in the 2019 regional elections.

The PP increased its share of the total vote in the local elections from 22.6% in 2019 to 31.5%, almost entirely due to the collapse of the would-be centrist Ciudadanos (Cs) whose slice of the vote plummeted from 8.7% to 1.4%, the loss of more than 1.6 million votes (see Figure 1). The Socialists’ share only dropped a little; the party has been on a downward trend since the 2011 local elections, following the 2008 financial crisis during the Socialist government of José Luis Zapatero.

Figure 1. Local election results, 2023 and 2019

Popular Party7,054,88731.55,154,72822.6
Junts per Catalunya552,7212.5558,5082.4
Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya524,7722.3812,8043.6
Unidas Podemos-Izquierda Unida133,2670.6364,3701.8
Más Madrid387,8471.3535,8832.4
EH Bildu366,3391.6348,3591.5
Basque Nationalist Party322,5791.4403,9581.8
Bloque Nacionalista Galego248,6761.1194,3650.8
Source: Junta Electoral.

Cs did so badly it announced it would not run in July’s election. Just four years ago Cs won 4.1 million votes, only 200,000 fewer than the PP, and 57 seats in Congress in the April 2019 general election. That fell to 1.6 million votes in the November 2019 election called to break the deadlock in parliament after its hubristic founding leader, Albert Rivera, disastrously pitched the party rightwards to overtake the PP and lost 47 seats. Formed in 2006 in Barcelona, initially to oppose the Catalan independence movement, Cs never fulfilled its ambition to play a kingmaker role, as it did not carve out a position as a truly centrist and liberal party, being identified as on the right of the political spectrum, particularly over Catalonia.

Despite coining the world liberal as a political label when the 1812 Constitution was drafted and proclaimed in Cadiz during the War of Independence (1808-14) against the French, ‘liberal’ parties have never had much sustained success in Spain in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Cs’ demise has bolstered the two-party system that dominated political life at the national level between 1983 and 2015 when it became more fragmented with the arrival in the national parliament of Cs and UP and, as of 2019, VOX. The PP’s and the Socialists’ combined share of the vote in the local elections was 59.6%, the highest level since 2011 (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Popular Party and Socialist share of the vote in local elections, 1983-2023 (%)

Popular Party25.635.338.527.122.631.5
Combined share68.666.
Source: Junta Electoral.

Elections were held in 12 of the 17 regions and in all municipalities and were very much played as a rehearsal for a general election, which has to be held by the end of the year. Sánchez campaigned as if he was fighting for his government’s survival, with ‘magic money tree’ promises, which looks like the case.

The size of the Socialists’ defeat was bigger than the party expected. After all, the economy is performing relatively well –headline inflation of 3.2%, a record number of people in jobs, though unemployment is still high at 13%, and the key tourism sector returning to pre-pandemic levels–. Moreover, the government approved a raft of popular measures, including raising pensions this year in line with last year’s average inflation (8.5%), creating a level playing field for maternity and paternity leave, passing a euthanasia law and imposing a temporary windfall tax on banks and energy companies.

The PP concentrated its attacks on Sánchez’s reliance on Basque and Catalan pro-independence parties for support, deeply unsettling for among many voters, and issues such as the botched sexual consent law, introduced by UP, that has allowed more than 1,100 convicted sex offenders to have their prison sentences cut and more than 100 to win early release. Endless squabbling in public between the two parties in the coalition, Spain’s first since the 1930s, also dented support for the government, as did UP’s criticism of the monarchy as an institution. It was politics, not the economy, that was the Socialists’ undoing.

The region of Valencia, ruled by the Socialists since 2015, was a key win for the PP as it is seen as a bellwether. The party doubled its share of the vote to 35.4% and in early June reached a deal with VOX to govern the region in a coalition government. This made Valencia the second region to be jointly ruled by the PP and VOX, the first being Castilla y León.

In Andalusia, which the PP took from the Socialists in 2018, ending their 40-year rule, and which did not have to hold a regional election, the party won absolute majorities in the local elections in four of the region’s largest cities and was the most voted party in three others including Seville, the capital.

Even in Catalonia, which also only had to hold local elections and where the PP has never counted for much, the party increased its votes by almost 140,000 to 247,113 (8.1% of the total vote) and won a historic absolute majority in Badalona. VOX quadrupled its votes to 150,653. The Socialists were again the most voted party, with 712,992 votes (23.7% of the total), down a little from 2019, but were again surpassed by the combined votes of the two pro-independence parties (1,073,116, or 35.7%). Despite this, the Socialist candidate, Jaume Collboni, became mayor after the radical left En Comu of the outgoing mayor and the PP supported him in an 11th hour deal.

The more pragmatic Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), which supports the national government and runs the Catalan government on its own after falling out with Junts in 2022, lost 300,000 votes. The maximalist Junts per Catalunya increased its number by 14,626 to 552,721, 32,361 ahead of ERC. Carles Puigdemont, the former Junts leader and Catalan Premier who led the movement for secession from Spain with an illegal referendum in 2017 has been in self-imposed exile in Belgium since then.

In the Basque Country, which only held local elections, the centre-right Basque Nationalist Party lost ground to the radical-left EH Bildu, the political heirs of the violent Basque separatist group which along with ERC supports the government. Bildu obtained 29.2% of the vote in the whole region, only 2.5 percentage points below the PNV compared with a distance of 12 points in 2019. Bildu was the most voted party in Vitoria, the region’s capital governed by the PNV since 2015, but its candidate did not become mayor because the PNV and the PP backed the Socialist candidate.

The snap election, which will be held during Spain’s EU’s presidency and when many Spaniards are on holiday (the postal vote will surge), caught all parties by surprise. Sánchez is gambling it will galvanise the left to vote against what he calls a reactionary threat from a Spanish version of Trumpism. He sees the election as a choice between ‘a Prime Minister on the side of Biden or Trump, on the side of Lula or Bolsonaro’ [the current and former Brazilian Presidents], while Feijóo sees the PP’s mission as one to ‘defeat Sanchismo’ whatever that means.

An early election also pre-empts any challenge to Sánchez’s leadership of the Socialists, as there would not be enough time to hold primaries to elect a new leader, a process that would be debilitating for the party.

Sánchez’s strategy is a risky one, but this is a trademark. Ejected as the Socialists’ leader in 2016 for refusing to allow the party to abstain in a parliamentary vote and so facilitate a PP government and thus break a deadlock, he drummed up support touring the country and regained control of the party the following year. In 2018 he won a no-confidence vote in the PP government of Mariano Rajoy and became Prime Minister after winning support from the disparate parties that support his government today. Not for nothing is the book he wrote about that period called Manual de resistencia.

While the PP has gained momentum and is on a high, one should be careful about extrapolating the results for a PP victory in July, although the electorate has clearly shifted to the right. The Socialists won the general election in 2008 despite losing the local elections in 2007 to the PP, but their vote share in 2007 was only 0.7 points below the PP’s as against a PP advantage in the 2023 local elections of 3.4 points.

The Socialists’ best chance of remaining in power rests on 15 parties to their left, particularly UP, contesting the election under the Sumar (Unite) alliance, the new platform led by Yolanda Díaz, the Labour Minister and a Deputy Prime Minister, and no longer running separately. Spain’s electoral system favours larger parties, handing them a higher proportion of seats. A poll by 40dB before the registering of Sumar showed it winning 41 seats as opposed to a total of 25 if Sumar and UP ran separately.

Díaz wasted no time registering Sumar as soon as Sánchez announced on 29 May the snap election (the deadline was 9 June), and the parties agreed to bury their petty differences and personalism and run together. The price of this apparent unity was the exclusion of Podemos’s Irene Montero, the Equality Minister and the proponent of the controversial sexual consent law, from Sumar’s election lists. Montero is the partner of Pablo Iglesias, one of the founders of Podemos in 2014, who resigned as Deputy Prime Minister in 2021.

Two polls, by GAD3 and Datos RTVE, published after the registering of Sumar showed the PP and VOX winning more than 180 of the 350 seats. A party or group needs 176 for an absolute majority.

Spain will go to the polls with a political class that has become increasingly more polarised and vitriolic than society itself. One possible outcome, not shown, however, in any of the polls is no clear majority. That would produce a hung parliament and a repeat election, as happened four times between 2015 and 2019 and something Spain does not need again.