Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez has called a snap national election for April. Matthew Bennett explores what the possible outcomes could be for Spain and the impact that Brexit could have on the election campaign.
Pedro Sánchez has not waited until 2020 for the next general election in Spain, the four-year limit since the last one the rules impose, nor this autumn or summer, after the local, European and regional elections on May 26th.
He has not even waited until that Super Sunday near spring’s end, as had been rumoured. He has chosen Sunday, April 28, for the next national ballot.
April 11th would have been the very earliest possibility, with the 54-day window from dissolving parliament until the vote stipulated in Spanish electoral law. There were unnamed sources in the papers suggesting Palm Sunday, April 14th.
In the end, the Prime Minister has calculated that it was best to wait until after the Easter holidays, in case too many potential voters are busy sunning themselves on the beach, enjoying the sights abroad or taking part in the processions.
Going so early indicates weakness: the government only lasted eight months and can hang on no longer. The PM must believe the PSOE is set for pasting at the May vote because local elections in Spain are considered a leading indicator for the next general ballot.
April’s will be the third general election in just over three years: the last two were in December 2015 and June 2016, plus last May’s motion of no confidence in Mariano Rajoy that brought Mr Sánchez to power.
Spain has not done well with minority governments and a parliament split four ways between the Popular Party, Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), Podemos and Ciudadanos. We will now see a move to even less consolidated five-party politics at the national level—or even six-party politics if we consider regional nationalists as another group—after the explosive rise of Vox at the regional elections in Andalusia in December.
Spanish politicians are not good at coalitions and nothing suggests they will be any better by the end of April.
No one will want to do a deal with whatever the result is straight away because the election campaign, which unofficially begins today, will continue right past the general election result and into the local, regional and European elections at the end of May.
Do not expect a new Spanish government to be formed until June.
The overall majority line in the Spanish Congress is 44 per cent. Polls show no party alone is anywhere near that. Looking at the latest 10-poll averages, the PSOE is at 23.7 per cent, the PP at 21.0 per cent, Ciudadanos at 19.4 per cent, Podemos is down to 14.9 per cent, and Vox up to 10.7 per cent. In terms of possible coalitions, the left-wing PSOE-Podemos option has dropped to 38.6 per cent, the left-centre PSOE-Ciudadanos option is down to 43.1 per cent, and an old-school PP-PSOE is at 44.8 per cent. The current highest score goes to the right-wing triple PP-Ciudadanos-Vox alliance at 51.2 per cent.
Spain will now be without a parliament if a hard Brexit takes place on March 29th, and without a parliament or working government for most of the Catalan separatist trial, which began on Tuesday and will last for at least three months.
A no-deal Brexit, among many other things, could throw tourism, the airline industry and Spain’s agricultural exports to UK supermarkets into chaos. How many British tourists might cancel their Easter holidays on the Spanish coast? Given the impact on the airline industry, will any or many planes even be able to get to Spain as the 54 days to the election tick down?
Will we see images of Spanish lorries queueing up at ports in northern France to try to cross to England, or Spanish drivers stuck in 20-mile long traffic jams in Kent, complaining their fresh produce is rotting?
How would those events impact the campaign? Opposition parties would rush to blame the mismanagement and almost complete lack of preparation for Brexit’s impact on Mr Sánchez and the PSOE, railing against the economic impact and effects on unemployment. Would Vox and Mr Abascal, running on greater national pride, be able to resist making comments about post-Brexit British pensioners being a burden on Spain’s already straining welfare state? Would the PP, competing with Vox for votes further to the right, remain statesmanlike on the question of Gibraltar?
Or would all five parties, all far from an overall majority in Congress, rush out the tweets and videos and soundbites, Brexit be damned?
Elsa Artadi, reacting for the Catalan government to the announcement of early elections, said: “Spain is ungovernable for as long as the political conflict with Catalonia is not resolved”. Esquerra MP Gabriel Rufián tweeted “We won’t be just a party. We will be a dyke, a front against fascism”.
PP leader Pablo Casado said his party had managed to get Mr Sánchez “to throw in the towel”. Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera—who has been badgering for a ballot since last May—said this was a chance to “open a new phase of union and regeneration” to “strengthen our nation”, without “Junqueras, Puigdemont or anyone who wants to liquidate it” being able to decide. Vox leader Santiago Abascal wrote that it was time for the “living Spain” to “reconquer its future”, having defeated “an incapable, cowardly, illegitimate, traitorous” government.
Podemos spokeswoman Irene Montero said her party wanted to win, or at least to be “the force that leads the progressive block” against the right. Europa Press reported Pablo Iglesias would remain on paternity leave until the end of March. The party has regional problems in Galicia, Andalusia and Madrid.
How will Spaniards react?
If the ballot in Andalusia in December is anything to go by, voters in the rest of Spain want to make a big statement about the Catalan separatist crisis in 2017. This is the first general election since then.
In Andalusia, which was the first regional election since the declaration of independence, the two parties that have most energetically defended the idea of a united Spain, Vox and Ciudadanos, won all 24 of the seats given up by the PP, PSOE and Podemos. Vox is now on TV every day as the private prosecution at the trial, not only a rhetorical defender of Spain but the only political party to have actually done so in a court of law, right in the middle of the biggest trial for decades, a key moment for the nation.
The outgoing government, of course, has been propped up by Catalan separatists, who now face the prospect of the return of the right and the threat of a new, much tougher suspension of home rule.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Pedro Sánchez has been forced by events to call this early election at the worst possible time for the Socialist Party, and for Podemos. His only hope might be that he has gone so quickly that the three right-wing parties might not have time to gear up properly for the national ballot.
Matthew Bennett is the creator of The Spain Report. You can read more of his writing on Patreon, and follow him on Twitter. Don’t miss his podcast series with weekly in-depth analysis on Spain.