Spain Vote Leaves Hung Parliament

REUTERS/Albert Gea
A fan is placed to cool off as people cast their votes during a general snap election at a polling station in Barcelona, Spain, July 23, 2023.

MADRID – Polarized Spanish voters handed neither conservatives nor liberals a decisive victory in Sunday’s highly charged elections, setting up a political impasse that could take weeks or months to untangle.

Conservatives had hoped for a comeback in a progressive bastion of Europe with some of the world’s most liberal laws on abortion and transgender rights. But the left led by the Socialists of photogenic Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez – who had called early elections in a risky gambit – overperformed, posting better numbers than projected. Late Sunday, a jubilant, defiant Sánchez addressed supporters in Madrid, who chanted anti-fascist slogans.

“Spain has been clear. The bloc of devolution, of retrocession, that wants to take back all we have achieved, of machismo, has failed,” he said.

In a game of margins, the center-right Popular Party, however, slightly underperformed – coming first in the race and posting big gains, but not quite as much as expected. In a result that could rally European progressives at a time when archconservatives are gaining traction across the continent – the anti-LBGTQ+, anti-feminist climate deniers of the far-right Vox Party also did slightly worse than anticipated, winning just over 12 percent of the vote and losing 19 of their 52 seats.

Vox’s leader Santiago Abascal appeared to acknowledge the challenge facing any right-wing alliance. “We are ready to be on the opposition and for a repetition of the election,” he told supporters late Sunday.

In a quirk of parliamentary systems, they were still only a few seats away from being able to enter government in a possible conservative coalition with the PP. Had they performed even slightly better, Spain would be on the cusp of its furthest right government since the death of its longtime dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. The PP late Sunday said it would not give up.

“As the candidate of the most-voted party, I believe it is my duty to open a dialogue to try to govern our country in accordance with the election results, in accordance with the electoral victory,” the PP’s chief, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, declared to supporters at party headquarters in Madrid.

As things stood, however, Sánchez’s socialists were closer to cobbling together the magic number of 176 seats in the 350-seat parliament. The potential left and right blocs, including parties that offer them passive support, stood at 172 and 170, respectively. In the balance were largely seats from independent parties in restless Catalonia, some of which are more likely to side with Sánchez.

The result was so fragmented that a governing coalition by either side would require remarkable political skill. The hung parliament raised the prospect that Spaniards – who have gone to the polls five times in eight years – could simply end up doing it all again in a re-vote.

Either way, the result presented hope for the left – which could find new opportunities in conservative disappointment and disarray in the aftermath of a vote they were confident to win. The center right, meanwhile, found itself in a jam – now saddled with the toxic Vox party as its best and perhaps only potential ally, since few other political parties in Spain appeared willing to join a coalition involving the far right.

“Normally it would not be so hard for the PP to find another few votes,” said Lluís Orriols, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University. “The problem is Vox. It’s a party that is not accepted by the vast majority of the other parties in parliament. Nobody wants to vote with them.”

The far-right losses came despite its success in regional elections, where it has gone into alliance with the PP. For now, the vote set up Spain – a country saddled with living memory of Franco-era firing squads, prison and shock treatment for gays and lesbians and legal limitations on women’s rights – as something of a firewall against the hard-right parties moving into government across Europe.

Extreme parties once seen as anathema to the continent’s center right have come in from the political cold. Staunch conservatives won Italy and entered the government in Finland. Illiberal leaders already rule in Hungary and Poland. And the far right is gathering strength from Germany to Greece.

In Spain, Vox had vowed to try to overturn progressive laws for women LBGTQ+ Spaniards, while moving to select what books children read in school and allowing them to skip lessons their parents don’t agree with.

Ahead of the vote, Sánchez warned liberal Spaniards of what was at stake.

“We reach agreements to make progress on rights and freedoms,” he said. “They reach agreements to cut those rights and freedoms.”

To retain power, Sánchez would need the support or the abstention of the pro-independence Catalan political parties. The left-leaning Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya’s leader Gabriel Ruffian called for a joint front with other separatist parties to pressure Sánchez and his allies into concession.

Spaniards had braved scorching temperatures to go to the polls Sunday in the highly charged election.

The wild cards this year were many. After losses in local elections in May, Sánchez called an early national vote, putting the election in the middle of a brutal summer heat wave and staging it at a time when Spanish minds tilt more toward vacation than voting. There were a record number of mail-in ballots. Because of vacation season, some polling centers were so short-staffed that the very first in-person voters on Sunday risked being deputized as volunteers. On Twitter, a Madrid drag queen sought to rally liberal voters to turn out.

Most opinion polls had suggested a first-place finish for the PP, led by the 61-year-old moderate conservative Feijóo. Hailing from the same Spanish region – Galicia – as both Franco and Spain’s last conservative prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, Feijóo has proudly described himself as “boring” even as he outmaneuvered Sánchez in the debates and led conservatives to the threshold of power. Stoking Spanish nationalism, he has hammered Sánchez’s left-wing alliance for cooperating with regional parties in the Basque country and Catalonia that have agitated for independence.

In the closing days of the race, Feijóo suffered setbacks. Fresh questions have emerged about his 30-year relationship with a convicted drug trafficker, and a journalist called him out for patently false statements. On the campaign trail, his choice of words led to charges of sexism, and back problems forced him to pull out of the last debate.

But he has sought to capitalize on voters who see Sánchez as a grandstanding self-promoter who pushed Spain to adopt laws the right portrays as radically leftist, including a transgender bill that allows people as young as 16 to legally change their gender on national IDs without medical supervision.

“Changing your sex is easier than getting a driver’s license,” Feijóo quipped to the Spanish press last month.

The transgender law has splintered even the left. Feminists in the vein of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who argue that women’s rights are damaged by the assertion that transgender women are real women, have railed against the law for too easily allowing biologically born men to enter female safe spaces. But the law also included other broad protections for the LBGTQ+ community, including a ban on conversion therapy. It remains unclear whether a repeal of the law would be partial or total.

Silvia María Fernández, an unemployed 56-year-old in Granada, in southern Spain, said she voted for the PP despite knowing it may need to govern with Vox.

“I think Spain will do better than it is” with the right, she said. Feijóo “would have no other choice” but to govern with Vox, she added, “and I prefer that to the Socialists.”

Sánchez, a 51-year-old economist, has led the Socialist Party since 2014 and was the first politician in Spain to kick out a sitting prime minister through a no-confidence vote in 2018. He is a survivor even within his own party, but this election amounts to his riskiest gamble. His opponents portray him as a power-obsessed politician ready to do whatever it takes to remain in government, while his supporters at home and abroad see him as a staunch pro-European and influential leader unafraid to push deeply progressive policies.

Some left-wing voters were fretting about a possible government with Vox.

“I have always been a leftist but I think that if the right wins, especially if they govern with the far-right Vox – which has many fascist and Trumpist tendencies – there will be a regression,” said Enrique García, 61, in Granada. “I am gay and married, and I think the rights we’ve won in past years are in danger.”

Feijóo had previously pledged to try to avoid a coalition with Vox, but he has grown more pragmatic on a quest to rule. Long considered fringe, Vox denies human-caused climate change, has banned the LGBTQ+ flag in one Spanish town where it recently came to power, and wants to repeal gender-based violence laws, roll back abortion rights, close the Equality Ministry and eliminate “ideology” from schools.

Javier, a 39-year-old construction worker in Granada who did not give his last name, said he voted for Vox. “I don’t like the way the current government is managing things,” he said. On a day when temperatures were set to rise to 103 degrees, he said he did not consider the party’s stance that climate science is fiction – and that it wants to undo water-restriction rules in drought-plagued Spain.

“I honestly didn’t think about that,” he said. “And it is true that it’s real, because I am suffering it myself every day at work, with temperature changes that aren’t normal.”

Vox and the PP are co-ruling in several Spanish jurisdictions, including the important region of Valencia. But its entry into national government would be profoundly symbolic for Spain as well as Europe, where other right-led countries such as Italy and Poland have sought more aggressive stances against migrants and asylum seekers, and spoken of the need to balance efforts to fight climate change with economic realities.

At home, both Vox and the PP have sought a repeal of Spain’s “Historical Memory Law,” which unequivocally denounced the Franco regime and deployed state funds to help identify legions of still-unidentified victims buried in mass graves. In some local communities, Vox has stood accused of censorship, including defunding a gender-bending play by Virginia Woolf and canceling library subscriptions to Catalan-language magazines.

Some feared its rise to national government could influence cultural expression in Spain.

L’ETNO, the Valencian Museum of Ethnology, for instance, is showing a stirring exhibition on the Franco years that simulates a mass grave and showcases the outfits of firing-squad victims.

“We need independence,” said Joan Seguí, the museum’s director. “If Vox or any other political party puts problems in the normal development of cultural activities, in any country, you have to start to be worried.”