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24 July 2023

The forward march of Europe’s far right halted

The collapse of Vox in the Spanish election shows the hard-right’s rise isn’t certain.

By Jack Smith

Since 2015 Spanish elections have usually come in pairs. One party wins, but cannot or will not form a government with the numbers in parliament. They go back to the voters, and we get a repeat that, hopefully, produces a more decisive result. This is again the most likely outcome from Spain’s elections on 23 July. Without a clear path to a majority on either side, no one is sure who will govern the country.

As was expected before the elections, Alberto Núñez Feijóo and his centre-right People’s Party (PP) finished first overall. But with 136 seats in the Congress of Deputies, the lower house of Spain’s parliament, it has nowhere near the 176 required to win a majority. Short of a grand coalition, which neither the PP nor Pedro Sánchez’s Socialists would seriously contemplate, the only governing partner for the PP is the far-right Vox. This, however, means not being able to count on much support from regionalist parties.

Realistically, the PP and Vox would have needed at least 174 seats together for Feijóo, as two right-leaning regional parties with a seat each could have backed them. They fell short of this with 169 seats. So did the Socialists and their left-wing allies, however. If you include the parties that in the last government supported Sánchez and Yolanda Díaz, leader of the left-wing Podemos replacement, Sumar, you get to 172 – so there’s no majority there either.

The key to governing on either side now sits with Together for Catalonia, the party Carles Puigdemont formed in the aftermath of his failed push for Catalan independence. Because Together for Catalonia has seven seats in parliament, it is in effect impossible for either side to form a government without the party’s support. If it abstained in a second Catalan investiture vote for the government, Sánchez and his allies would, narrowly, have enough. Together for Catalonia is more hard-line than its fellow separatists, the ERC, which supported Sánchez’s government the last time around. Its main demand is an independence referendum, something Sánchez cannot and will not offer.

This means we are probably looking at another election. As was the case with this last one, it will be too close to definitively call. But unlike the last time, Sánchez would go into the next contest with a couple of key advantages.

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One is momentum and shifting expectations. The PP and Vox were odds-on favourites to win at the weekend. The current scenario is a minor disappointment for the right-wingers, especially after very strong regional elections in May. Feijóo seemed to bank on those results carrying him to the premiership, and ran a low-profile, damage-limitation campaign. Sánchez can go into the next elections claiming to have turned back the tide. Feijóo’s failure this time around will also force him to take more risks.

Another is alliances. Both the Socialists and Díaz’s Sumar have been upfront about the fact they would likely govern together if they could. While they are running separate campaigns, this does mean they can complement each other. The PP, on the other hand, danced around the question of what its relationship with Vox in government would look like. This was a tactic that negotiations with Vox in various regions of Spain after the May elections made even more awkward, as local leaders painted contradictory pictures of the alliance.

There’s also, of course, the Basque and Catalan separatists. Whether Vox or the separatists are the lesser of two evils is not a question voters will probably shift on. But Sánchez has, so far, seemed to have had an easier time answering the question, which at least means he can move on to other topics. Feijóo and the PP have put almost as much energy into distancing themselves from Vox as they have into providing an alternative vision to the current government.

From the EU’s perspective, the Spanish election results will probably come as a relief. Pedro Sánchez is likely to stay on, at least until December, as caretaker prime minister, avoiding a potentially disruptive change of government right in the middle of Spain’s EU Council presidency. Vox did not do that well in these elections either, losing both vote share and 19 seats. This will help counteract the narrative surrounding the hard right’s rise across Europe.

Longer term, the election result means the future political direction of a country that has become a more important player in EU politics is vague. In the absence of an especially strong, or functional, Franco-German relationship, Spain, along with the Netherlands, has helped move the Union forward. The most notable instance of this was the work both the latter countries did together on stability pact reform, though Spain has also made key contributions to other areas of EU policy recently, such as on energy markets.

Spain and the Netherlands both occupy important geopolitical positions, which is significant because the EU is trying to become more involved in this area. Latin America is of growing significance to the EU, and Spain has the longest-standing and deepest relationship with countries in the region. It is also heavily engaged with North Africa, particularly Morocco and Algeria, another focal point for the EU. The Netherlands is an important conduit for global trade and finance. Additionally, the presence of computer chip company ASML there makes it a key node in the global semiconductor industry.

In both of these countries, there is no clear indication of who will be in charge this time next year. Mark Rutte is definitely stepping down as Dutch prime minister but who will replace him? And how long will that take? It may be some time until we know. It’d be a major surprise if polling in Spain ahead of a probably repeat election turned in any decisive direction.

Nothing dramatic will yet change in either country’s EU policies. Sánchez’s government will continue trying to shepherd the European Council towards common positions on the difficult fiscal, geopolitical, energy and environmental issues it faces. Until we know more about what the Dutch parliament wants the parameters of any caretaker government to be, the assumption will be to continue with the status quo.

Both countries, however, could move in a more Eurosceptic direction, and leaders with much less EU-level experience may come into government. That could upset the delicate balance that both Rutte and Sánchez have contributed to, and lead to trouble ahead for the European Union.

This piece originally ran on Eurointelligence.

[See also: Pedro Sánchez’s election battle will pre-empt Europe’s future]

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