When the Press Fails

The 2023 Spanish Election

For the last two months, Anglo news media said the same thing: A far-right wave is sweeping Europe, and Spain would be its next conquest.

Populist Franco: Vox chief Santiago Abascal.

Despite the hype, the brown surge never materialised. The neofascist Vox party sank in Sunday’s poll while centrist and leftist parties grew.

Over-reliance on polls is common in the press, particularly in Europe, where they’re frequently used as a form of disinformation to help sway public opinion.

But the failure of news media to do their homework and not prejudge the election’s outcome is especially troubling given how easy it is to see why Vox failed.

The Spanish general election roughly coincided with the taking office of several far-right local governments in the wake of successes by the Partido Popular (PP) and Vox in May’s municipal elections.

That election yielded an 11% gain in support for the centre and far-right, sparking fears that the influence of the governing left was on the wain. Pre-election polling supported that.

What the press should have done was carefully monitor what happened in Spain since the municipal elections. It would have complicated the coverage, but it would have made for better reporting.

The facts speak for themselves. Newly ensconced in power, the governments of the right did what governments of the right tend to do.

Numerous Spanish localities saw services for women and other vulnerable groups cut, and several symbolic nuisance measures (such as banning rainbow flags) were undertaken.

This motivated the left, precisely the one desired by Pedro Sánchez, who dissolved his government in time for new elections to coincide with the installation of rightwing municipal governments.

Voters responded accordingly. But even this might not have been enough to keep Sánchez in power were it not for the stirring up of some unfortunate political memories.

PP leader Alberto Nuñez Feijóo had a skeleton in his closet in the form of vacation time taken some 15 years ago with a known drug trafficker.

One might ask why such images as those showing Nuñez Feijóo and Marcial Dorado chilling on a boat and – even applying sunscreen together – had not appeared before.

For whatever reason, they had not, and their arrival on the public scene dealt a hammer blow to the former’s chances of becoming prime minister, at least in the short term.

A further element of this story was the pullback in the vote totals for Vox.

Although they lost less than three per cent of their vote from the previous general election, this cost Vox 19 of its 52 parliamentary seats.

Although much of the slack was taken up by the PP, which gained 47 seats for a total of 136, the combination of the parties’ votes (136 plus 33) left the only conceivable rightist coalition seven seats short of the 176 needed to form the next government.

That is tantalisingly close but ultimately out of reach, and it leaves Spain now with a hung parliament and the prospect of byzantine political manoeuvring to see if anyone can form a government.

Sánchez, who seemed dead in the water only weeks ago, would have to be the odds-on favourite at this point, although significant obstacles lie in his way.

An obvious one is that his party, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) and Sumar, their likely coalition partners on the left, control only 153 seats together.

This might not prove catastrophic due to the vagaries of the Spanish political process.

But should Sánchez get to the point of forming a government, one thing most commentators agree would have to be acquired is the neutrality of the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) and Junts, the Catalan separatist parties, which together control 14 seats.

Neither of these parties is likely to support the right, effectively blocking the formation of a majority government.

The ERC has a pronounced leftward slant, but, in any case, the opposition of Vox to any regionalism or devolution precludes either Catalan party from working with them under any circumstances.

More generally, this is the problem for the right: Vox’s hardline opposition to regionalism means that none of the various regional parties in Spain will lift a finger to help a PP/Vox coalition.

But this does not immediately equate to good news for the PSOE. And here, Spanish politics take on a distinctly European flavour.

Since he departed from the country in 2017, former Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont has been happily ensconced in Brussels as an MEP, where he has enjoyed immunity from attempts by Spain to extradite him.

Two days ago, the EU’s General Court stripped him of that immunity. The chances that Puigdemont will be returned to Spain and banged up in prison have risen immensely.

So here is the conundrum for the PSOE. Although the socialists have collaborated with at least some element of Catalan separatism, it is unlikely that Sánchez could keep Puigdemont out of this stir, even if he were inclined to do so.

It is hard to imagine either ERC or Junts (the latter having been formed by Puigdemont) collaborating in forming a Spanish government, even by abstention, with the leading face of Catalan nationalism behind bars.

Of the myriad possible outcomes, the most likely is another election.

At this point, it is hard to see the direction of the situation. Spanish voter participation in this election topped 70%, with new rules permitting more voting by mail and more accessible voting for expats.

Up to now, much of the discourse surrounding Spanish politics has been the rise of Vox. But this seems to have been part and parcel of the general panic over the right emanating from the bourgeois centre.

What appears to be happening in Spain, as in Germany, for instance, is not so much a shifting of the electorate to the right as a circulation of voters on the right between PP and Vox.

The rise of Vox’s profile in the municipal elections may have, ironically, motivated that proportion of Spanish voters who neither attach themselves habitually to the PSOE or Sumar, or to one of the various regional parties to cast tactical ballots against Vox.

Although the PP seems to have benefitted to some degree, the capacity of that benefit to lift them over the national threshold while towing Vox in their wake still looks quite unlikely.

The threat from the right is real, as the political descent of Italy into the netherworld of fascist-adjacent politics illustrates.

But the morbidity of the left has been greatly exaggerated, particularly by parties of the centre looking for an excuse to tack to the right, always their preferred strategy in times of crisis.

In the case of Spain, the experience of having their local council invaded by Vox brownshirts may have had the desired effect of concentrating the mind when voting time rolls around.

This is not necessarily good news, but it does point to a way forward in the struggle against the far right.

The right has shown that power obtained in local and regional institutions can have consequences at the national level.

This is a lesson that the left can take on board as well. It is time to let the long march begin.

Photograph courtesy of Vox España. Published under a Creative Commons license.