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The fallout of the local elections in May and rapidly shifting geopolitical realities are giving Spain an unexpected opportunity to influence global affairs
If we’re being honest, for such a large and populous country, Spain hasn’t really been particularly impactful on the world stage for the last few hundred years. The dissolution of the Spanish empire, the numerous political crises and turmoil that followed and accompanied it, the establishment of a handful of dictatorial regimes and finally the era of Franco all substantially diminished the role that the country could play not only in Europe, but the world at large. The isolation in which Madrid had been placing itself in during the 20th century finally ended with the toppling of Franco’s regime, but efforts to bring one of the continent’s largest countries at the fore of decision making have been constantly sabotaged by internal divisions and woes – be they economic, political or social. As of 2019, however, the odds might finally be turning in Spain’s favour.
During the first half of the year, Spanish citizens were faced with a long list of elections – snap parliamentary elections in April and regional, local and European elections in May. If you’re in need of a quick refresher as to what led to the snap elections and who the main political actors in Spanish politics are, don’t forget to check out our previous analysis on the subject. The fragmentation present within the EU, complemented with an apparent calm within Spain following the local, regional and national ballots, are leading the country down a path towards becoming a major player on the international stage.
It should come as no surprise to absolutely anybody that countries headed by Eurosceptic governments are less likely to be successful and influential on the European stage. The clearest example of such a case is probably Italy. Rome held 3 of the 5 top jobs in the Union but is set to lose all of them. Not only that, but its government is not even remotely interested in pursuing and retaining any of the top jobs in the upcoming Commission (although it’s a given that such a feat would be impossible), but is instead entirely focused on fending off disciplinary proceedings from the EU’s budgetary authorities. To an albeit lesser extent, Poland, another rich and populous country, is also facing isolation due to its clashes with the Commission on the subject of rule of law. Finally, the United Kingdom is so deeply embroiled in its own self-serving and self-flagellating exercise of “taking back control” that it can barely exert any influence beyond its own territory – and even that might be a generous assessment.
The stage is set, and the time is ripe for the resurgence of a new power, long dormant and so far beset with internal squabbles.
Local elections fallout
Usually, typically, for the most part, local ballots are considered second-order elections – much like the ones for European parliament. People tend to vote with a different mindset, compared to national elections and are more likely to prefer fringe or regional and local actors to main political parties. While the case of the 2019 local elections does not radically differ from the norm, it still resulted in a major tectonic shift in Spanish political life.
First and foremost, the centre-left PSOE managed to win the most councilor seats and the most votes in these elections. It dethroned the centre-right PP from many of its traditional strongholds and put the socialists in a domineering position on the national stage. At first, however, this victory appeared to be quite a hollow one. Despite winning the plurality of votes in quite a few places, cities and towns, in many cases the socialists have been unable to form ruling coalitions and are being forced to hand over the reigns of power to centre-right parties who together managed to cobble up majorities. As the days trickle bay, what initially seemed like an unfortunate but also unavoidable reality quickly turned into an easily exploitable opportunity for the PSOE.
Shooting yourself in the foot
Ciudadanos – the main liberal and centrist political party in the country and French president Emmanuel Macron’s Spanish love affair has been adamant in its opposition to any coalition with the PSOE because of its reliance on support of separatist parties. Because of that, it has been entering coalition after coalition with the centre-right Partido Popular all while relying on the voting power of the far-right VOX in municipal councils and regional parliaments. The gamble of Albert Rivera, leader of the liberals, is obvious – the crash of the PP amidst its clash with VOX resulted in an opening in the centre-right – a perfect fit for Ciudadanos. So far, so good.
While the logic behind Ciudadanos’ shift from the centre to the centre-right might appear calculated and sound at first glance, the execution of its follow-up strategy has been nothing short of disastrous. In their attempt to harness and court more rightwing voters, the liberals left the center-ground empty and ready for taking by the PSOE. Not only that, but their botched attempts at legitimizing and explaining their backroom dealing with the far-right VOX has been alienating not only their traditional voter base, but also their international allies – such as Emmanuel Macron and members of the liberal party in the European Parliament – Renew Europe. Some of their leaked agreements with VOX also resulted in the resignations of high-profile party members and a weird sort of silence by the party’s head. Ciudadanos has managed put itself in such an unfavourable position that it’s currently under attack from literally all sides of the political spectrum.
Sanchez’s rising star
After leading his party to multiple elecotral defeats over the years, Pedro Sanchez's luck might have finally turned. First came the implosion of the traditional centre-right Partido Popular, and their decision to chase far-right VOX voters. Then came the botched usurpation attempts by liberal Ciudadanos and their respective shift to the right. And where did all of this lead?
With the centre unattended, and the right tearing itself apart, fragmenting further and further, the Spanish political scene has been completely changed. Pedro Sanchez’s socialist party is currently polling between 30 and 36%, while all other parties are relegated to the high-to-mid-teens.
This dominant position, achieved after and in large part thanks to the local elections in May has substantially strengthened the incumbent PM, giving him a strong mandate to make demands on the international stage. That’s not to say that it will all be smooth sailing from here – quite the opposite. The Catalan question is unlikely to resolve itself any time soon while the Spanish economy might be yet again sent on a downward spiral if and when another financial crisis hits. For the moment, however, the optics have completely shifted. The public eye and the media’s attention have stopped paying so much attention to the PSOE’s deals with separatist parties, instead choosing to blame Ciudadanos for their unwillingness to enter into a coalition with the socialists. While everyone is busy blaming the liberals for the uncooperative attitude, Sanchez and his party are only further strengthening their positions.
The end result for the moment appears clear. The PSOE while currently unable to form a stable majority, might have enough leeway to call yet another snap election to secure itself a bigger share of the votes. What is more, their stable and ever-improving position within the country is giving Pedro Sanchez a very strong hand to play in Europe. The Spanish delegation in the S&D is currently its largest one and was able to elect a Spaniard at the group’s head. Meanwhile, Sanchez has been actively pushing for putting more of his countrymen in the EU’s top jobs, all the while pursuing a closer relationship with Emmanuel Macron and laying the groundwork for a new model of governing the Union in the future. Such efforts will further boost his image within Spain as citizens of the Mediterranean country are overly pro-EU and support many of the initiatives aimed at bringing “an ever-closer union”.
Through a series of very fortunate events and election cycles, Spain is in its best international position in decades. With a Prime Minister with a strong mandate, received due to the implosion of literally every other political party in the country, at the helm and the rapidly deteriorating role of countries like Italy and the UK, Madrid is poised to shape EU policy like never before.
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