Spain’s Lesson: Appealing to the Center Pays Off
Under the avid eye of the international media, last month’s snap elections in Spain saw the far-right VOX party entering parliament by winning 10.3 percent of the vote. This put an end to the anomaly whereby Spain was one of the few countries in Europe where radical right-wing populism failed to take hold. This was significant news but an equally significant story received much less attention— the center-left Spanish socialist party (PSOE) won emphatically with 28.7 percent of the vote by running on a ticket of political moderation as a self-proclaimed bulwark against the extreme right. All of a sudden, Spain stands tall as a defender of pro-EU liberal values and a bastion of an otherwise frail European social democracy.
Betting on the appeal of the socialist's party’s center-left roots seemed like a risky approach by incumbent Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez at a time when the political spectrum across Europe is moving to the edges, social democratic parties are in decline, and elections are supposedly no longer won in the center. Yet Sanchez’ electoral gamble paid off. The prospect of a right-wing governing alliance involving VOX mobilized the center-left and the regional nationalist votes. Turnout was almost 76 percent, over 9 points more than in the previous elections.
Electoral tactics was but one piece of the picture, however. First and foremost, the PSOE’s victory was built on the shattered image of the conservative People’s Party (PP), whose electoral prospects were buried under the accumulated burden of its murky handling of the Catalonian separatist challenge, the legacy of its austerity policies when in government, and high-profile corruption scandals.
"Sanchez’s victory was built as much on the wrong choice by the center-right as on the right choice by the center-left."
The story behind the elections’ outcome is also one of opposing tactical responses by the two traditional main parties to the populist challenge. Sanchez’s victory was built as much on the wrong choice by the center-right as on the right choice by the center-left. Under the leadership of Pablo Casado, the PP—on shaky ground since the 2018 ouster of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy by a vote of no confidence—failed spectacularly in its attempt to prevent voters from switching to VOX by pursuing a drastic shift to the right in rhetoric and policy. The PP’s traditional center-right constituency hemorrhaged into VOX to its right and the liberal-conservative Ciudadanos to its left.
After VOX’s breakthrough performance that saw it win 12 seats in the December 2018 elections in Andalusia, its support enabled the formation of a regional government coalition between the PP and Ciudadanos. The three parties hoped to replicate this model on the national level following the general elections. The PP bet on the emergence of an ample right-wing majority for a tripartite alliance, and the three parties teamed up early and publicly. A now-infamous photo of Casado, Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera, and VOX leader Santiago Abascal at an anti-separatist rally at Madrid’s Plaza de Colon in February 2019 sent a signal to voters that by voting the PP or Ciudadanos, they would get VOX as part of the package.
This strategy failed utterly. Not only did VOX perform below expectations and fell short of becoming a kingmaker, but it also drew most of its votes from the PP, which experienced the worst electoral result in its history by receiving 16.6 percent of the vote.
Trusting the Center
The PSOE chose to trust in the mobilization of the center. With a campaign that emphasized political moderation (including on the key electoral issue of Catalonia) and classical social democratic values (as reflected in a number of social reforms brought underway during Sanchez’ short tenure as prime minister, such as raising the minimum wage), it recovered from its historic electoral debacle in 2016 by jumping from 84 to 123 seats, making it the leading parliamentary force with a clear governing mandate. Other factors that benefitted the PSOE included its more accommodating course toward Catalonia while staunchly rejecting independence, the internal frictions in the leftist Unidas Podemos (which plunged to 14.3 percent), and the early pledge by Ciudadanos leader Rivera not to enter a coalition with the socialists, which to many voters made the socialists the only viable moderate option.
Prime Minister Sanchez now likely faces a lengthy scramble to form a governing coalition. An alliance with Podemos, the ideologically closest option, does not suffice for a stable parliamentary majority, and Ciudadanos still rules out a coalition. Sanchez will likely have to rely on Podemos and smaller regional nationalist parties in a fragmented parliament. With Ciudadanos the other relative winner in the elections, with 15.8 percent and has managed to take over the center-right space from the PP despite its misled commitment to the unsuccessful right-wing alliance, Rivera is likely to be the next leader of the opposition.
As a forthcoming paper by the German Marshall Fund shows, the political influence of right-wing populist parties has come mostly from their noisy agenda-setting shifting the mainstream parties to the right, with the latter adopting similarly inflammatory rhetoric and policies. Out of fear of losing votes to the populist challenge, some mainstream parties have deserted the center, which the ideologically more malleable populists now vow to conquer.
Despite the uncertainty over the composition of Spain’s next government and the multidimensional nature of the PSOE’s win, one lesson from the Spanish experience appears to be that appealing to the center can still pay off—not despite, but because of polarized politics. At a time when the grand coalition between the center-left and center-right groups in the European Parliament looks set to lose its long-standing majority, the success of the Spanish socialists appears as counter-intuitive as the recent electoral successes of center-left parties in Finland and Sweden. This might be confirmed later this year when Portugal holds its elections.
The newly gained strength of some of Europe’s center-left parties may be thanks to their choice to resist the temptation of mimicking the populists’ extreme positions and inflammatory rhetoric. If the political center has been fading, the prospect of the far right in government may work as a brake on the rise of right-wing populists as the risk to Europe’s core values might bring out the moderate majority to vote in greater numbers.