Spain’s Unexpected Rebuff of the Far-Right: Outlier or European Trend?
Electoral surprises can sometimes be pleasant. In Sunday’s general election, Spain went to the polls expecting a landslide for a conservative coalition that would have allowed a far-right party to come to power at the national level for the first time since the fall of the Franco regime almost 50 years ago. Instead, the voters decisively eliminated this possibility.
The center-right People’s Party (PP) emerged as the winner, with 33% of the vote, but this was well below what had been widely anticipated. Similarly, incumbent Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’ Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) came in second with 31%, but its margin of loss was much narrower than polls had predicted.
By far the biggest and most impactful surprise of the night, however, was that the victorious conservatives did not secure the necessary number of seats to govern with their preferred partner, the far-right VOX (12.3%). This means that there is essentially no option for the victorious PP to govern, and this in turn could lead to negotiations between Sánchez and several smaller parties to form a government, or—should the negotiations fail—a repeat election by year’s end.
The wider implications of Sunday’s election concern the whole of Europe. The Spanish voters’ blow to VOX and the elimination of prospects for a Spanish government in which a far-right party would lay claim to power offers a powerful counterpoint to many center-right European parties’ and leaders’ willingness to join forces with the far-right when it benefits them politically. PP strove to neutralize VOX ahead of the election by co-opting its policy positions on several key issues, but even with that, it failed to achieve its stated objectives. It won the election but failed to win power; and in the process, it did a lot to normalize the positions and rhetoric that defined the far-right party.
The Spanish conservatives’ Pyrrhic victory comes at a time when their counterparts in other European countries contemplate weakening the political center’s “firewall” against the far-right. German conservative leader Friedrich Merz’ comments over the weekend, for example, pushed the limits and created significant controversy. As Europe seems to be shifting farther to the right, the Spanish case suggests that voters may want to keep that firewall intact.