Immigration, Europe and Catalonia will provide Spain’s Socialists with quite the challenge in the aftermath of the country’s election.
Despite its electoral victory, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) is struggling to form a stable government. The PSOE got 123 seats (29% of the total votes) in the lower chamber of the Spanish parliament. That was more than any other party and a good performance for the Socialists, whose popular vote went up by more than 6 percentage points compared with the previous general election. However, that is still well below the absolute majority in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies. So from now on, the PSOE’s leader Pedro Sánchez faces a formidable challenge: forging a coalition to set up a stable government for its four-year term and coping with three of Spain's main challenges on its domestic, foreign and security policies: the Catalan crisis; the management of Spain's migration policy in the face of the emergence of far-right party Vox; and Spain's European policy after Brexit.
Likely Scenario After Socialist Party Victory
The most likely coalition scenario is that Sánchez maintains the premiership through an agreement between PSOE and left-wing party Unidas Podemos (United We Can), although the 165 seats he can count on together still do not provide an absolute majority. To get past the magic 175-seat threshold, Sánchez should also obtain the support of smaller regional, nationalist and pro-independence parties such as the Catalans’ Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and Together for Catalonia (JxCat). Either way, it is clear that Sánchez’s government will always depend on those minor parties and will therefore have to deal with the Catalan question. As a result, unless the Socialists manage to forge a stable coalition early on, they may suffer the fate of previous recent governments, which is to prolong Spain’s current instability.
Far-Right Party Vox and Migration Policy
One of the election’s most spectacular developments has been the success of Vox (Latin for ‘Voice’), the far-right party which won 24 seats and entered the Spanish parliament for the first time. The emergence of this anti-Islam party has triggered the fragmentation of the right block and has set up a new party system in Spain. And, with a hard narrative in defence of the territorial unity of Spain and its opposition to Basque and Catalan separatism as well as Muslim immigration, Vox has managed to further polarise the debate within Spanish politics on these issues. The result is that Spain’s migration policy is now very much to the fore, and a key element in the parliamentary debate. This trend is reinforced by the so-called ‘Salvini effect’, named after Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister, who tightened immigration admissions to his country, only to see the migratory pressures from Africa being diverted to Spain. According to data from Spain’s Ministry of Home Affairs, in the first four months of 2019 there were 8,400 entries of irregular immigrants to Spain. For the same period in 2018 this figure was 6,391, an increase of 31.4%. The Socialist-led government will need to manage and cope with this issue, if only to stop the advance of Vox. But that will not be easy since Unidas Podemos, the government’s most likely coalition partner, promotes a policy of open and legal immigration.
The Catalan Crisis and Pro-Independence Parties: Decisive Again?
Meanwhile, the two main Catalan pro-independence parties, the ERC and JxCat, are shedding their unilateralist stance of a dash to independence after this approach failed in October 2017. They are focusing instead on two different strategies. The ERC’s long-term strategy focuses on enabling the creation of a stable left-wing government in Madrid that could recognise Catalonia's right to self-determination in the mid–long term; this approach intends to ‘crack the system’ from the inside. On the other hand, JxCat’s main strategy is based on helping to paralyse the central government in Madrid with the resultant instability and ungovernability leading to international mediation which could result in the search for a political solution to the Catalan crisis through a referendum.
The ERC did best in Catalonia, with just over a million votes and its strategy therefore prevails. However, it should be noted that the vote for pro-independence parties was also much lower compared with the last regional election in 2017. Thus, while the Catalan independence parties’ importance in the parliament in Madrid may remain undiminished, their brand of separatism is not winning in Catalonia. It would be interesting to observe if this trend continues in the forthcoming European parliamentary election.
Nonetheless, the Catalan crisis endures and pro-independence parties – especially ERC with its 15 seats – will be decisive once again for the governability of Spain. To solve the Catalan crisis, a Socialist-led government will have to devolve more powers to Catalonia, strengthening its self-government within the Spanish constitutional framework without recognising the right to self-determination and while denying the possibility of holding a nationally sanctioned referendum on the region’s independence. This will not be easy, especially since the position of parties on the right are hardening against such measures.
Spain and Post-Brexit Europe
And Spain’s European policy will also come under scrutiny.
A Socialist-led government will aim to reinforce and boost Spain’s role and commitment within the EU. Following Brexit, Spain will become the EU’s fourth-largest economy. However, initiatives such as promoting Europe’s strategic autonomy may be opposed by Unidas Podemos which does not want to surrender more sovereignty to the EU without insisting first on reforming European institutions.
For all these reasons, Spain’s European policy will continue much as before: faith in Europe, but priority to Spain's national interests, domestic agenda and territorial unity. If Sánchez manages to forge a government.
Xavier Servitja Roca is a Visiting Research Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs-Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP).
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.