Eight Clues to Understanding the Elections in Spain

Juan Rodríguez Teruel

10 mins - 21 de Julio de 2023, 16:45

To say that elections are crucial for the future is trite and banal. They all are, and the general elections on 23 July will be no exception. What is certain is that this Sunday may open or close new scenarios for our political life – with notable repercussions for the political balance on a European scale.

Perhaps that is why one of the main areas of conflict in this campaign has revolved precisely around expectations about the results that could be produced. The media (and their polls) closest to the opposition have pointed to a landslide victory for the right. On the other side, there has been an insistence on the possible margin for a comeback by the governing parties. In both cases, there is a certainty that expectations will condition the willingness of many undecided voters (especially on the left) to vote. What is certain is that the few survey data actually available (and analysable) suggest an open-ended scenario that could end up supporting either of the two interpretations.

At the outset, we should draw attention to something that should not come as a surprise. Since November 2019, we already knew three facts that anticipated the current situation.

First, after hitting rock bottom in April 2019, PP had a clear prospect of accelerated recovery after the crisis opened in Ciudadanos in November of that year, which should allow it not only to regain the first electoral position, but also to make more profit from its votes in terms of parliamentary seats.

Second, after the repeat election that year, it became clear (if it was not already clear then) that Sánchez’s PSOE had exhausted its capacity for recovery among centrist voters not aligned with PSOE.

Third, no party in our democracy has made an electoral leap after its first term in government. At most it has maintained or slightly improved its support. That is what Suárez and Zapatero did. González lost more than a million votes. Aznar barely increased half a million in a context of high stability and economic prosperity, and it was the socialist debacle that gave him the absolute majority.

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With these three facts in mind, it was not difficult to predict, even four years ago, a probable victory for PP, a parliamentary improvement for the right-wing bloc, and a greater or lesser setback for PSOE and the coalition government.

From this perspective, and taking into account the thread of crises that have marked this legislature (Covid, the war in Ukraine, runaway inflation in 2022, the break-up of Podemos), the most striking aspect about the context defined by the polls is that we are not so far from what was normally predictable four years ago.

On election night we will know whether the outcome of all this is the maintenance of the coalition government, a right-wing alternation, or a situation of deadlock, as we had in 2015 and 2019.

However, beyond the addition and subtraction of seats, it will be important to pay attention to the basic parameters that tell us how much change or how much stability has manifested itself in the electoral body. 

In doing so, we will also be able to sense which true directions the next legislature may actually take. We suggest that we look at eight specific data points.

Since 2008, voter turnout in general elections has tended to stabilise and fluctuate less than in the past. Between 2011 and 2019, abstention barely moved by a margin of five points, with a low in April 2019 (28.2%) and a high in November 2019 (33.7%), far from the hyper-mobilisation that had marked the most hotly contested elections until then.

Several commentators and pollsters predict a high turnout in these elections. The CIS also suggests this. For that forecast to be confirmed, we should expect a turnout of over 72%, approaching that exceptional 75% mark, above which changes of government took place in favour of González, Aznar, and Zapatero. This would mean that this time it would have managed to mobilise a swathe of voters who stopped voting in 2011, which could bring scenarios of electoral surprise on one side or the other.

To the extent that this scenario does not occur, and abstention does not fall below 28%, it would mean that the turnout patterns of the last decade would be maintained, and that the margins for electoral surprise would likely be smaller.
Figure 1.- Participation in the general elections (%)
Since 1982 (when it was four million votes ahead), the left has outvoted the right, with three notable exceptions: 2000, 2011 and 2016. In other words, the right has only been able to have a sufficient majority to govern with no strings attached when it has outpolled the left bloc by more than a million votes. In 2016 it fell below that distance, and Rajoy’s government failed to finish the legislature. 

However, the structural advantage of the left has tended to shrink until it dissipated in the two 2019 elections, when they produced a tie in votes between the two blocs, separated by less than 50,000 votes.

The closer the right comes to a million-vote lead, even more so if it exceeds it, the more likely the majority government scenario predicted by the polls will be; otherwise, deadlock will be inevitable.

Figure 2.- Differences in vote between blocs (the coloured bar indicates the winner, red for the left, blue for the right)
The reduction of the left’s differential advantage in general elections over the years has to do with a growing inability to maintain appeal to the electorate as a whole: while the left increased its voter base between 1982 and 2008 as the electoral roll grew (with fluctuations in its support linked to the abstention movement), the right achieved a slower but also more stable pattern of growth until 2019.

Before the decline of the last decade began, the left had surpassed 12 million votes three times, while the right has never managed to do so. And yet the latter has managed to stabilise its (rising) support at around 11 million. The November 2019 elections may stir up some confusion about the strength of this trend.

That the right could surpass 11 million votes is not a necessary condition for it to reach government, but it does confirm that it maintains an expansion in the electorate, which could be taking place at the expense of the social base of the left.

Figure 3.- Number of votes in each bloc and by party (in millions of votes)
Between 1982 and 2011, PSOE’s support fluctuated between 8 and 11 million votes. Since 2011, its results have remained around 7 million (2011) and 7.5 million (April 2019), for two reasons: a good part of that lost vote has gone to other parties (mainly Podemos); and also PSOE, and the left in general, have shrunk in recent years (as explained in the previous point).

The condition for PSOE to maintain its chances of governing is that it can again approach or even surpass the eight million mark. Doing so would not guarantee it the government, but it would put it on the path to recovering a part of the electorate it lost in 2011 and which has not returned since then. Moving away from that frontier could be a worse symptom than the loss of government itself.

Figure 4.- Support for PSOE in the number of votes
With the arrival of Podemos, the space to the left of PSOE tripled what the candidates promoted by Spanish communism around the UL used to get. Pablo Iglesias stated on several occasions that Podemos was not a second version of UL. However, the electoral evolution of PSOE’s party has pointed it in that direction. If Sumar is not able to halt this decline and remain above 3 million, its chances of remaining in government will vanish, leading it towards the parameters of the UL to which Yolanda Díaz always belonged.

On the other hand, this resistance will only be compatible with PSOE’s recovery if it comes with a participation similar to that which kept Zapatero in the government in 2004 and 2008.

Figure 5.- Support for the radical left (PCE-UL-Podemos) in number of votes
Between 1996 and 2016, the Spanish right consolidated an electoral bloc of over 10 million. It is true that the inclusion of Ciudadanos in this bloc would require some nuances, because it brought in some voters who had supported PSOE in the past. Today it is clear that Ciudadanos is instrumental in operating as a bridge to right-wing that fraction of progressive voters.

In April 2019, PP and Ciudadanos combined 8.5 million votes. Adding the mobilisation of other groups of centre-left voters and Vox, PP’s base should exceed 9 million, and approach Aznar’s 10 million votes. However, the limitations it experienced in mobilising its space in the municipal elections, in which PP was barely able to increase the vote beyond that recovered from Ciudadanos (remaining at around 7.4 million), could suggest difficulties in the attempt to recover from Vox.

Figure 6.- Support for PP and Ciudadanos in number of votes
Since the Andalusian elections, support for Vox has fluctuated greatly depending on the type of election. The May municipal elections showed that, for the moment, it seems to have reached a stable base of 1.5 million votes. However, its ceiling still depends on the useful or strategic character that many of its voters give to their vote. 

If Vox manages to shore up its support above 3 million or more, it will be an indicator that it is beginning to consolidate its own space of considerable magnitude to the detriment of PP. Conversely, if it does not maintain the 3 million mark, the Vox vote will continue to be too fluid with respect to the majority party, as happened to Podemos and Ciudadanos in their second electoral cycle.

Figure 7.- Support for Vox in state-level elections
Many take a PSC victory in the general elections for granted (something that has not happened since 2008) and are counting on it to emulate the decisive role played by Catalonia in Zapatero’s victory over Rajoy. The current weakness of PSOE in Andalusia adds further relevance to the Catalan accounts. 

Those victories in 2004 and 2008 (not to mention earlier ones) were forged over sidereal distances between PSC and PP, around one million voters. This means almost doubling the gap between the two parties in November 2019.

Only to the extent that PSC gets closer to that one million difference, could its derived seats really be expected to have a distinctive impact, even if that would not be enough. The closer PP gets to the PSC below one million votes, the less decisive the Catalan victory will be.

Figure 8.- Electoral support for PSC and PP in Catalonia (Generale)

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