Feijóo Loses the Plebiscite Against Sánchez

Juan Rodríguez Teruel

7 mins - 24 de Julio de 2023, 07:00

The opposition framed the 2023 general election as a plebiscite against the left-wing government, and the coalition parties accepted that narrative with nuances to their regret. There was probably no alternative, because it is the approach that has dominated Spanish politics since Pedro Sánchez became president five years ago.

The provisional count has given PP an uncontested victory at the polls (up almost half a hundred seats), but Feijóo has lost the electoral motion of censure that was intended to topple the left. And with this, he leaves up in the air the strength he needed to govern in the next legislature. He lacks a viable governing majority, or even the chance of obtaining one in a repeat election.

PP’s leading position in terms of votes was not a goal, but a long-standing fact. It was not difficult to predict, even four years ago, a probable victory for PP, a parliamentary improvement of the right-wing bloc, and a setback for the coalition government. Since November 2019, we have already known three facts that suggested this outcome. First, after hitting rock bottom in April 2019, PP had a clear prospect of accelerated recovery as a result of the crisis opened in Ciudadanos in November of that year. With the orange takeover, not only did PP gain primacy in the centre. It also ensured that it would get a greater return on the representation of its votes in terms of parliamentary seats, thanks to the bonus it could receive if it became the leading force in several low-magnitude constituencies.

Second, after the rerun election that year, it became clear (if it was not already) that Sánchez’s PSOE had exhausted its resilience among less like-minded centrist voters.

Finally, no party in our democracy had – until now – made a decisive electoral leap after its first term in government. At most they had maintained or slightly improved their 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 bonanza, and it was the socialist debacle that gave him the absolute majority.

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With these three facts in mind, the main variable to watch throughout this legislature was not so much the size of PP’s recovery in the polls, but rather the ability of the left, and in particular PSOE, to maintain the loyalty of its electorate. 

For this reason, the attempts by the opposition – and its media – to interpret each of the crises that have occurred since then as the definitive trigger that would cause the government majority to implode were significant. They were plausible: a world pandemic, a European war with Russia, a prison sentence for some of the main pro-independence leaders who supported the government, hyperinflation with figures that many Spaniards had never seen before in their lives...

All that remained was to spark to light the fuse. Some illustrative predictions by opinion makers about Sánchez’s expiry date in 2020, 2021, 2022... and even 2023 remain in the newspaper archives. The biggest trap of modern prophets, and of politicians who trust them, is to misread the data. The results of the right in 2019 were not bad; they were bad for PP. But in April of that year the sum of the right-wingers achieved the second-best result of the democracy, with 11.2 million votes. It was difficult to beat that, beyond improving the return on votes under the rules of the electoral system. 

Therefore, a strategy of tension aimed at delegitimising the ruling majority ran the risk of shoring up the electoral boundaries and forcing the dissatisfied electorate on the left to reaffirm its support. Moreover, this did not resolve the conservative dilemma: to grow in the centre by regaining the extreme right? Pablo Casado was evidence of the difficulty of tackling this equation. The sudden arrival of Feijóo seemed to put things in place. The municipal elections in May would do the rest to promote the expectation of alternation.

But last May’s results were also a warning: there was an institutional turnaround but no electoral wave. PSOE resisted, but not its allies. Although, its voters now knew the consequences of criticising the government by staying at home. It could not happen again.

The outcome of this strategy of continuous tension is an electoral victory and a parliamentary defeat, which has not managed to dissipate the tie between the state left and right that already existed in 2019. PP will remain far from the nine million that guaranteed it the Moncloa. And, incidentally, it has helped Vox to maintain its three million voters. With this, the Spanish ultra-right is beginning to consolidate a space of its own. This is perhaps the second failure of the Popular Party.

The left has also run the risk of misinterpreting its victory four years ago. Not only was it not a defeat for the right, for the reasons we have noted, but it also did not give the new rulers carte blanche to dispense with greater levels of consensus in the implementation of their programme. Sánchez may have been more aware of these limits than Pablo Iglesias, but he is no less responsible for having allowed them to be exceeded. Perhaps that is why the PSOE is far from recovering its electoral base of the past, although it has reached the eight million that will keep it in the executive. And it will have Sumar alongside it, which has also managed to pass the difficult test of slowing down the declining trend set by Podemos.

And now what? These elections were called for clarification by the Prime Minister. And he has obtained it: the two large minorities that now best represent Spanish society remain. One of them proposes to amend this last legislature, though perhaps not entirely. It is outnumbered by another that supports the government’s project but is no less critical of many aspects of its implementation.

The minority that emerges victorious from the elections has also obtained another clarification, much questioned in recent years by the opposition. Spain cannot be governed without its “peripheries” (if we accept Madrid’s geographical lexicon), let alone against them. The conservative opposition, and a good part of the Spanish intellectual establishment, sometimes forget it, sometimes abhor it. They will have to draw the right implications from this legislature: Sánchez’s political management, with its successes and mistakes, reduced political and institutional tension in Catalonia (also in the Basque Country), and has ended up temporarily shrinking the political representation of his pro-independence allies. For this reason, the right made the clumsy mistake of forcing many Catalan voters to choose tactically between Santiago Abascal and Salvador Illa. The choice was obvious.

And despite the clarification, the final scenario does not augur less tension. González and Zapatero fell after legislatures full of tension similar to the current one (something that many young observers forget). PP will try to capitalise on its electoral victory, and perhaps conclude that tension was lacking. But here it will face its great paradox. Feijóo has lost the plebiscite against Sánchez by applying the delegitimising strategy used by Isabel Díaz Ayuso. The final result not only questions his leadership but also the President of Madrid’s chances of doing better with the same recipe. 

That leaves a lot of responsibility on Sánchez’s (now increased) political leadership: if polarisation was on the verge of taking him away, it would be strange to continue to be carried away by it. The clarification has not been the victory of some “Spains” over others but the realisation that none of them can prevail indefinitely.

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