Spain’s May 28 elections: Local precedents for a national outcome?
An often-repeated axiom of Spanish politics states that those who resist, vanquish. Pedro Sánchez is no stranger to the adage. Four years ago, he co-authored a Resistance Handbook, which details his struggles in leading the centre-left socialists (PSOE) against a hostile party establishment, as well as the successful no-confidence motion against his conservative (PP) rival Mariano Rajoy, which made Sánchez prime minister.Throughout 2019, he went on to win two general elections—the first of which offered an inconclusive result—and then form a coalition government with the left-populist United We Can (UP). Sánchez has led the Spanish executive for five years. The May 28 elections present themselves as the next chapter in his saga of resistance. And at the time of writing, they seem a formidable challenge to his future.
In theory, things should not be this way. What is at stake is local government in all of Spain’s municipalities, as well as 12 of its 17 regional governments (Comunidades Autónomas). To some extent, Spain in 2023 is still, as Gerald Brennan described it 80 years ago, “the land of the patria chica,” where “a man’s allegiance is first of all to his native place, or to his family and social group in it, and only secondly to his country and government.” The restoration of democracy in 1975-1982 brought along a proto-federal system of government. The Basque Country and Catalonia, where regionalist and pro-independence movements are dominant, have developed distinct political party systems from that of the rest of the country. Healthcare and education are administered at the regional level, as are a wide array of additional public services. Ceteris paribus, local considerations should trump national ones when Spaniards march to the polls.
All things are not equal, however. To begin with, the general elections are scheduled to take place in late 2023. This means that May is perceived, among other things, as a dress rehearsal for December. Secondly, Sánchez has developed a remarkable ability to whip the opposition into a frenzy. This has led the right to frame May 28 as a referendum on his future.
The right’s vexation stems from what Sánchez represents. A combination of extraordinary luck, honed political instincts, and pragmatic iconoclasm has made him the first prime minister in contemporary Spanish history to access power through a no-confidence vote and lead a national coalition government The latter is all the more striking because it is based upon an alliance with forces to the PSOE’s left, historically a non-starter for the party (and a source of much chagrin to its old guard). Support from Basque and Catalan nationalists—transactional in nature, and demanding constant concessions to two of Spain’s wealthiest regions—is necessary to secure the government’s majority, but another source of right-wing angst.
The emergence of a Spanish nationalist party (Vox), which is fond of the customary far-right caterwauling—the government is illegitimate, vaccines may harm you, climate change is a hoax, etc.—has exacerbated polarization. Add to this mix the fact that the PP alternates between criticizing and appeasing Vox on an almost monthly basis, and that UP remains divided between Labour Minister and Vice-President Yolanda Díaz and the more uncompromising Pablo Iglesias, a former vice-president turned podcast host. Spain today, as the journalist Enric Juliana is fond of pointing out, produces more politics than it can assimilate.
Vote locally, think nationally?
To understand how things have come to this, consider what national polling looked like only six years ago. Back then, Vox barely registered. The centre-right Citizens party (Cs), now virtually extinct, was expected to garner 30% of the vote. Behind came the PP, UP, and PSOE, all tied at roughly 20%. The remaining 10% of the vote went to the aforementioned regionalist or pro-independence parties. This electoral juncture reflected the aftermath of the Great Recession—which weakened the PSOE and PP, and boosted UP—and the 2017 crisis generated by the Catalan government’s unilateral bid for secession (which strengthened Cs, a party originally founded in opposition to Catalan nationalism).
In 2019, however, the PSOE reasserted its position as Spain’s leading party. The PP regained its foothold as opposition leader. Cs came close to extinction, UP was significantly weakened, and Vox took its place as Spain’s third-largest party. What was once a stable two-party system—modulated by smaller, regionalist parties—has become a volatile, multi-party system. Importantly, however, the left-right axis continues to structure political competition. It pits the PSOE, UP, and most regional parties against the PP, Vox, and what little remains of Cs.
As soon as it took power in early 2020, the PSOE-UP coalition faced a by now familiar succession of emergencies: Covid-19, intrusive lockdowns, creaking supply chains, rising inflation, energy crises, Russia’s assault on Ukraine, financial turbulence, and now a historic drought. In response to these emergencies, the government has enacted a vigorous domestic agenda with a clear progressive bent: work furloughs during the pandemic, efficient vaccination campaigns, a minimum income scheme approved with near parliamentary unanimity, a 47% rise in the minimum wage throughout 2018-2023, a labour reform law that cracks down on precarious employment, moderate tax hikes for wealthier Spaniards, housing reforms to curtail real estate speculation, partial pension reforms that uphold their purchasing power, targeted energy price controls, the legalization of euthanasia, and an expansion of trans rights. Defying late 2022 projections of impending catastrophe, economic growth is poised to hold at 2% of GDP. The job market remains exceptionally strong, in spite of the fact that double-digit unemployment has become a sad fixture of contemporary Spain.
Within the European Union, the government has secured generous funding in the Next Generation EU recovery programs, played a leading role in the ongoing reform of energy markets, and developed constructive partnerships with a wide array of member states, from France to the Netherlands. The Spanish presidency of the EU Council, which takes place between July and December, is an opportunity for the government to drive the point home—both securing important reforms at the EU level and using this to boost Sánchez’s electoral appeal. In Spain, after all, public opinion persistently values European integration as a positive process.
In spite of these achievements, the government has made costly missteps. Attempts to reform the penal code in order to accommodate Catalan politicians who broke the law during the unilateral secession process were met with generalized disapproval. A botched law to strengthen consent laws led to a stream of reductions in prison terms for sexual offenders. Although the Basque terrorist organization ETA collapsed in 2011, the government’s parliamentary reliance on Bildu—a left, pro-Basque independence coalition that includes the heirs of ETA’s political wing—is a recurrent source of controversy. Government infighting is constant, and some UP ministers have adopted an incessantly shrill line to denounce the PSOE’s more moderate stances and portray Díaz (who seeks to form a broader progressive platform) as insufficiently combative. Social hardship in the face of inflation and unemployment means the government cannot rest upon the laurels of its economic accomplishments. Attempts to reach a modus vivendi with Morocco following a migratory crisis in 2021 led Sánchez and his foreign affairs minister to make painful concessions—de facto accepting Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara—while obtaining close to nothing in return. This has become all the more controversial in the contest of an alleged vote-buying scandal compromising a local party in the city of Melilla, on the North Africa coast.
Most polls place the PP ahead of the PSOE both locally and nationally. But wielding power is an entirely different matter. PP’s entente with Vox, which retains an uncompromising agenda of centralization, means even conservative regional parties are uneasy with the right bloc. In any event, the momentum that the May results generate is key to breaking this impasse in one direction or another.
From strongholds to coin tosses
Many of the 12 regional contests hold little electoral mystery. Murcia in the south remains a stronghold for the right. Conversely, Extremadura in the west and Asturias in the north are likely to stay under the PSOE’s control. The most significant regional stronghold is Madrid. There, Isabel Díaz Ayuso is poised to win the elections handily. The lingering question is whether she will lead the PP (which has governed the region uninterruptedly since 1995) to an absolute majority or continue to rely on Vox. Ayuso, in power since May 2019, has positioned herself as Sánchez’s arch-enemy. She governs Spain’s leading economic region as his antithesis: stressing the need for “freedom” and “liberty” in the face of “social-communism”, and positioning herself as a champion of real estate, free markets, small business owners, and car drivers (Madrid, an outlier among large European cities, seems intent on replacing trees with concrete).
The weak spot in Ayuso’s resume is the regional government’s deliberate neglect of the public healthcare system, including a disastrous management of the Covid-19 pandemic in elderly residences, which made Madrid one of the European regions with the highest excess mortality rates during the pandemic. So far, she has managed to emerge unscathed from this scandal. Half Margaret Thatcher, half Sarah Palin, Ayuso also has a knack for engaging in inflammatory culture wars. Ayuso’s decision to insist throughout the campaign on the need to illegalize Bildu—which has no regional or municipal presence in Madrid—rather than on her actual record is a testament to her capacity and willingness to base her appeal on polarization against the broader left. This approach has proved remarkably popular in Madrid. What remains to be seen is if it works elsewhere in Spain. There, the salience of Ayuso’s clashes with the government risks eclipsing the strategy of PP Secretary-General (and contender for prime minister) Alberto Núñez Feijóo, who is pushing the party to adopt a less strident style.
Wherever the outcome of the election seems a coin toss—in La Rioja, Comunidad Valenciana, Aragón, the Balearic Islands, or Castilla-La Mancha—the million-dollar question is to what extent citizens will vote following national or electoral considerations. In the former case, the outcome for the PSOE—which governs in all of these regions thanks to alliances with other left parties—would be bleak. In national elections, Sánchez has managed to mobilize the rejection that Vox generates in order to cement his electoral position. But this strategy is unlikely to work in the context of local elections. A result whereby the majority of left coalitions governing the regions outlined above (and especially Comunidad Valencia, the largest of them) gave way to electoral majorities for the right would be understood as a severe punishment to Sánchez and the precursor of his defeat later this year. The fact that UP will achieve poor electoral results may also cause problems for the left bloc. And it will generate a blame game with Díaz and some of her key allies, such as Barcelona mayor Ada Colau (who also stands for a challenging re-election) and other progressive parties in Madrid and Valencia. All of this would shatter the chances of re-enacting the left coalition.
If, on the other hand, the right fails to make significant inroads, it may become a victim of its own expectations. Until recently, the PP and Vox envisioned an economic recession bringing about an intense social backlash against Sánchez. The former has yet to materialize, but the latter may take place regardless. If it does not, however, the PP’s position will be reminiscent to that of the Republican Party following the 2022 midterm elections. It would become profoundly divided between the hard-line Ayuso and the more moderate Feijóo. Vox, which has experienced a downward trajectory in polls throughout the past year, would not find itself ideally placed to capitalize on this division. The right bloc would therefore struggle to gain a parliamentary majority in December.
The polarization paradox
As becomes painfully clear with every electoral cycle, Spain is gripped by a paradox. On the one hand, it remains among the most divided societies on the planet, at least when it comes to measuring polarization. The structuring principle of these divisions—in contrast to other European societies—remains the left-right axis. However, most issues of electoral contention are identitarian rather than redistributive. The virulence of Spain’s culture wars is especially striking when one considers that there is broad social consensus around core policy questions—such as the desirability of maintaining a welfare state or the desirability of supporting the European integration process.
It has become a cliché among foreign observers to blame this division on ‘ancient hatreds’ dating back to the 1936-1939 civil war. In comparative perspective, however, Spanish society remains more civic and rule-abiding than even Spaniards themselves acknowledge. In recent years, vaccination campaigns proceeded smoothly, mask mandates were widely accepted, and public opinion on a variety of social issues—from feminism to LGBQT rights—remains more progressive than the European average. Judging by the tone of most political rhetoric, however, it seems like a country torn by civil unrest.
Persistent inequality, high unemployment, social fragmentation, and precarious working conditions are the breeding ground for a radicalization of social attitudes. These problems are far from eradicated in Spain. And polarization per se is not necessarily bad, to the extent that elections are designed precisely to contrast different—and often incompatible—political agendas and governing styles. To put it in the graceless language of political science, however, there seems to be a profound demand-supply mismatch between voters’ preferences and the tone and content of most public debate. None of this is likely to change in the short or medium term. Whatever the outcome of the May 28 elections, Spain will keep producing more politics than it can assimilate.
 Pedro Sánchez and Irene Lozano, Manual de resistencia (Barcelona: Península, 2023).
 Exceptions include the regional governments of Catalonia, the Basque Country, Andalusia, Galicia, and Castilla y León. The autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla, located in the northern coast of Africa, also hold elections on May 28. A total of 67,152 local councilmen in 8,131 municipalities, as well as 1,038 members of regional parliaments, stand for election. For further details, see Spanish Ministry of Interior, “Las elecciones en cifras,” http://bitly.ws/F5WQ.
 Gerald Brenan, The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1943), p. XIX.
 Ignacio Cembrero, “Un juzgado investiga la possible compra de votos en Melilla tras dispararse el voto por correo,” El Confidencial, May 18, 2023, http://bitly.ws/F5X9.
 See, for example, Barney Jopson, “Trees vs. Concrete: Madrid Mayor Accused of Bucking Green City Trend,” Financial Times, May 12, 2023, http://bitly.ws/F5Xf. On Ayuso’s style, see Jorge Tamames, “Elecciones en Madrid: dos relatos y una crisis,” Le Grand Continent, April 30, 2021, http://bitly.ws/F5Xo.
 For a detailed profile, see Aitor Hernández Morales, “Spain’s Pop Polarizer: The Unlikely Rise of Isabel Díaz-Ayuso,” Politico, http://bitly.ws/F5Xt.
 On the similarities—or lack thereof—between Madrid conservatives and those of the rest of the country, see Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, “Madrid, enigma politico,” El País, May 16, 2023, http://bitly.ws/F5XD.
 On this note, see Amory Gethin, Clara Martínez Toledano, and Marc Morgan, “Rising Inequalities and Political Cleavages in Spain on the Verge of New Elections,” World Inequality Database, April 23, 2019, http://bitly.ws/F5Y7.