10 Clues to Interpret Spain's Election Results Come 28 May

Juan Rodríguez Teruel

13 mins - 26 de Mayo de 2023, 07:05

Next Sunday 28 May marks the beginning of a new electoral cycle, which will continue with the general elections in the second half of the year and will close with the European elections next May 2024 (which will have an important significance in the domestic politics of many European states, including Spain). 

It is inevitable not to wonder how and to what extent these municipal and regional elections will foreshadow or condition the next general elections. After all, this will be the first election day involving the entire Spanish electoral roll since November 2019. 

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Some precautions to be taken into account have already been noted here. Although the results will undoubtedly have an impact on the mood and expectations of the parties, it should not be forgotten that next Sunday, in reality, more than 8,000 municipal, regional and, in some territories, foral and insular, competitions will be decided - all of them with their own specific dynamics. 

In any case, it will be the media and political parties’ reading of the overall results that will contribute to determining the public’s perception of the real value of this election day.

In order to avoid getting bogged down in the hubbub of this dispute over the narrative of the implications of 28-M, and to be able to make a better judgement in this respect, we propose ten criteria here by way of parameters that allow us to assess the real political trends that may be pulsating in the electoral subsoil.

To do so, we will focus on the municipal elections - the only ones that will reach the entire census - as well as some communities whose political weight will have a particularly relevant significance. The data used are from official sources (Ministry of the Interior and regional governments). It is possible that, in some cases, the exact data may vary with another source or by adding a local candidacy that has not been taken into account here, although this would not affect the overarching meaning of the figures.

1. Will there be significant demobilisation? Since 2007, abstention has been stabilising at around 35% (between 11.1 and 12.6 million abstentionists), breaking the ups and downs of the early years of democracy. A similar level of demobilisation could be expected within these margins (34-36%). If abstention on 28-M were to substantially exceed 36% or, more plausibly, fall below 33.8%, the pattern would have changed, which could be read as an indicator of activation/deactivation of part of the electorate with respect to the last decade and a half.

2. Will the balance between blocs be maintained? For the past 20 years there has been a tendency for the left and right to become more evenly matched, adding the state-wide party blocs together. In 2019 this trend resulted in an unprecedented tie (the sum of the left outnumbered the right by about 200,000 votes). We should not be surprised if that tie were to hold at around 8 million votes (led by one or the other). On the contrary, the further the two blocs diverge beyond those 200,000 votes, the more it would be indicative of significant substantive movements in favour of one of the blocs in the run-up to the general elections.

3. Is the right expanding? Electoral support for the right has tended to hover around 8 million votes, with slight declines in 1999 and 2015, and an exceptional increase in 2011. One would expect the sum of votes for PP, Vox and the remnants of Ciudadanos to remain within that 8 million mark. If it exceeds it by far, as it did in 2011 (reaching almost 9 million, thanks to the attraction of Ciudadanos), it would reflect an expansion that would overflow the current space of the right.

4. How much of the electorate is the PP recovering in the face of Vox? Although the right-wing vote has not fluctuated significantly since 1995, it has fragmented intensely in recent years. In 2019, the PP obtained its worst result in decades (5.1 million) at the expense of Ciudadanos (2 million) and Vox (0.8 million). It should therefore come as no surprise that the PP’s recovery of the orange vote would allow it to return to the 7 million mark. Failure to do so would still reflect the power of attraction of the new parties over popular voters. The rest should go to Vox. The more the PP surpasses the 7 million mark, the more support it could be regaining from the ultra-conservative voter or the centrist, anti-Sánchez vote. 

However, Vox will continue to expand its electoral support thanks to a ‘delay effect’: the parliamentary representation of Abascal’s party in municipalities and autonomous regions (except in the Community of Madrid) still corresponds today to the social support it had in May 2019, not to that which it expanded in November 2019. Therefore, a rise of Vox to 1.5 million should not be interpreted as a new trend of expansion of its vote, but as an update of its institutional presence to what it would have obtained if the municipal elections had been held a few months later. Only a surpassing of this figure would point to promising prospects for Vox in the future.

5. Will PSOE suffer attrition or will it continue to recover? PSOE has had a very fluctuating electoral base since the end of its hegemony in the times of Felipe González: with the exception of 2007, in each election it gains or loses between half a million and a million votes. These elections should confirm whether they maintain the upward trend of 2019 or remain below the 7 million they lost in 2011: the closer PSOE gets to those 7 million, or exceeds them, the more solid its recovery on the left will be. The opposite would raise doubts about the mobilisation it will seek in the general elections.

6. How much will Podemos lose to Sumar’s allies? The municipal vote to the left of PSOE has been fairly stable since 1995, at around 1.5 million. Only in 2015 did it drop significantly, due to the dispersion of the vote in the left-wing confluences, since Podemos did not formally contest those elections. The higher percentage Podemos retains of that million and a half voters, the greater its capacity to resist the attraction of Sumar’s allies. A substantial drop in this percentage would not only weaken it but would also raise questions about capacity for general mobilisation of parties left of PSOE.

7. Will Ayuso maintain the momentum of 2021? Two years ago, Díaz Ayuso not only won the largest number of PP votes in the Madrid region but did so without damaging the mobilisation of the rest of the disgruntled right (Vox and an already declining Ciudadanos) or the left (which also obtained one of its highest results since 1983). The less the right is distanced from that sum of 2 million votes, the more likely that continued mobilisation will be in the President of Madrid’s future. Otherwise, even with an absolute majority, the right would be returning to the normal pattern of recent decades.

For its part, the left managed to win around 1.5 million votes in the last three regional elections. Its ability to mobilise will depend on maintaining that figure, if not surpassing it. In 2019, Más Madrid and PSOE tied at around 600,000 votes. Maintaining that balance would not be surprising. On the contrary, the further one moves away from the other, the more evidence of the declining candidacy’s failure. In the case of the PSOE, it would be a new negative record.

8. Will the Botànic Pact consolidate its electoral base in the Valencian Community? For years, the PP’s hegemony in government in the Valencian Community was built on a progressive expansion of its electorate (which in 2007 and 2011 exceeded 1.2 million voters), combined with a sidereal stagnation of the left (until 201,5 the sum of votes of the left, including Compromís, was almost always below the results obtained by PSOE and PCE in 1983, despite the fact that the electoral roll had increased by one million voters in the following 30 years). The Botànic coalition, led by Ximo Puig, was possible because both pillars collapsed in 2015: support for the left-wing parties (including the Valencianism of Compromís) grew by 70%, while the PP electorate demobilised and split with the flight of a third to Ciudadanos. In 2019, the two pillars were largely recomposed, although the fragmentation of the right reduced the efficiency of their votes and allowed Puig’s coalition to be re-edited. 

The future of Valencian politics will depend on how both patterns evolve. It is plausible that the right will maintain a base close to or even above 1.2 million voters, now that the PP has recovered. Notwithstanding, should the PP fail to reach or surpass the one million mark, the more fragile the right’s recovery will be. On the other side, beyond maintaining the executive or not, the solidity of the progress made in recent years will only be evident if the sum of the left maintains its electoral primacy, with a total support of more than 1.3 million votes. The less it surpasses that mark - even worse if it fails to reach it - the more evident will be the end of the Valencian electoral cycle that began in 2015.

9. Will the PSC win the municipal elections again 16 years later? A large part of the disruptive repercussions of the procés on the state scene have to do with the weakening of the two factors of stability that Catalonia contributed to the maintenance of the status quo in Spanish politics: PSC and CiU, strongly reviled, in that order, by the public opinion in Madrid that cheered the arrival of Ciudadanos. As is often the case, those opinion-makers failed to see the implications: without them, the politics of centripetal pacts necessarily shifted to one of centrifugal blocs (to the chagrin of their respective leaders). Is this a reversible evolution?

In any case, the Catalan landscape is far from stabilisation, although there are some parameters that may suggest a recomposition of some old patterns. It is highly likely that the PSC will once again be the leading party in municipal votes since 2007. But it will be more significant to see the measure: the closer it gets to one million votes, the more it will indicate that a re-concentration of the vote that in the past favoured PSOE in the general elections (not a vote of support but of prevention of the return of the Spanish right to power) could be brewing in Catalonia. If the PSC were to make such progress, it would necessarily be to the detriment of the ERC. The more ERC’s lead over Junts is reduced (almost 265,000 votes in 2019), the more instability will reappear in the now pro-independence space, with the implications this could have for the politics of pacts in Catalonia and, on the rebound, in Congress.

10. Will the PP transfer its majority in the Junta to the municipalities of Andalusia? Andalusia’s political significance has been based on the organisational and electoral strength of the left since 1979, with support of around 2 million votes (including the supporters of andalucismo coming from the PSA-PA), three quarters of which have gone to PSOE. In contrast, the right had experienced a subsidiary role, even after the PP obtained its best result in 2011, beating the PSOE for the first and only time. However, although the PP’s electoral leap did not change the composition of the Junta, it did anticipate a new scenario, in which the Andalusian right would come close to a left-wing majority for the first time. This anticipated the change of government majority in 2018 and the absolute majority in 2022. 

The closer the PP comes to or exceeds the 1.5 million votes, the more it will confirm its structural rise among Andalusian voters, in line with the result of June last year. Otherwise, the Andalusian PP would be taking its first electoral step backwards since it came to power. Faced with this, the left is trying to prevent the results of 2022 from spreading. The further it moves away from the two million voters (between PSOE, andalucistas, and the non-social-democratic left), the more indications that it will be failing in that attempt. At whose expense? PSOE’s electoral base has been very stable at around 1.4 million votes since 1983. Shoring up that level of support would suggest that support for PSOE is sufficiently solid in the municipalities meaning that the swing of votes from PSOE to PP a year ago could still be reversible. The opposite would bode ill not only for Juan Espadas but also for Pedro Sánchez.
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