What Really Happened? The Keys to the Spanish Elections of 23 July

Juan Rodríguez Teruel

10 mins - 30 de Julio de 2023, 19:30

The results of 23-J have produced a strong emotional impact among politicians and observers, between the consternation of columnists and pundits close to the opposition parties and the relief of supporters of the government majority.

As is often the case, the broad strokes used to read these results in terms of winners or losers, and what governments might result from them, can distract us from the more fundamental tendencies that have once again manifested themselves this past Sunday, 23 July.

That is why, beyond the electoral estimates and the explanations we can give for what happened (apart from conjecture, we will need good subsequent studies for that), putting these results in perspective helps us to understand what has really happened and what we can expect in the new legislature, including the possible margins for an eventual (and improbable) electoral repetition.

To avoid this distortion, we will answer the eight questions that we proposed to observe days before the elections, using the data from Sunday’s provisional ballot.

The result reveals a certain contrast between the economic situation and the bottom line.

1. Turnout did not exceed 72%
Despite the ups and downs that occurred throughout the peculiar day, in the end the turnout remained within the parameters that have been recorded since 2011. What would previously have been one of the lowest turnouts in democracy is now the second highest since 2008.

This indicates two relevant aspects. On the one hand, with this turnout, no major surprises were to be expected in the balances between the main electoral spaces. There was not a generalised gap of one of them. And when there was, in Catalan independence, it was balanced by the full mobilisation of all those who have been voting in the last decade in Spain as a whole.

On reflection, this turnout figure indicates that, since 2011, between one and two million more citizens have been disconnected from the electoral process than would have voted in the past. Although there are two million more voters on the electoral roll in 2023 than in 2004, more than one million fewer have gone to the polls than then. With some fluctuation, this is a relative pattern that has occurred over the last decade.

Our democracy must reflect on why a part of its active demos has shrunk.
Graph 1.- Participation in the elections (%)
2. The technical tie between blocs was maintained, although the right widened its lead
As we stated a few days ago, there is a growing structural tendency in the Spanish electorate to favour the electoral predominance of the right. For some years now, the traditional superiority of the left has been dissipating. The 23-J elections confirm this trend.

However, the right needed to get close to the million-vote lead to secure the government majority predicted by some polls. It did not do so, and therefore, the scenario remained in a deadlock that only Pedro Sánchez is in a position to break in his favour.

Since 2011, the right wing has overtaken the left in four of the six general elections held. Without reversing this structural trend, the left can hardly think of governing again without the decisive support of the peripheral political forces of the “third” Spain.

Graph 2.- Differences in vote between blocs (the red bar indicates if the left won, or the right, blue)
3. The right reaches its electoral ceiling; the left continues to retreats
Strictly electoral results went very well for the right, but not so well for the left.

The right-wing party bloc in the state achieved its maximum mobilisation, which has remained at around 11 million votes since 2008. From that perspective, the legislature’s strategy of tension proved effective. Hardly anyone was left at home. Speculation about demobilisation caused by the heat was refuted.

On the contrary, the state left maintained its structural tendency to shrink. The sum of PSOE and radical left received fewer votes than in April 2019, one million votes less than in 2015, and 1.5 million votes less than in 2008. A saw-shaped decline that would give any stock market analyst a bad impression.

With these data, it cannot be said that the social base of the right is expanding, but that that of the left is shrinking, despite the increase in the number of voters in the Spanish census.

Graph 3.- Number of votes in each bloc and by party (in millions of votes)
4. PSOE won the eight million votes that gave it a chance to govern
The elections did not go very well for the left in terms of the number of votes, but for PSOE they did.

In hindsight, PSOE’s result is still at the lowest level in the pre-2011 series. But a voluntarist reading may hint at a certain recovery, if one wants to see PSOE’s best result since 2008 on 23 July.

If we take into account the electoral situation of social democracy in most of the main European democracies, it can be argued that Pedro Sánchez has saved PSOE, despite the reproaches of some old socialist leaders.

Graph 4.- Support for PSOE in number of votes
5. Sumar managed to retain the three-million-vote threshold
Sumar has managed to slow down the accelerated decline in Podemos’ expectations, maintaining the three million votes it needed to compete with Vox for third place, which it achieved in decisive constituencies.

It is true that Podemos seemed to be holding its own in the polls, but the growing doubts about its resistance were confirmed in the municipal and regional elections: Podemos would not collapse, but neither would it provide sufficient strength to complement that of PSOE.

This 23 July the experiment improvised by Yolanda Díaz last year has avoided the same scenario as two months ago. Nonetheless, its path towards LU’s past records remains constant.

Graph 5- Support for the radical left (PCE-UL-Podemos) in number of votes
6. PP obtained a dismal result, falling far short of 9 million votes
Although the right-wing bloc achieved maximum mobilisation of its social base, PP fared very badly.

For months, PP’s campaign has been aimed at recovering those 9 million votes that brought it close to being able to govern in a minority. Attempts have been a resounding failure. It barely mobilised 700,000 more votes than PP and Ciudadanos in the May municipal elections. 

In fact, Feijoo was not even able to pick up all the inheritance of Pablo Casado and Albert Rivera in April 2019, falling below the votes of PP and Ciudadanos at that time (when the orange party only had votes against Sánchez).

Graph 6.- Support for PP and Ciudadanos in number of votes
7. Vox obtained an excellent result, maintaining its 3 million votes
PP’s failure has to do with Vox’s ability to begin to consolidate a space of its own that paradoxically undermines the right’s hopes of government. The great challenge for the far-right party was to be able to stabilise its support at around 3 million voters. It has succeeded in doing so, thereby setting a new ceiling for PP.

It is important to underline that this achievement has been achieved despite enormous internal instability, the low attractiveness of its electoral programme, and the poor attractiveness of its national leaders. 

Does this mean that Feijoo was not able to persuade a part of the non-extremist voter on the right, who continued to support Abascal’s party? Would Ayuso or Moreno Bonilla be able to do better, shrugging off Vox as they did in their respective autonomous regions? The great enigma that PP will have to solve in the coming months, if Sánchez ends up forming a government and thereby deals the final blow to the Galician leader, is which of these two strategies is better to apply to Spain as a whole.

Graph 7.- Support for Vox in state elections
8. PSC increased its distance from the PP... without reaching the million-vote differential
For Pedro Sánchez to maintain his chances of continuing as President, not only did he have to obtain a good result in Catalonia, but he also had to make a substantial difference to PP in votes and, with that, in seats. He succeeded... although far from the parameters of yesteryear.

The socialist victory in Catalonia should not be overestimated. Salvador Illa gave PSOE the seats it needed to increase its representation in 2019. But PSC’s results are on a par with the party’s worst records before 2011. 

Caba adds something that analysts have so far failed to notice: ceteribus paribus, PSC would have won fewer seats with the same votes if the independentistas most angry with the current pro-sovereignty leadership who abstained had turned out to vote, and thereby snatched some seats away from PSC, Sumar, and PP. Sánchez also owes his parliamentary advance to them.

Fortunately for him, it so happens that the current PP is still far from the social support that Aznar established over two decades in Catalonia. This is partly Vox’s fault. But it is also the fault of the national PP’s inability to connect with an important part of the social strata that vote for it in other regions. 

Josep Piqué broke the ceiling of the Spanish right in Catalonia in 2000. Sánchez Camacho’s victory, in this sense, was more of a mirage than a sign of recovery. Would Ayuso do better?

In any case, it can be said that PP lost its chances of governing in Catalonia.

Graph 8.- Electoral support for PSC and PP in Catalonia (Generale)
Addenda: PSOE resists in Andalusia... on the record left by Susana Díez
If PSOE maintains options to govern, it is not only thanks to Catalonia, but also to the resilience in several key regions, among which Andalusia stands out (apart from Madrid and Valencia).

The poor results of the 2018 regional elections, barely recovered in 2018, fed the prospect of a realignment in favour of PP, which would deflate the former socialist electoral bastion.

The elections of 23 July signals that PSOE’s floor is rising again (without yet going beyond the best results of this past decade), while a ceiling seems to be set for PP at around 1.6 million. 

President Moreno Bonilla should not settle for the absolute majority he obtained in June 2022. It might not really reflect the true social base of his support.

Graph 9.- Vote to parties with representation (in millions) in the Andalusian Parliament

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