Spain’s snap election: Will the Sánchez gamble pay off?

After his party’s severe losses in regional and local polls in May, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez brought forward the national vote by four months.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez takes part in the kick-off event for the general election campaign, in Madrid, Spain, 06 July 2023. Spain will hold its general election on 23 July.
Sanchez takes part in the kickoff event for the general election campaign in Madrid [File: Sergio Perez/EPA]

Madrid, Spain – Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has a well-forged reputation as an audacious political survivor and risk taker. But perhaps even he has bitten off more than he can chew by calling snap general elections for July 23.

Sánchez surprised rivals and allies alike by bringing forward the national vote, rather than letting the government run to its full term in November, following his party’s severe losses in the regional and local elections in May.

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However, all opinion polls consistently show that the conservative Partido Popular (PP) party is set to win the upcoming elections comfortably, even if the PP will likely have to ally with Spain’s far-right formation, Vox, to secure a strong enough parliamentary majority to form government.

Spanish right-wing opposition party Partido Popular (PP) leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo greets supporters after an electoral meeting as part of Spain's general election campaign
Partido Popular leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo greets supporters in Burgos [File: Cesar Manso/AFP]

Voters and politicians alike on a broad swath of the Spanish left believe that his calling elections now was a much better option than waiting until November.

“The only thing waiting would have done is encourage the right to keep on demanding he bring forward the elections and provide them with more fuel for their Donald Trump-like claims that this government is in some way illegitimate,” Jacinto Vidarte, a former Socialist Party voter who works in a publishing company near Madrid, told Al Jazeera. “So, it was a good idea,” he added.

The Socialists’ defeat in May’s polls marked a turning point in the fortunes of a minority government under constant fire from Spain’s conservatives for relying on support from hardline Basque and Catalan nationalist parties. The right has been calling it “the Frankenstein government”.

“More than a gamble, the decision to call national elections was an implicit recognition that they had lost the regional vote and that if they’d waited until November, their predicament would have been far worse,” Jaime Aja, professor of sociology at the University of Cordoba told Al Jazeera.

“Of course, the government does not say that in public, every political party always says they’re going to win the next elections. But that was the reasoning behind it.”

A giant electoral poster depicting Spanish Prime minister and PSOE candidate Pedro Sanchez, top, and conservative PP party leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo and VOX far right party leader Santiago Abascal hangs from a building at the Gran Via avenue in Madrid
An electoral poster depicting Spanish PM and PSOE candidate Pedro Sanchez, top, and PP leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo and VOX leader Santiago Abascal hangs from a building in Madrid [File: Manu Fernandez/AP]

According to Aja, there were good reasons both for and against continuing in power through to November.

“If they had kept going, Spain’s six-month tenure of the Presidency of the Council of Europe from July 1 and the application of some EU funding might have got them some support. It would also have given time for different regions and cities across Spain to experience what a joint Vox-PP administration was like,” Aja said.

“Equally, Sánchez has avoided any risk of internal division in his party after such a poor result and all but forced his hard-left allies to get their house in order quickly and unite under one banner rather than have their usual last-minute arguments about that question. Plus, of course, he’s avoided what would likely have been much worse results.

“But this decision shows Sánchez understood the message the electorate sent him in early May, and at least initially in one poll, his decision to call snap elections received a very favourable percentage of support,” he said.

A woman walks past a giant electoral poster from VOX far right party reading in Spanish: "Sanchez has put hundreds of these monsters on the street. Vote security. What matters" hangs from a building in Madrid,
A woman walks past a giant electoral poster from VOX, reading in Spanish: ‘Sanchez has put hundreds of these monsters on the street. Vote security. What matters’ [File: Manu Fernandez/AP]

Another unspoken reason for Sánchez to call the July poll is that with the PP and Vox currently negotiating power-sharing deals across the country after the regional elections, the PP’s willingness to ally with the hard right is constantly in the news.

And at a grassroots level, Vidarte confirms, his motivation to vote has been boosted as a result.

“I’ve not ruled out voting for Sánchez, although I’ll be looking at the polls right up until the last day before the election,” he said.

“There are a lot of constituencies like mine which return three MPs, one which normally goes to the Socialists, another to the PP. So if I have to vote for the hard left to stop Vox getting the third seat of the three, then I will.”

Yet, judging from the polls that consistently point to a Socialist defeat, not even tactical voting like Vidarte’s may be enough to stop the right.

As Alba Doblas, a former town councillor for the Communist Party in Andalusia, argues, “It’d need the left’s supporters to realise what the right and hard right gaining power really means for Spain.

“The conservatives and ultraconservatives, as well as a very powerful group of right-leaning media outlets and businesses, just aren’t prepared to forgive the measures Sánchez has brought in like the pro-feminist and LGBTQ+ laws, labour rights and the minimum wage,” she said.

“Their attacks in the press have eroded Sánchez’s image. With all the fake news and rumours, it didn’t make sense to continue. At least this way, he’s got some kind of chance,” Doblas added.

She is surprised, though, that judging from the polls, the Socialist government’s series of progressive legislative measures has not struck a deeper chord with more liberal-minded voters.

“If you look at all the things he’s done for feminism, that does shock me,” Doblas said.

“I do ask myself where exactly the votes of the thousands of women that come out onto the streets to celebrate Women’s Day every March 8th are right now. Because if they were in the ballot boxes, then we wouldn’t be talking about Feijoo winning.”

Make-or-break moment

For Sánchez, what is clear is that these general elections will form a make-or-break moment in his career.

“Unlike many countries like, say, Italy, where politicians outlast their defeats, front-line Spanish politics has a strong tradition that if you lose power, you resign and you’re finished,” Aja said.

“People lose an election here –  they’re gone very quickly,” he said. “Even when [Socialist leader] Felipe González won an increased share of the vote in 1996, but still lost the government to Aznar, he had to quit. Here in Spain for the top echelon of politicians, there are no second chances.”

Source: Al Jazeera