The third Spanish national election in four years saw a remarkable turnout of 75%, which ultimately proved to work in favour of the left and halt the higher expectations many had pinned on the electoral performance of insurgent ultraconservative party Vox. 

Centre-left PSOE emerged as the winner for the first time since 2008, with 29% and 123 seats, recuperating almost 7% after the debacles of 2015 and 2016. PP collapsed from 137 to 67 seats; more right-wing voters opted for more moderate centre-right Ciudadanos or ultraconservative Vox. Far-left Podemos suffered losses, mostly due to the reinvigoration of PSOE.

Under the leadership of Pedro Sanchez, PSOE has emphasised its socially liberal credentials and its moderate stance on Catalan independence. It has also promoted an explicitly left-wing economic programme, backing increases to the minimum wage. That may have lured Podemos voters back after the party made significant gains at the 2015 and 2015 general election with an anti-austerity message.

The centre-right PP’s harder stance on immigration and Catalan independence seems to have pushed voters into opting for centre-right Ciudadanos and failed to stop support leaking to Vox.  The surge of vote for far right in Spain had dominated headlines, but it is vital to contextualise what Vox stands for in the broader trajectory of Spanish politics. It has capitalized on frustration with Catalan separatism and is also fuelled by a backlash against socially liberal values.

When seen in comparison to other Eurosceptic parties across Europe, Vox is distinguished by its more Spanish flavour. Like many other populist right-wing Eurosceptic parties, it pledges to fight against illegal immigration. But, the main threat to Spanish sovereignty is not posed by the EU, but by secessionist movements.

 Interestingly, Vox failed to mobilise voters from traditionally left-wing areas. This stems from Vox’s rhetorical use of Spanish history – notably Vox leader Santiago Abascal referred to the left as a “Popular Front” in allusion to the left-wing government of 1936.

There is no little appetite for a right-wing government in Spain. Overall, one can discern an almost stable number of Spanish right-wing voters during the last three elections; but the sharing between three parties in 2019 reflects different shades of all the strands that used to be accommodated under PP. In 2011, PP gathered 45%, in 2015 and 2016, PP and Ciudadanos amounted to 46% and now PP, Ciudadanos and Vox taken together amounts to 43%.

 Europe was very much in the background of PSOE and Ciudadanos’ campaigns – no real debate is taking place between parties on Europe except among the more trenchantly critical from Vox and Podemos. 

Coalition talks start from a tricky position. For PSOE and Ciudadanos to team up would be the closest approximation to a centrist, moderate government for Spain but both parties have ruled out this prospect. Sanchez addressed a crowd after declared election winner, with the crowd cheering “With Rivera, No”.  

PSOE and Podemos could work together. Indeed, PSOE has expressed their desire to form a minority government with the support of Podemos and talks about government formation will be held during the following weeks, but they still fall 11 seats short of a majority. This makes the role of smaller regional parties key in the formation of the new government. It is possible to dodge coalition with the Catalan Independentists, by finding votes from the Basque PNV and other small parties.

Political polarisation remains intense in Spain, as it does across Europe, but its causes render it an outlier in the continent. This Spanish election was mainly fought on matters of identity and cultural concerns such as tensions on the future of Catalonia. One should not overstate the similarity of the rise of Vox to the rise of right-wing populist parties across the continent – most of its voters are traditionally centre-right PP voters radicalised by the Catalan crisis in 2017.