Populist parties rise in Spain as voters face a busy electoral calendar

Spanish voters will face a hectic electoral agenda in the coming months as Pedro Sanchez, current Prime Minister and leader of the Socialist Party (PSOE), was forced to call for a general election on the 28th of April. The announcement of a snap election following the President’s defeat in the Congress of Deputies on his 2019 budget plan came as Spain prepares for local, regional and European elections taking place on the 26th of May. Voters are therefore faced with a number of decisions to make in a context of political turmoil amid ongoing trials against 12 Catalan leaders for their role in the 2017 independence referendum.

Spanish voters are no strangers to political uncertainty and instability. Since 2015, the Spanish electorate has faced three different votes. In the last three years, they have witnessed the rise of the Catalonian secessionist movement and its numerous yet unfruitful attempts to achieve independence. On top of this, the country has experienced tectonic shifts in the national political landscape as new parties emerged to break with the existing bipartisan system.

As political disruptors hit the ground to redefine the political foundations of the country, voters are now faced with more and tougher choices than ever. For the last four decades, the national political landscape has been dominated by the centre-right the Popular Party (PP), and the centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE). Since the first democratic general election in 1979, smaller regional parties have remained on the margins of the political arena, usually playing the role of kingmakers or junior partners for the bigger mainstream parties.

Forty years later, three new parties have emerged across the political spectrum, each of which will be decisive in the upcoming elections. Podemos (“We Can”), Ciudadanos (“Citizens”) and Vox will ultimately enable either PSOE or PP to form a government, as neither of them is expected to obtain a majority of the 350 seats up for election in the Congress of Deputies.


While PSOE is leading in the polls as an independent party, the successful formation of a coalition government by PP and Ciudadanos (and backed by right-wing Vox) in traditionally left-wing Andalusia in January demonstrated that those parties are powerful when they join forces. However, as the above aggregated poll shows, a similar right-wing coalition at national level could potentially fall short of a parliamentary majority. PSOE’s ability to form government will depend on the support of populist Podemos and other small regional parties to reach a majority of the seats. Podemos was the first non-traditional party to disrupt the bipartisan system in 2014 following the 15-M or “Indignados” movement against inequality and corruption.

With Ciudadanos recently ruling out the possibility of running a coalition with the socialists at national level, its leader Albert Rivera seeks to position his party as an alternative to Pedro Sanchez’s party. Ciudadanos is also the liberal and modern option looking for the support of those that feel detached from a conservative and old Populist Party weakened by a number of corruption cases against high profile politicians. In addition, Vox, a right-wing party co-founded by its current leader Santiago Abascal in 2017, has experienced an impressive rise in the last three months. Vox leaders have mainly drawn disillusioned PP voters with extreme anti-immigration and anti-separatist views. The upcoming general election is the party’s opportunity to win its first seats in Madrid’s Congress of Deputies.

European Parliament elections polling

The outcome of the general election will be a useful bellwether for the European elections. According to the last poll of polls published by the European Parliament on the 18th of February, PSOE is set to win the most seats in the European elections in May, increasing their representation from the 14 seats obtained in 2014 to 16 seats in the chamber. The Popular Party would come second, with 15 seats (one less than in the last elections), and Ciudadanos third, with 12 MEPs (10 more than in 2014).


Despite the significant gains expected to be made by Ciudadanos and consequently the ALDE group, the number of Spanish MEPs in the mainstream EPP and S&D groups is expected to remain almost unaltered. In contrast, Vox’s expected gains from zero to six seats will bring significant gains to the Eurosceptic group that the party’s leaders choose to join, potentially the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) or – less likely, given Santiago Abascal’s differences with Matteo Salvini over Catalonia - the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (ENF).

Bracing for the elections to come

In his recently-published book “Manual de Resistencia”, Pedro Sanchez takes the reader through his challenging trajectory to the presidency of Spain and portrays himself as a bulletproof politician. However, the numerous electoral challenges ahead will test his ability to use the emergence of the far-right to his benefit. In his rather controversial book, Sanchez highlights that his first decision as President was to replace Mariano Rajoy’s mattress in the Palace of Moncloa. It is up to Spanish voters to decide whether a new mattress will make its way to the presidential residence after the 28th of April…