Approaching 11:30 on Sunday night, Pedro Sánchez, leader of Spain’s Socialist party, emerged from his Madrid election bunker smiling from ear to ear. “Despite the extraordinary difficulties we’ve had to overcome…despite the gloomy predictions that insistently announced a strong setback…and our loss of relevancy,” he told his supporters at the party’s headquarters, “the Socialist party has again reaffirmed its hegemonic position on the Spanish left.” Considering Sánchez’s attitude and the euphoria in party headquarters, one would be excused for thinking that the Socialist party had outperformed its electoral result in Spain’s December 20 elections, which failed to produce a workable coalition, thus leading to Sunday’s vote. But Sánchez’s party, in fact, lost five seats along with some 100,000 votes. The Socialists received only 22.6 percent (5.4 million votes) and managed 85 seats—both historic lows for the party.
Sánchez’s elation came at the expense of Pablo Iglesias, the candidate from Unidos Podemos (“United We Can”), a left-wing coalition similar to Syriza in Greece, which includes Podemos, the United Left, and other progressive parties. “I hope that Mr. Iglesias reflects on these results,” Sánchez continued. “He had the opportunity to vote for a progressive government, led by the Socialist party. But [his] intransigence and personal interest…have spurred the improvement of the right’s electoral results.”
Sánchez was referring to an attempted coalition pact in February that Podemos voted down. His proposed “progressive government” included Ciudadanos (“Citizens”), a right-wing party with origins in Catalonia whose platform includes further cuts to social spending and the dismantling of workers’ rights. Had the pact succeeded, a governing coalition of Ciudadanos and the Socialists would have pushed through neoliberal labor reforms such as the “single contract,” which among other things curbs workers’ rights to severance pay. And this despite the chronic precarity of Spanish workers: Spain is the eurozone country with the most temporary employment contracts: one of every four Spaniards has one and, since 2010, more than 91 percent of all new contracts have been temporary. (Numerically and politically, Ciudadanos suffered the largest setback on Sunday, losing some 400,000 votes—mostly to the conservative Partido Popular [PP] and low voter turnout—and, with it, eight parliamentary seats.)
Like the Socialist party, Unidos Podemos suffered a disappointing electoral night, receiving 21 percent (5 million votes) and 71 parliamentary seats, the same number Podemos and United Left had achieved, separately, in December. Beyond ideological affinities, one of the main reasons for the coalition was to multiply the number of parliamentary representatives of the United Left, which in December received nearly a million votes but managed—thanks to Spain’s disproportionate electoral system—only two seats. On Sunday, the Unidos Podemos coalition instead lost a million votes. Every single poll of the last months, including exit polls on Sunday, had projected that Unidos Podemos would leapfrog the Socialist party—by as much as three points and ten seats—and perhaps land in the driver’s seat to form a governing progressive coalition. But the polls, which have routinely underestimated Podemos, this time went in the opposite direction, overvaluing the party’s outcome by some 20 parliamentary seats.