Is Spain destined to follow Italy’s lead? 2023

Like Italy last year, Spain will hold an early general election. Are the two countries on comparable political paths? Davide Vampa believes that Italy and Spain’s political landscapes will stay unique despite their recent rightward shifts.

On 28 May, Spain’s local and regional elections saw the Socialist Party (PSOE) under Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez lose and the People’s Party (PP) gain support. The PSOE lost 1,500 municipal councillors in 2019 while the PP gained almost 3,000.

The PP won an absolute majority in the Autonomous Community of Madrid. They also won Rioja and became the largest party in Murcia, Valencia, Cantabria, Aragon, and the Balearic Islands.

However, the PSOE kept Castile La Mancha and won a majority of seats in Asturias, Extremadura, and the Canary Islands. In the remaining two areas, center-right alliances might overthrow the Socialists.

Sánchez apologized for the election results and called for a prompt general election on July 23. He said Spaniards should have a say in the country’s political orientation.

Spain conducted four general elections since 2015. With populist groups on the left and right and ongoing territorial splits, the political scene has become more fractured and turbulent.

Spain may be following Italy, which called an early election last year and elected Giorgia Meloni’s populist extreme right.

Spain’s established parties’ resiliency

Several considerations suggest the two nations will diverge. Vox, a party ideologically comparable to Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), shows that Spain is shifting right, like Italy.

Both centre-left and centre-right established parties have showed resilience in recent municipal and regional elections. The PSOE lost numerous municipal and regional seats, although their total vote share remained close to 2019 (about 28-29%). The PP gained approximately 10 percentage points, gaining over 31% of the vote.

After a decade of disintegration and polarization, the Spanish snap election begins with PP and PSOE competing again. Vox has not overtaken the PP as the right-wing party despite recent gains.

The PSOE has also contained Podemos and other left-wing rivals, forming the first coalition government in 80 years and regaining progressive supremacy.

In the coming weeks, the two big parties will compete more, increasing their influence over minor parties.

Paths diverge

Italy differs. Since 2008, the combined share of conventional centre-left and centre-right parties has dropped from approximately 70% to less than 30%, with no indications of recovery. In 2018, Matteo Salvini’s populist extreme right League overtook Silvio Berlusconi’s “moderate” European People’s Party. Meloni rose to power after another populist wave.

Left-wing Democratic Party (PD) support is low. The PD’s coalition with the Five Star Movement (M5S) has failed, unlike the PSOE’s with Podemos in Spain.

Thus, Spain looks to have partially reverted to its “classic” two-party system of the early 2000s. Italy, however, has not found a permanent equilibrium and appears to be moving toward a different political actor configuration than in the 1990s and 2000s.

Even in territorial politics, Spain looks less polarized than in the late 2010s, and pro-independence Catalan parties seem more split.

After the 2008-09 financial crisis, Spain’s democratic system looks to have survived. Party leaders have continued to run the nation. In serious crises, the Italian political elite chose technocrats Mario Monti in 2011-13 and Mario Draghi in 2020-22.

This showed the political system’s tremendous weakness and incapacity to make tough decisions. This has further eroded faith in conventional parties.

Radicalization risks

Does this mean Spain is approaching a new age of political stability while its Mediterranean neighbor remains uncharted? Premature conclusion.

Although the Spanish economy has succeeded better than the Italian one, unemployment is considerable and social and territorial conflicts linger. Predicting election dynamics is difficult. As they compete for radical party votes, the PP and PSOE may exacerbate polarisation rather than convergence.

The PP and Vox may form a right-wing coalition government after the July snap election. Spanish democracy has never seen this. In the 1990s and 2000s, Italian post-fascist and extreme right groups joined government coalitions as junior partners.

The recent trajectory of events that catapulted them to top government positions serves as a warning reminder of their propensity to develop and prosper after widespread acceptance.

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