It is a cliché to refer to an election as the feast of democracy, but this time the polls coincide with the festive season rather than with a passion for democracy. While the candidates compete for the public’s attention, many people are either packing their cases or looking forward to it. Meanwhile, opinion polls hint at what the outcome might be and comparing the snapshots taken in the last few months can provide some insight as to how the public opinion is feeling as a whole. The PSOE and ERC are looking solid, whereas the PP and Ciudadanos are struggling. Vox is bound to burst the the Spanish parliament’s bubble of respectability. Podemos are losing votes, while JxCat are striving to reverse their downward spiral.
But the most interesting detail arising from the polls published so far is to do with the number of undecided voters. When you look at the election campaign and the calendar, it makes sense that 40 per cent of Spaniards haven’t decided which party they will vote for yet. As many as four out of ten voters seem mired in a sea of doubt, as they pour over election manifestos every evening, after having dinner glued to their TVs, where the public broadcaster is showing campaign ads as mandated by the Electoral Board. However, considering the sort of campaign we have seen thus far, it might be reasonable to assume that what we are experiencing is not a supply surplus, but a significant section of voters who feel disappointed and confused. This might lead them to make a rational choice, but could also prompt them to shirk their responsibility towards a frustrating political reality or even cast an unpredictable protest vote. The decision of which party to vote for is increasingly being made in the eleventh hour and is largely based on the election campaign. As time goes by, family tradition and loyalty to the conventional parties play less of a role in the emotional blend that is catalysed mainly through television.
It is for this reason that the debate which PM Pedro Sánchez has chosen to take part in is so revealing of his campaign strategy. The picture of the TV debate hosted by Antena 3 and La Sexta will bring out the two blocs: the right vs the left, the regressive Spain vs the Spain that flirts with constitutional reform. The photograph of the debate will show us, once again, the picture of the [right-wing] demonstration in Madrid’s Plaza de Colón a few months ago. Ciudadanos and the PP have been lured into whitewashing Vox, Spain’s up-and-coming far-right party, and they are openly competing to woo the voters of Abascal, the prodigal son of Aznar’s PP (1). Furthermore, the PSOE has elected to have Vox physically present at the debate, rather than lurking in the shadows whilst setting the agenda.
The PSOE’s weaknesses
The PSOE has chosen to give us another photograph of the Colón march, in contrast with its apparently compromising rhetoric that avoids going into specifics due to the strain within the socialist party itself and its refusal to commit to a post-election agreement. A case in point is our interview with Meritxell Batet, the socialist candidate for Barcelona, in which she implied that the PSOE will not seek an agreement with Ciudadanos after the polls because her party supports a social democratic agenda. However, she remained reluctant to vow that much for the sake of her voters. The PSOE’s game is about highlighting the two blocs and splitting up the conservative vote without clarifying what options they will consider for an agreement after the polls. Batet was fairly transparent about her party’s intentions to her interlocutor, but she was at pains to remain non-committal about an agreement with the other parties on the left.
Post-election agreements are not the norm in the Spanish parliament but, despite all the campaign rhetoric and the promises of eternal love or hatred, the general public realises that it is the election result that will determine any subsequent agreements. The PSOE’s red lines that would prevent a pact with Ciudadanos will be erased, provided that a parliamentary majority is viable and Spain’s large corporations nod in that direction.
Mertixell Batet’s weakness lies in her criticism of the pro-independence parties that support the Catalan government: overcome by amnesia, she has forgotten the socialist party’s neglect of its own pro-sovereignty voters. Promises of a modest constitutional reform perhaps wooed many voters years ago, but nowadays they won’t be persuaded by a timid reform that does not include a referendum [on independence] or any substantial changes. When we hear the PSOE talk about reforming Spain’s regional funding system, we cannot forget the bitterness of some of Catalonia’s socialists towards their colleagues in Spain’s Finance Ministry, who refused to commit the funding enshrined in the Catalan Statute, pay out student grants and cover (as promised) the expenses incurred by legislation on dependents, as well as many other public expenses that were handed down to regional administrations, albeit without the necessary funds.
The PSOE’s election vows will ring hollow and remain a threat to the party’s own unitary spirit —which is reluctant to recognise Catalonia’s specificity— until it is prepared to acknowledge its own share of responsibility for the current state of affairs.
(1) Vox leader Santiago Abascal was a long-time PP member.