Spanish prime minister calls snap general election for April 28

Pedro Sanchez’s decision has been triggered by the defeat this week of his Socialist Party’s budget plan in Congress. Spaniards will be going to the polls for the third time in four years

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announces snap elections on Friday morning.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announces snap elections on Friday morning. Samuel Sanchez (EL PAÍS)

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Friday announced a snap general election for April 28. It will be the third general election In Spain in four years. Spaniards were not due to be called to the polls again until 2020.

The decision rules out the possibility of a so-called “Super Sunday” on May 26, the day that local, regional and European elections will take place.

Sánchez listed his government’s achievements, including job creation and environmental and social initiatives

In a speech that began at 10am following a Cabinet meeting, the Socialist Party (PSOE) leader listed his government’s achievements in these last eight-and-a-half months, including job creation and initiatives on environmental and social issues. He also warned against making choices that could lead to greater confrontation in an increasingly polarized country.

“Spain does not deserve to get stuck because of partisan interests,” said Sánchez. “Spain belongs to its citizens. It is they who must decide whether to take a step backward. We defend a country where there is room for everyone.”

Budget defeat

The decision to call a snap national election was made after deputies in Congress on Wednesday rejected the government’s spending plan for 2019.

Sánchez had warned that failure to secure passage for the budget could lead to early elections. During two days of congressional debate on Monday and Tuesday, the government made one last attempt to convince other parties to back its plan, but met with opposition from Catalan separatist parties, from the conservative Popular Party (PP) and from center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens).

“This budget was good for Spaniards, and for each and everyone of the territories in our country,” Sánchez said on Friday, in a veiled reference to the increase in funds that had been earmarked for Catalonia.

“We had to present our budget and we did so; unfortunately it did not prosper, but let me say one thing: there are parliamentary defeats that are social victories. Citizens have seen what this government wanted for this country.”

The debate was further complicated by the fact that a highly anticipated trial of Catalan separatist leaders opened at the Supreme Court on Tuesday. The pro-independence movement, which has cast the proceedings as a political trial, had demanded concessions in favor of the 12 defendants in exchange for support on the budget issue.

Minority government

The new general election will take place against the backdrop of increased political fragmentation. Recent opinion polls suggest the PSOE could win the most votes, but not enough for a majority. And its traditional rival, the PP, could lose voters to an emerging force, the far-right Vox – which for the first time secured parliamentary representation at the recent regional elections in Andalusia, partly on a message of defending Spanish unity against Catalan separatism. The anti-austerity group Podemos and liberal Ciudadanos have also become key players in Spanish politics after the economic crisis ended the country’s two-party dominance.

Sánchez came to power in June 2018 after leading a successful no-confidence vote against former PM Mariano Rajoy of the PP, in which separatist parties such as the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT) provided crucial support. But he now heads a minority government, with just 84 lawmakers in the 350-seat house, and needs support from these same parties to pass legislation.

The ERC and PDeCAT had been threatening to withhold their support for the 2019 budget if the government did not take more steps on the issue of Catalan independence and the trial of separatist leaders. One of the defendants is ERC party leader Oriol Junqueras, who took the stand on Thursday.

Breakdown of talks

One of Sánchez’s promises when he took office was to improve relations with Catalonia, which had been badly damaged following Madrid’s decision to suspend regional self-rule for seven months in the wake of the unilateral independence declaration.

But talks became increasingly strained as separatist leaders insisted on keeping a new vote on self-determination on the agenda. Sánchez has always ruled out this possibility, as did his predecessor, on the grounds that such a poll is not allowed by the Spanish Constitution. On Friday, Sánchez insisted in his address that he is open to talks and that “there is room for everything within the Constitution, and for nothing outside of it.”

The government last week announced that it would include a third-party figure, described variously as a rapporteur or facilitator, at talks with Catalan parties, in a move that was viewed by the opposition as a concession to separatists’ calls for international mediation.

Tens of thousands of people marched in Madrid on Sunday to protest the move and to demand early elections, in a demonstration that was called by the PP, Ciudadanos and the far-right Vox party. By then the government had already broken off talks with the Catalan authorities.

“The debate now is whether we want a Spain that lives off nostalgia for a past that will never arrive and which was not necessarily better,” said Sánchez on Friday. “The debate is what kind of Spain we defend. It is evident that the right, with its three parties, defends a Spain in which there is not room for everyone.”

Chain elections

Nicolás Pan-Montojo

Spain is gearing up for a highly political spring. The campaign for the April 28 general election will be quickly followed by those for the municipal, regional and European elections due to be held on May 26. There will only be a 10-day period between the time that Spaniards vote in the national election and the moment politicians hit the campaign trail again.

The only other time when there was a similar concentration of ballots in Spain was 1979, when citizens who had just voted in a referendum about the Constitution were asked to vote in general and local elections just three months later.

This overlap could have two negative effects: contagion and apathy. Political expert Lluis Orriols notes that “when you ask citizens to go vote repeatedly, weariness can end up causing an increase in abstention.”

Additionally, “the elections which are viewed as less relevant can be contaminated by the logic driving national politics.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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