Divide and conquer: Spanish PM’s election strategy seeks to split the right

As the official campaign gets underway today, the governing Socialist Party (PSOE) is stirring fears about its rivals in order to mobilize left-wing voters ahead of the April 28 polls

Carlos E. Cué
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in Seville.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in Seville.alejandro Ruesga

The two-week campaign ahead of the general election of April 28 that began today is going to be an atypical one, with many Spaniards away on their Easter vacation. Everything will come down to the last week, and the candidate debate scheduled for April 23, five days before voters go to the polls, will be a crucial moment in the race.

When Socialist Party (PSOE) Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez decided on Thursday to agree to one single five-way debate – rather than four ways, excluding the far-right Vox – it confirmed what his strategy is going to be.

Only the PSOE can stop these ‘three rights.’ If they return, the cuts will return

Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez

After much internal discussion, the socialist leader is opting to bring together the heads of the Popular Party (PP), Ciudadanos (Citizens) and Vox, to convince undecided leftist voters that these three right-of-center parties will govern Spain unless there is a strong turnout on April 28. Sánchez wants a new “photo of Colón,” alluding to a mass protest against his government held in February at Madrid’s Colón square, and which marked the first and up until now only time that PP and Ciudadanos leaders were pictured together with representatives from the far-right Vox.

Sánchez also wants the political right to be as fractured as possible ahead of the vote. The idea is that if all three parties have similar levels of support, it will be harder for their leader – presumably the PP – to fight the PSOE over key seats in Congress.

Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera, who kicked off the campaign in Segovia, showed up in hologram form in Madrid.
Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera, who kicked off the campaign in Segovia, showed up in hologram form in Madrid.JuanJo Martín (EFE)

But in a campaign such as this one, with five main contenders – the leftist Podemos being the fifth – and two evenly balanced blocs, nobody can play this game alone. Not even the governing PSOE, which is the favorite in the polls.

The PP has clearly understood this strategy, but its leaders feel that it could ultimately work against the PSOE. They note that giving Vox airtime at the debate could be a fatal mistake. “When the left conjures up monsters, the monsters end up devouring the left,” said one conservative source about Vox. The PP feels that the Socialists actually helped the far right win 12 seats at the Andalusian elections in December through their rhetoric of fear, and that this five-way debate could do the very same thing at the national level. The PSOE, meanwhile, thinks that Vox is an offshoot of the PP and that the socialists cannot be held responsible for its success.

When the left produces monsters, the monsters end up eating it

PP source

“It’s clear that the PSOE is seeking to divide our vote to minimize the number of seats that we win. That is why our message to the center-right electorate is that they should optimize their vote,” said a source close to PP leader Pablo Casado. “In order to be an alternative, we need to concentrate the vote so it will truly mean more seats.”

The decision to include Vox in the debate was ultimately taken by Sánchez despite misgivings among some of his top aides. One of the reasons was that it is hard to leave out a party that polls predict will win more than 10% of the vote. Another reason is that PSOE strategists now believe it was a mistake to leave Vox out of the debate during the Andalusian election campaign. “Vox won the Andalusian debate without being there, because everyone was talking about them. It was going to be the same here. Better to have them there, and for all Spaniards to see what they say and how the PM responds,” said sources close to Sánchez.

PP leader Pablo Casado greeting supporters during his first campaign rally in Madrid.
PP leader Pablo Casado greeting supporters during his first campaign rally in Madrid.Pablo Blazquez Dominguez (Getty Images)

“Only the PSOE can stop these ‘three rights.’ If they return, the [budget] cuts will return,” said Sánchez on Thursday at his first campaign rally in Dos Hermanas (Seville).

Meanwhile, Podemos’s recent public statements regarding the “cesspit of the State” – a reference to an alleged “dirty tricks” campaign against the left-wing party waged from inside the police force – evidences that the group needs to attack the PSOE in order to reclaim some political ground. Party strategists are still getting their head around the news that Vox will be present at the debate, but what doesn’t change is that Pablo Iglesias’ tone will be increasingly critical against all his rivals, the Socialists included.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal speaks at a rally in Toledo.
Vox leader Santiago Abascal speaks at a rally in Toledo.SERGIO PEREZ (REUTERS)

As for Ciudadanos, they seem to find solace in the blunders made by PP leader Pablo Casado, including his views on the need for more restrictive laws on abortion. The PP has argued that Casado is a newcomer to the frontlines of politics – he became party president in July of last year – and that he is suffering from an overexposure that has pushed him toward excessive risk-taking. But history shows that the PP nearly always catches up in the final stretch of campaigning. They and the other parties have two weeks to take the PSOE out of its comfort zone. No campaign is ever neutral or possible to control – this one least of all.

English version by Susana Urra.

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