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Early elections in Spain: what is Pedro Sánchez looking for with this move?


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The Conversation

Carmen Beatriz Fernández

Professor of Political Communication at the University of Navarra.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has surprised Spain by calling early general elections, after a bad result in last Sunday's elections. "To surprise is to conquer", assured the Russian generalissimo Aleksandr Suvorov, master of war strategy in the 18th century, in a phrase that has become a dogma of Russian war doctrine. The question is: what is Sanchez seeking to conquer with this move?

In Russian military doctrine, as in many other military precepts, the importance of surprise lies in its potential to destabilize the enemy. The same is true in politics: surprise has an emotional and psychological impact on the adversary and usually undermines his morale and confidence. It is a tool that seeks to tip the balance in favor of the one who uses it, providing competitive advantages.

If the election is interpreted from a purely dichotomous perspective, that of the PSOE against the PP, it may be difficult to understand the early move. For PP and Vox, the advance will complicate the negotiation for regional and local governments in many instances. But, beyond that, it is doubtful that Sánchez's electoral advance will harm Alberto Núñez Feijóo, Isabel Díaz Ayuso or, in general, the PP, who feel justifiably euphoric about the victory and will be beneficiaries of that magical aura that accompanies, for a while, the winners in politics.

The era of pentapartisanship

However, political systems, complex in the end, are not usually dichotomous. And the Spanish political system, which for four decades was bipartisan, changed in the last decade. With the emergence of the three new parties at the national level (Podemos, Vox and Ciudadanos) the Spanish bipartisanship seemed to come to an end, giving way to a new political reality, that of a pentapartidismo, made up of two large parties and three small ones.

The small parties found a clear space in tune with contemporary European populism, both from the left and from the right. But the emergence of these small parties was also accompanied by the erosion of the big ones, it could not be otherwise. Vox grew by feeding off the electoral base of the PP, while Podemos grew off the electoral base of the PSOE. Ciudadanos, for a short time, ate from both.

A sign of recovery of bipartisanship

In the previous autonomic elections of 2019, the sum of the historical parties PP and PSOE reached barely more than 50% of the electorate, when traditionally the two main parties monopolized around 80% of the votes. However, in last Sunday's elections, the sum of the major parties almost reached 60% of the total votes, which is a sign of the recovery of the two-party system, with the virtual extinction of Ciudadanos and the significant decline of Podemos.

Today Vox has become the largest of the small parties. Originally it had positioned itself to the right of the PP, but given that defining itself as an extreme right-wing party would have a very low ceiling that made it difficult for them to grow, they sought to grow in transversality: in the working class vote, disenchanted, that perceives the immigrant as a threat and Europe as an entity that does not represent them.

Vox, at the epicenter of the political diary

Vox has evolved from the extreme right to populism as a tactical opportunity in its message and narratives: "insiders versus outsiders". Vox may be xenophobic, polarizing and populist but, thanks to this, it often manages to place itself at the epicenter of public discussion, an attribute it shares with other populist actors around the world. The electoral advance, at the same time as the regional negotiations between Vox and the PP, also financial aid to the PSOE with its message: either Vox (with PP) or us.

Faced with the fragmentation of the left-wing, Sánchez has been working in recent years to preserve the natural space of his party and to agglutinate all the progressive vote around the PSOE.

Bringing forward the elections does not hurt the PP or the rest of the right wing as much as Sumar, Más País or other Podemos factions. It is to those left-wing groupings, which are currently licking their own wounds after the defeat, that the surprise can generate confusion and disorder, hindering their ability to respond. By catching the adversary unawares, significant tactical and strategic advantages can be achieved.

Internally, the electoral advance also implies putting the PSOE's gaze on July 23rd and not on the analysis of Sunday's failure. This can avoid internal rebellion and concentrate efforts in a cohesive manner. The electoral advance also puts an end to an unsustainable status : six months of continuous attrition with conflict in the party and enormous difficulties in the government action with Podemos and Sumar in the committee of Ministers.

For Suvorov, surprising the enemy implied obtaining a significant tactical and psychological advantage, which increased the possibilities of conquering and defeating the opponent. It may not have been the best electoral result , but for Sanchez achieving a cohesive party and greatly diminished adversaries may be a good incentive for the following elections.