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Shaping the Ballot: The Influence of National Issues on Spain’s European Election Results

The European Elections have reconfirmed that there is an ideological right-wing shift amongst the Spanish electorate, with the centre-right People’s Party (PP) garnering 22 seats out of the 61 allocated nationally, followed closely behind by the Socialist (PSOE) party, who obtained 20 seats.

 At first glance, the narrow vote margin between the PP and PSOE parties may appear insignificant. Yet, in context of the 2023 regional and national elections, the European elections represent the third occasion where the right-wing opposition party has garnered the strongest electoral outcome, despite Spain being governed by the Socialist party. Altogether, these elections have reaffirmed the familiar ideological polarisation in the country that has persisted since the arrival of modern democracy in 1978. Despite the entrance of new far-left and far-right parties within the last decade, such as VOX, Podemos, and most recently, Sumar, they have only cemented, and arguably heightened, polarization between the left and the right. At the legislative level, the consequence has been that policies are more often judged by the Spanish public according to their political affiliation than their actual content.

 The Catalonian Amnesty: a Catalyst for Polarization?

 The Catalonian amnesty law is the most recent and particularly controversial example of policy judgment driven by political partisanship. This law, which entered into affect on June 11th, seeks the amnesty of those who took part in the illegal 2017 referendum or were charged with crimes related to the independence “process” since 2011, ranging from fines in relation to civil security breaches to embezzlement and “low-intensity” terrorism.

 For years, the unconstitutionality of a Catalan amnesty was a unique point of consensus between the left and right-wing parties, until the 2023 general elections. Neither the PSOE nor the PP were able to win absolute majority, and the PSOE party pacted with the Catalonian independence party Together for Catalonia (Junts),  who offered their 7 seats in parliament in return for the amnesty bill. From then on, the PSOE party has advocated for the amnesty as pivotal for normalizing relations between Catalonia and the rest of Spain, while the opposition has stood firmly against it. What is perhaps more intriguing is that, in general, both sets of voters have fully adopted and defended their respective parties’ positions.

 Analyzing the Spanish EU vote: National or European Issues?

 This raises the following question: do Spain’s EU election results reflect Spaniard’s thoughts on European issues, or did national issues, such as the amnesty, sway voters? In the case of the former, Spain would align with the ideological shift to the right seen across Europe after June 9th. However, if the latter scenario is the more accurate explanation, it is likely that the results reflect collective disapproval towards the national policy positions of the Spanish government.

 To answer this question, it is first important to consider the timing of the approval of the amnesty law, as it was passed by the Spanish Congress on May 30th, placing it at the center of public and media debates in the days leading up to elections. While it was not officially published until the day after the European elections, the public verdict on the amnesty was already established along political party lines before the elections.

 Secondly, it is important to consider the electoral strategy of the PP, who framed its entire EU electoral program as a call for citizens discontent with the current Government’s handling of national issues, using the slogan “your vote is the response”. While it does not explicitly mention the amnesty, the PP program mentioned the need to “re-establish equality between Spaniards” and highlighted the “attacks on the Spanish Constitution” as both a European and national issue. Moreover, the PP has been the principle opponent of the amnesty during this legislature and has organized several mass protests against the law in the months leading up to the June 9th elections. Thus, it is reasonable to suggest that the entrenchment of the amnesty as a partisan issue was reinforced by the right-wing party.

 On the other hand, the election results present additional elements that suggest that the amnesty was not a central decision-making factor for voters. For instance, the electoral representation of the far-right parties, VOX (9.6%) and “The Party is Over” (SALF) (4.6%), the latter making its debut electoral appearance, indicate a sense of disenfranchisement with the traditional bipartisan system. VOX, in a strategic attempt to sway right-wing voters from the PP, centred its political campaign around revealing the hidden “collusion” between the PP and PSOE parties in Brussels, stating that they vote the same way 89% of the time. Similarly, the leader of the SALF party gained popularity through his anti-partocratic and anti-corruption ideology, relentlessly criticizing the traditional political system in Spain.

Whether or not the Catalonian amnesty was a decisive factor in Spaniards’ decision to lean towards the right-wing parties, there is a clear sign that the European elections are being intentionally driven by largely national issues instead of European issues. While this may be inevitable and a common phenomenon across the Union, the question remains if it is national politicians, or the EU itself, that stands to benefit more from it.

European-National Duality in Public Affairs

The prominence of national issues in European elections is increasingly demanding that public affairs (PA) campaigns have the capacity to address issues at both European and national levels. This requires an advanced understanding of the political landscape within member states, as well as the ability to leverage salient national issues and political party dynamics in European-wide narratives. Yet, this does not imply that PA campaigns can only be reactionary to election results. On the contrary, this shows that the European elections are an opportunity to determine which lens, European, national or both, is most beneficial for PA campaigns and design their strategies accordingly. 

María Morales Durán
Maria Morales

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