OpinionWSJ

Southern Europe Stays Unstable – WSJ

Spanish Prime Minister and Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sanchez, November 8, 2019.


Photo:

sergio perez/Reuters

Spain held its fourth general election in four years on Sunday, and it could be weeks before Prime Minister

Pedro Sanchez

or his rivals form a government, if they ever do. The results underscore the sharp electoral divisions and lack of a clear majority direction in Western democracies.

The Spanish elections come amid ebbing fortunes for insurgent parties. They underwhelmed in this year’s European Parliament elections, the ruling parties in Hungary and Poland suffered electoral setbacks last month, and the United Kingdom could elect a Remain government next month. Europe’s most charismatic outsider, the Italian

Matteo Salvini,

is now out of government.

At first glance the Spanish results seem to fit this trend. With more than 90% of results reported, Mr. Sanchez’s Socialists finished first with just under the 29% they won in April. The center-right Popular Party improved from its last showing but still finished second with 21%. Yet with about 120 and 85 seats in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies, neither establishment party has a clear path to power.

The conservative newcomer Vox may have the most to celebrate by finishing third with 15%, a five-point jump. While often derided as far right, the party’s social conservatism and low-tax, small-government philosophy wouldn’t be out of place in the U.S. Republican Party. Its migration stance is unnecessarily harsh and the party often creates needless controversies, such as banning journalists from party events. But amid unrest in Catalonia, a significant part of Spain overlooked these flaws and embraced the party’s hard-line stance against regional separatism.

Vox leader

Santiago Abascal

won’t be the next Prime Minister, but with more than 50 seats in parliament he has established the party as a serious player in any center-right coalition. Should the Popular Party stumble amid another refugee crisis—and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip

Erdogan

might induce one—Mr. Abascal’s profile will rise further.

Mr. Sanchez took office last year as the weakest Prime Minister since the restoration of democracy and was unable to pass his budget. That’s for the best, as Mr. Sanchez wants more social spending financed by growth-killing taxes on large internet firms and high earners.

Catalan separatism boosted Vox, and the recent exhumation of long-dead dictator

Francisco Franco

may have energized Mr. Sanchez’s base, but plenty of Spaniards still had the economy on their mind. Spanish gross domestic product should expand about 2% in 2019, not bad for Southern Europe but nothing to boast about. Its 34% youth unemployment rate and 14% overall rate are the highest among OECD countries except Greece and South Africa.

Like so much of Europe, Spanish voters are torn between a left that wants a larger welfare state the country can’t afford and a right split over how hard to push nationalism and free-market reforms. Look for more dysfunction and muddling-through until events galvanize new agendas or new leaders emerge.

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