The socialists lost control of a series of regional parliaments and many key city halls on Sunday, as much of the country swung away from the left.
The conservative Popular Party (PP) was the biggest victor, wresting control of the regions of Aragón, Valencia, La Rioja, the Balearic Islands and Extremadura from the socialists. In the municipal elections, the PP scored victories in several of the largest cities, including Madrid, Seville and Valencia.
In most of these regions and cities, the PP will need the support of the far-right Vox party to form a majority.
“As prime minister and leader of the Socialist Party I take direct responsibility for the results,” Mr Sánchez said, as he announced that he was calling a general election for July 23rd.
He said he was doing so to seek “clarification regarding the will of the Spanish people, clarification regarding the policies that the government should implement and clarification regarding the political forces which should lead this next phase.”
The general election had been expected at the end of this year, when Mr Sánchez’s four-year term ends. He has been governing in a coalition, the first since Spain’s return to democracy over four decades ago, with the left-wing Podemos party.
Mr Sánchez’s parliamentary alliances, with Podemos and Catalan and Basque nationalists, were the focus of frequent attacks by the opposition throughout the recent campaign and were seen as a big reason for the socialists’ poor performance.
The political right welcomed the snap election announcement, interpreting it as a chance to remove the prime minister from office earlier than anticipated.
The leader of the PP, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, said he was “very aware that Spain cannot waste another minute on [the government’s] politics which are not worth it, which Spaniards do not believe in, which create division, mistrust and weariness.”
He asked for the chance to become prime minister “in the name of moderation, of serenity and of institutional respect.”
“Sánchez is in a cul de sac, this is a surrender,” said the PP’s Isabel Díaz Ayuso, president of the Madrid region, who won re-election on Sunday by securing a majority in the local parliament.
The decision to call the early election reportedly took many in Mr Sánchez’s own Socialist Party off guard and is seen a huge gamble in the wake of Sunday’s results.
However, the election will take place three weeks into Spain’s tenure of the EU Council revolving presidency, which could further enhance Mr Sánchez’s status as a credible figure on the international stage – something even his critics concede.
Also, the PP is likely to be locked in talks with Vox about the formation of local governments over the coming weeks. Mr Sánchez is expected to use this to warn voters that a PP-led central government would come hand-in-hand with the far right.
“If national politics has contaminated the local vote, now it will be the turn of local politics to influence the national vote,” noted commentator Lola García of La Vanguardia newspaper. “At least that is what Sánchez is hoping, with the aim of mobilising left-wing voters.”
Much will also depend on Mr Sánchez’s allies to his left, who were divided and weak going into Sunday’s election. If he is to remain in office he needs the newly created leftist platform Sumar to be a unifying force to help him achieve the daunting task of forming another parliamentary majority.
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2023