For the first time since the restoration of democracy in 1977, Spaniards wake up with a completely changed parliament and with the possibility for a new way of governing. If for the last thirty years the traditional parties (Partido Socialista Obrero Español and Partido Popular) have seamlessly dominated the Spanish political scene, the last general election (December 20, 2015) has undoubtedly marked an historic moment for democracy in Spain, letting two newcomers, Podemos and Ciudadanos, enter the Parliament. These two forces respectively positioned themselves at the third and fourth place, after Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular (PP) and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) led by Pedro Sánchez.
Such result might be interpreted as the signal that the two-party system has come to its end, but it could also trigger a ‘worrying process of Italianization’, as journalist Luís Ventoso pointed out in the Spanish national daily newspaper ABC, the day after the election. In fact, though winning the competition taking 123 seats in the 350-seat national Parliament, Rajoy’s PP has fallen short of majority, determining an unprecedented situation of fragmentation. However, such fragmentation may contain the seeds for political change in the near future with the newcomers playing a key role.
Who are these new start-up forces and why have Spaniards voted for them? On one hand, there is Podemos, the anti-austerity party which represents the political expression of the protest Indignants Movement and which was founded just two years ago (January 2014) by the 37-year-old Pablo Iglesias. On other, Ciudadanos, a center-right liberal formation that finds its origin in Catalonia but which ironically fights against the nationalism of this region. Its leadership belongs to the 36-year-old Albert Rivera, the youngest and the most popular political figure in Spain now.
Unbelievable but true, these two young-led parties are now determinant factors for Spain to be governed and they appear to be the real winners of the electoral competition. The most striking result has been registered by the leftist Podemos, a party that did not even exist two years ago and has now gained the 20% of the polls, just two points below the PSOE. Conversely, the latter “got its worst-ever election result since democracy [returned] and the Popular Party got its worst result since 1989,” according to Diego Torres on POLITICO. A comparison with the 2011 results – when the PP secured an outright majority of 186 seats – clearly outlines the dramatic loss of consensus suffered by the two parties traditionally in power.
The explanation of such decline in popularity amongst voters could be due to the different situation in Spain compared to 2011. At that time, the Spanish economy, the fourth largest in the Eurozone, was in a deep recession with the unemployment rate reaching 27%. This might have pushed Spaniards to vote for the PP and favor the reassuring leadership of Rajoy, who built his campaign around the ways to improve the fragile economy of his country. Today, Spain has been reported to be the fastest growing economy in the Eurozone, but unemployment especially among young people is still above 21%. Such dramatic situation will not change soon as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has forecasted that it will still be at 16% in 2020, well above the pre-crisis rate of 8.5%. In addition, the property crash has caused the repossession of thousands of homes and this phenomenon seems to be still rising, according to The Independent.
All these factors may explain why the anti-austerity party Podemos has gained such an outstanding result (20%) while the PP and the PSOE have seen their voters’ support declining. By demanding the withdrawal of the austerity conditions imposed by the EU, Pablo Iglesias’ party gained the trust of millions young people, especially those unemployed and living in the capital, Madrid. Urban support has also helped Ciudadanos, while the PP has always relied on rural and wealthier voters. Moreover, the fact that the PP and the PSOE have been involved in a string of corruption scandals through the years may have pushed disillusioned voters to support the newcomers, seen by many as clean and uncontaminated forces able to bring a breath of change to Spain.
The cuts in public spending, tax increases, and health reforms made by the Rajoy led government have also played an important role in orienting part of the electorate towards Podemos and Ciudadanos.
Overall, the Spanish electoral results seem to echo similar leftist successes recently achieved in Southern European countries where past center-right governments applied rigid austerity measures. In January 2015, SYRIZA won in Greece; a left-wing coalition is now guiding Portugal, replacing the winning Portugal Ahead, after this lost the confidence motion from the Parliament.
The Portuguese case could perhaps give some sort of inspiration for the future Spanish government set-up, after assessing the whole spectrum of solutions. So far, different possibilities have been evaluated. The first one was to form a ‘grand coalition’ between the PSOE and the PP. Such proposal, advanced by Mariano Rajoy, would be the safest way to ensure a stable and responsible government to Spain, according to the PP leader. However, this idea has been immediately rejected by Pedro Sánchez who stated that it will not be possible to govern with the PP because of their different priorities and ideologies. After all, Spain is not Germany, and it will be extremely odd for a country that has never experienced such type of government to adopt this solution.
The option of an alliance between the PP and Ciudadanos, even if it might seem possible in terms of political positions (both are against independence in Catalonia and pro-Euro), will not be realistically feasible as it will not guarantee the numbers to achieve an outright majority. Moreover, Albert Rivera has recently stated that he will not support a government led by the PP although he might abstain if the PSOE also did so.
Another scenario that has been recently advanced regards the building of a ‘coalition of losers,’ i.e. an alliance between the PSOE, Podemos and Ciudadanos. However, it seems very unlikely that the two small parties could govern together as their positions appear to be no compatible with each other.
How could a leftist and Eurosceptic party, in favor of a referendum on Catalonia’s independence, ever accept an alliance with Ciudadanos, center-right wing party, pro-Euro and against Catalan nationalism?
The third option, as envisaged by Pedro Sánchez, consists of a ‘left-wing coalition with a regional component.’ In practical terms, this would mean a deal between the PSOE, Podemos and Izquierda Unida. Still, such alliance would need the support of a Basque nationalist party and Catalan pro-independence parties to reach a majority.
What seems to be clear is that Pedro Sánchez is now seeing himself as the potential leader of a ‘progressive coalition’ that could gather all the forces that want to make a change for Spain. As the Spanish newspaper El Mundo has pointed out, this type of solution will mirror what has happened in Portugal, where António Costa, leader of the Portuguese Socialist Party became Prime Minister securing a deal with the communist party to govern. Indeed, the visit Sánchez paid some days ago to Costa, might be a further confirmation of how the leader of the PSOE is taking inspiration by Portugal.
It still seems unclear which solution will be adopted to set up a new government in Spain. However, regardless of the choice that will be made, it will probably set the beginning of the multi-party system in Spain. Such new way of governing will obviously bring some fragmentation in comparison with the old one, but at the same time it might ensure the possibility for greater dialogue and cooperation between the opposing forces. Moreover, a system like this might also increase the chance to improve the social policy that has been too much neglected by the former government.
The next steps will see Spain’s King Felipe IV play a key role. It is up to him to nominate a candidate to be the Prime Minister. However, this will take place only after the Congress of Deputies will hold its inaugural meeting on January 13, 2016. Following this nomination, the candidate must obtain the confidence from the Parliament. If this fails, the king could nominate another candidate who then must seek the parliamentary approval. If two months have passed since the election and no government has been formed, another election must be held.
In conclusion, whatever future Spain will choose, it will certainly break from the tradition.
Executive Master in European Communication and Policy (IHECS – Institut des Hautes Études des Communications Sociales)
“Sánchez Rejects Rajoy Again, Says PSOE Intends To Form ‘Grand Progressive Coalition’ In Spain,” The Spain Report, January 7, 2016. https://www.thespainreport.com/articles/562-160107172039-sanchez-rejects-rajoy-again-says-psoe-intends-to-form-grand-progressive-coalition-in-spain
Burridge, Tom. “Spain’s political future uncertain after election,” BBC, December 21, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35150752
Dawber, Alistair. “Spain election: Conservatives win but Podemos are stars of the show with fifth of vote,” The Independent, December 20, 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/spain-election-conservatives-win-but-fall-short-of-parliamentary-majority-a6780871.html
Méndez, Lucía. “Pedro Sánchez, decidido a un ‘pacto a la portuguesa’ contra Rajoy,” El Mundo, January 7, 2016. http://www.elmundo.es/espana/2016/01/07/568d6cb522601dd9528b4570.html
Torres, Diego. “Spain heads for coalition impasse,” POLITICO, December 20, 2015. http://www.politico.eu/article/spanish-pm-rajoy-comes-first-in-elections-exit-poll/
Ventoso, Luís. “Inestabilidad e italianización,” ABC, December 21, 2015. http://www.abc.es/elecciones/elecciones-generales/abci-inestabilidad-italianizacion-201512210016_noticia.html