Last month, for the second time since the reestablishment of democracy in 1977, Spain’s general elections failed to produce a working majority for its government. The threat of a new political deadlock was just around the corner after previous polls in December ended up with 6 months of no deal. Political uncertainty in Europe after the shock of Brexit vote has caused intense pressure on Spain’s warring politicians to form a government.
State of play: better the devil you know
Spanish elections delivered a hung parliament for the second time in six months, with no few surprises. The main surprise was the disappointing result for the left-wing block Unidos Podemos, a grouping composed by Podemos and the former Communist Party, United Left, plus several leftist parties.
As elections night unfolded, high expectations crashed with reality: the Spanish electorate preferred alleged stability to a progressive, democratic change. The Popular Party (PP) emerged unscathed from its corruption scandals, and achieved 137 seats (up 15 from the 122 they won in last December ballot) with 33% support. The Socialist Party (PSOE) came second with 85 seats and 22% support (100,000 fewer votes). Exit polls had suggested the so-called sorpasso (Italian word for “overtaking” — a buzzword in Spanish politics) of the leftist block to PSOE. Although it was the worst performance in PSOE’s history, the party has nevertheless established itself as the main strength of the Left and it managed to prevent the overtaking by Unidos Podemos, which attracted instead a significant attention. Unidos Podemos was the worst affected player, gaining only 71 seats and 21% of preferences. The coalition failed to “multiply” the votes each party had obtained separately in December – loosing more than a million votes – and rated third. Finally, liberal newcomer Ciudadanos gained 32 seats (8 less shifted to PP largely due to strategic voting).
All parties are now under pressure to reach a compromise, form a coalition, and get back to the business of governing. In the meantime, King Felipe VI started talks with party leaders, aiming to determine whether any one stands a chance of forming a government by pushing the other factions either to give investiture or at the very least abstain. Options to form a government include a center-right pact between the PP and Ciudadanos, a German-style grand coalition between the PP and the Socialists, or even a minority PP administration. A third round of elections in the event of still standing institutional deadlock remains possible, although political forces should not regard it as a first option.
This article aims at exploring the main reasons why Spain is trying to ride the wave of radical political change – through a shift from the traditional two-party system to a more inclusive and pluralist scenario – without unfortunately overcoming the political paralysis.
The fact that the PP was able to improve its results in both regions afflicted by the highest levels of corruption – Valencia and Madrid – could alone explain how voters favored security issues over the fight against corruption.
Insecurity about the future is what often pushes people to opt for conservativism, preventing any radical change. The turmoil prompted by Brexit seems to have influenced the vote. How? There is a vast service industry in southern Spain dependent upon the Brits. Overnight, the fall of the pound made property a lot more expensive and property agents became concerned about how to avoid a surplus housing. Brexit vote had therefore a decisive impact on how Spaniards casted their votes-, swinging energy from Podemos back to the traditional parties and giving them a new lease of life. To make expectations worse, Spain’s stockmarket fall of 12.4% in June confirmed Spanish people’s fears. As a result, Rajoy tried to turn the constituency to his side. He argued it was “no time for experiments” and urged them to choose the continuity of his conservative party. To add insult to injury, the leader of the PP based much of his campaign on the alleged economic success of its last five years of government: from avoiding a sovereign bailout from Europe during the recession to the 3.2% growth last year, he argued that Spain’s economy is now one of the most robust in Europe. However, anyone acquainted with the country’s economic situation is aware that worrying levels of unemployment (stuck at 21%, according to the OECD) and investments threaten by corruption scandals give a very different picture of the Spanish economic status.
In addition to economic factors, political internal divisions also affected polls. The potential association between Brexit and Catalan secession further fed the general insecurity feeling. Results suggest that Podemos’ support to a referendum greatly contributed to its victory in Catalonia, but was hard to swallow in the rest of the country, which was still under the influence of Brexit.
Undoubtedly, Podemos and the progressive block have responsibilities. Due to its internal crisis, Iglesias’ movement did not succeed in catching more votes. Podemos has repositioned itself on the Left by hitching itself to Izquierda Unida and it remains too vertical and centralised. If Podemos was born to usher in a new way of doing politics, the party has dangerously drifted away from its roots in the Indignados towards the adoption of a hierarchical structure similar to the one of the parties it so fiercely criticised – i.e., with power concentrated at the top and a limited role for the base. Therefore, less intransigence on initial positions has not paid off the Iglesias party.
To achieve an agreement is a fairly complex process, because the PP can only succeed as a result of an alliance with Ciudadanos and Basque or Canarian nationalists. Agreement that still does not guarantee the absolute majority. A grand coalition government (PP, PSOE and Ciudadanos) does not seem a likely option yet, because of the lack of support of the Socialists, who, however, also seem intended to abstain from the hypothesis of external support to a minority executive made up of right-wing forces. Finally, neither a right-wing administration nor a center-right wing one seem sustainable in terms of numbers, unless counting on the Catalan nationalists.
State of change: taking back democracy
In the aftermath of the electoral turmoil, it is clear that people are willing to renounce to stability only if change is effective and radical. Therefore, in order to put an end to corruption, to overcome austerity, to finally tackle unemployment and to recover once and for all foreign and active European policy, Spain needs an executive that is committed to a profound reform of the existing political system. Podemos’ programme includes no shortage of radical measures, and this is also the same reason why it has raised curious interest all over Europe and inspired other populist movements: renegotiate the fiscal target pushing for broader flexibility over European budgetary mechanisms; a vast deal of domestic economic recovery with emphasis on public control, poverty reduction and social dignity; healing the environment through deals of fossil fuel consumption reduction; promoting of public transport and renewable energy initiatives. Main critical approaches to this project contested Podemos’ error to not include any appealing European agenda – inclusive of constructive points – in its political programme. Many critics, such as Yanis Varoufakis, consider this as one of the reasons of June 26th failure.
Podemos has nonetheless offered a sort of third way solution between the Indignados’ participatory model, which had revealed its limits as an instrument of change, and the institutional left model, which had proven to be out of touch with the spirit of the movement. In a time characterised by the weakening of organised labour, Podemos’ model may offer some inspiration for a radical progressive politics. Indeed, the European anti-austerity Left has been following the party’s endeavours closely, taking good note of its successes and failures. Those believing in a more profound refoundation of the European project than on leaving the EU are supporting a wide alliance of governments across Europe around a common Left populism.
With his project of a “fourth social democracy”, Iglesias does not mean throwing away the social-democratic project, but instead demands a return to a truly radical social democracy. The example of Greece does not invalidate the possibility of a true transformative Left in Europe. In Spain the Socialists (PSOE) and Popular Party (PP) have whipped up the spectre of the Greek experience to put people off voting Podemos. But the comparison does not hold together: Spain is a much bigger country and Greece was far more indebted. This example is however relevant since allows us to understand that neoliberal Europe does not stand on a neutral project, and could not tolerate a real alternative succeeding in a single country.
The main challenge is to create the right synergies between social movements and political parties, because each of them alone is not capable to enable the necessary fundamental reform of the political system. The aim should be to restore the representative value of democracy, by introducing more transparency and accountability.
Bachelor’s degree in Cooperation, Development and International Studies (University of Turin)
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