Spanish elections: most left unsettled

The actual meaning of yesterday’s Spanish elections will very much depend on the art of politics. Today the parties are not so much into government formation, but more into securing a majority in the potential forthcoming elections.

Illustration: colourbox.com

The most hotly contested Spanish elections since the re-establishment of democracy in 1977 took place yesterday, 20 December 2015. Apart from the fact that the new Parliament will be very different from the old one, most things are left unsettled. These are the five reasons why this is so.

Unfair election system

Firstly, the bipartisan political party system that has dominated Spanish politics since 1982 (and to a large extent, since 1977) has endured, but only by a bare thread. The two established parties, the Popular Party (PP) and the Socialist Party  (PSOE), in total received barely 50 per cent. This thanks to an electoral law based on a pre-modern circumscription (the province) which also over-represents the less densely populated areas of Spain. The result is that the PP and the Socialists will get two thirds of the seats with only half of the votes. This may be unfair, but it renders far from impossible a Spanish-style big coalition.

Economic recovery

Secondly, the Popular Party has experienced a massive decline in electoral support. Losing one third of the voters may be conceived as a good result taken into account the fact that the right-wing government approved a draconian reform of the labour market and massive cuts to welfare benefits. On top of this, the party has been in the public spotlight due to major corruption scandals involving its leadership, including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy himself.

Even the spin doctors of the PP would accept, off the record, that the losses would have been even worse if not some external factors had come to rescue. These factors turned the narrative of economic recovery from a cheap propaganda trick into a rotten half-truth. Without the temporary respite of the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing, cheap oil and an exceptionally good tourist season, not even the sluggish and far from stable recovery would have occurred. And without it, resort to the many pre-election electoral pork-barrel measures that the PP has implemented in the last months, ranging from a one-off partial restitution of wage cuts to public employees to punctual subsidies to corporations enrolling creating precarious jobs would not have been possible. The Popular Party survives to fight another day, but his Prime Minister may be on his way out.

Sànchez' defeat

Thirdly, the Socialist Party clings to the second position, but experiences a major loss of voter support. The most bitter (and decisive) defeat is the one suffered in Madrid, where the national Socialist leader, Pedro Sánchez, came fourth, trailing behind not only Rajoy, but also Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias and Albert Rivera, leader of Ciudadanos.

There is only one way that Sánchez can survive as leader, and that is by succeeding in forging a left-wing majority that would make him the next Prime Minister. This is close to mission impossible. Not only because of the allocation of seats, but also because some heavyweights within his own Party may prefer a big coalition with the Popular Party or even risk new elections in order to force Sánchez’ exit. The picture is further complicated by the fact that one fourth of the Socialist seats were won in Andalusia, the political fiefdom of Sánchez’ main rival; incumbent President of the region, Susana Díaz.

Ciudadanos' broken expectations

Fourthly, Ciudadanos seized a relevant share of the vote (slightly less than 15 per cent), but failed to meet the expectations of only two weeks ago. Just before the campaign started, the party seemed bound to become the decisive political force. It was even claimed that Professor Luis Garicano, the intellectual force behind the neoliberals with a human-face economic programme of the party, had been mandated by Rivera to sound out potential ministers for Ciudadanos.

The party appeared either to become the overall election winner, or a close second, but ended as a distant fourth. Only by means of a rather unlikely PSOE-Podemos-Ciudadanos coalition would Rivera stand a chance of coming close to power. This places the new party in a very weak position in the event of an election rerun.

Podemos' popularity

Fifthly, Podemos has come very close to defeating the Socialist Party in terms of votes, getting more than 20 per cent. This is short of the 28 per cent that polls assigned to them one year ago, but much more than the 14.5 per cent assigned to them by the same polls only three weeks ago. Moreover, Podemos has clearly surpassed the Socialists in the biggest cities, and the party is the most popular among those under 30.

Last but not least, Podemos emerges as the only nation-wide party capable of shifting the terms of the debate both in Catalunya and in the Basque Country. Two coalitions structured around Podemos have won most votes in both of these regions. They support a referendum on Catalunya’s independence and also advocate socio-economic justice as a more important issue than the territorial configuration of Spain. This is why the most exultant crowds last night were those waving the violet flags of Podemos, a symbolic reassertion of the commitment to the establishment of a republic which may have come here to stay.

The art of politics

Politics is also about the art of extracting victory from the jaws of a half-victory or an outright defeat. In the Spanish case, the art of politics requires tactical positioning aimed at making possible what is close to impossible: a big coalition, a left-wing majority, while at the same time sending signals to the electorate which would ensure a better result in a potential second round of elections.

That second round, as things currently stand, would well prove lethal to Ciudadanos and the Socialists, given that Podemos and the Popular Party emerge as the safe bet for left-wing and right-wing voters in the event of a re-run.

By Agustín José Menéndez
Published Dec. 21, 2015 10:01 PM - Last modified Dec. 21, 2015 10:33 PM