This age of uncertainty, fear and frustration is the time for insurgent parties to threaten to turn upside down the politics in Europe – and maybe the project along the way. Yet, ironically, the very country that has served as an inspiration to some of them, especially in the populist left, Spain, may have decided to somewhat slow down the pace and give one more, though highly conditional opportunity to mainstream parties.
This is an early, tentative interpretation of the somewhat surprising results of the nation-wide elections held in Spain last Sunday, June 26. Aimed at breaking the six month deadlock of a hung Parliament produced by the previous round last December, the new elections may have reached that objective – albeit barely. Above all, they have sentpollsters intosoul-searching, perhaps together with the leaders of Podemos, while instilling a last minute dose of self-confidence to established parties.
Polls had foretold another victory of the ruling but battered conservative Popular Party (PP) of PM Mariano Rajoy, and a clear sorpasso of the equally battered PSOE (social-democrats) by a leftist coalition led by Podemos, encompassing leftist and regional parties. Yet the bipartisan system defined by the hegemony of two main parties since the restoration of democracy in the late 70s, has proved resilient, bucking a downward trend since 2014 with the advent of Podemos, and a new liberal party, Ciudadanos, in 2015. In a context of lower turnout (nearing 70%, low for Spanish standards) and an electoral system that rewards the first party, the PP won by a larger margin (33%, 137 seats, as compared to the 28%, 123 seats of December) than predicted, even if they still have lost some 3 million votes since 2011.Spaniards have sent a clear message of desire for political and economic stability - and a frustration with repeated elections too. The elections give a boost of legitimacy for a resilient PP, in spite of their corruption scandals and the clear loss of electorate to centrist Ciudadanos. They are also a life boat for PM Rajoy, whose political future had been a cliff-hanger.
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A polarized election context framed as a PP vs Podemos, strengthened the former, with its politics of stability, damaging Podemos as well as centrist Ciudadanos, who remained fourth (32 seats, 13%, 3 million votes). Podemos, leading a leftist coalition, is the big loser this time, throwing the party into its first big crisis since their entry in the Spanish political scene in the 2014 EP elections. Crestfallen faces of their leadership on election night testified to this failure, as the numbers in the screens not only ruled out any sorpasso of PSOE let alone the election win they had even toyed with. They showed the coalition finishing third, yielding the same seats (71, 21%) before the coalition with communists United Left, while losing more than a million votes. A party betting much of its seemingly unstoppable success on news capturing PR tricks (e.g. their program had the format of an IKEA shopping list) and personalism around their ponytailed leader, Pablo Iglesias, gets a blow by an election cycle they had contributed to (voting down with PP a centrist, reformist government option led by PSOE and Ciudadanos) and on which they had pinned expectations of hegemony. Factors behind such loss of support may be manifold, such as disaffection with insurgent politics, confusing spin (moving from a newfound social-democracy to nationalist rhetoric); disappointment in the cities under Podemos’ control, such as Madrid or Barcelona, as well asmobilization in some constituencies of social-democratic voters concerned with the growth of leftist populism.
PSOE reaped a last minute moral victory, a victory in defeat. Defying polls that had predicted a historical relegation of PSOE to a third party and the loss of its hegemony in the left, the Socialists stood ground, finishing second and garnering near 23% and 88 seats. A moral, but bittersweet victory for the party and its leader, Pedro Sánchez, staving off in the short term internal challenges to his leadership, but seeing his chances of becoming PM nearly evaporate. And maybe a last, but precious chance to revive the project of a pro-European, social democratic option in Spain.
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Inconclusive elections again, but not entirely so: numbers for a centre right bloc, with perhaps a minority PP government, supported by Ciudadanos, get closer to a majority, while the options for a leftist bloc are narrower. The spotlight is again on the PSOE, caught between a rock and a hard place. The current leadership remains adamant on their rejection of any Grosskoalition with PP, and Sanchez insists they would only vote against Rajoy or any PP government. But their leverage is diminished. The Socialists cannot be perceived as blocking Spain’s governance, nor can they easily join forces with a Podemos whose leadership has done everything it could to undermine PSOE and Sánchez himself. The spectre of a few more years of the much reviled Rajoy is, at the time of writing, likelier, as is maybe a short legislature focused on priority areas.
Spain is a plural country, defined by competing political cleavages: generational (with younger voters rallying behind Podemos, Ciudadanos or local coalitions), territorial andon democratic regeneration, as the emergence of new parties largely springs from a sense of end of constitutional and institutional cycle. The latter is key to renovate trust in the political system and social cohesion. The question is whether in this Spain where the “old” and the “new” cohabit unevenly, within a broader process of elite regeneration, political leadership will have the foresight and State vision needed to broker agreements and reform. While Spain has seen substantial economic growth for some time, structural weaknesses remain there, as does a stubbornly high unemployment. A squeezed, impoverished middle class, as in other EU countries, is a huge challenge, together with rising social inequality – the losers of globalization discussion that has also propelled euro-scepticism and populism elsewhere in the West.
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Spain (and Portugal) remains an outcast in the Western and European family in yet another aspect: the absence, thus far, of a major rightist, Europhobic and xenophobic force. A legacy of past rightist authoritarianism together with pro-European sentiment (though much dented in recent years) may play a role. Populism remains concentrated in the left and around Podemos’ spin, and pockets in the right. In times of Brexit and fundamental challenges to the European project, Spain remains committed to EU integration, though less enthusiastically so. Coalition brinkmanship and continuing challenges on the domestic front could keep it hobbled. But it can and should also become again a hub of pro-European initiatives, regaining the initiative it once enjoyed. This, Spaniards must do, at a time when European statesmanship is more sorely needed than ever. pockets in the right. In times of Brexit and fundamental challenges to the European project, Spain remains committed to EU integration, though less enthusiastically so. Coalition brinkmanship and continuing challenges on the domestic front could keep it hobbled. But it can and should also become again a hub of pro-European initiatives, regaining the initiative it once enjoyed. This, Spaniards must do, at a time when European statesmanship is more sorely needed than ever.