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11 January, 2016  ▪  Álvaro Imbernón,  

The Spanish Sudoku

Entering 2016 with a new political landscape

For the first time since the return of democracy in the mid-70s, Sunday night of December 21st was the first election in which the Spanish went to sleep not knowing who would be the next Prime Minister. Four years ago the conservative Popular Party (PP) crested immense power hogging all national, regional and local levels. The Spanish electorate blamed Zapatero’s social democrats (PSOE) for the economic crisis, budget cuts and skyrocket unemployment rate. During the Rajoy’s legislature, discontent has not disappeared but has increased due to budget cuts in education or health care, the proliferation of corruption cases, the flagrant breach f electoral promises and the inability to undertake institutional reforms widely supported by Spanish society. This has allowed the emergence over the last year and half of two new political parties, the anti-austerity party “Podemos” (We Can) and the liberal Ciudadanos (Citizens). Both have challenged the traditional two party system that have allowed PP and PSOE alternate in power with the occasional support from nationalist and regionalist parties.

The outcome of the elections last Sunday left us the image of a largely hung parliament that represents these bandwagon changes in the political landscape. The two traditional major parties (PP and PSOE) accounted for over 80% of the vote in 2008, more than 70% in 2011 and only 50% in 2015. Spain hence follows European trends of political fragmentation and polarization. Unlike in northern Europe, the party system shock does not come from the extreme right but from the left, grassroots coalitions channelling the discontent of so called indignados and a general disaffection in the public with mainstream parties. This discontent however has not translated in propelling xenophobic and Europhobic movements – a Spanish Le Pen, that is- into the system, though Podemos’ platform contains elements of populism and pro-sovereignty on European matters, with similarities to Greece’s Syriza.

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It is important to note that therefore the traditional left-right cleavage does not fully capture the new political landscape, as other cleavages are at work too. There is at least territorial cleavage (pitting PP, PSOE and Ciudadanos vs Podemos and its regional allies from Catalonia and elsewhere, now also represented in Parliament), as well as a democratic regeneration and even generational cleavage. The latter somewhat puts together unlikely bedfellows such as liberal Ciudadanos and leftist Podemos - the “New Politics”, supported by many new voters, as opposed to the “Old Politics” associated with the main parties -and institutional atrophy. Platforms that share some elements with Ukraine’s new generational demands for full democracy and empowerment –with their Spanish peers seeking a deepening of the democratic foundations established by previous generations.

What’s next?

Spain enters in uncharted waters as it has only been ruled by single party executives, whether in minority or enjoying absolute majorities. Spain is probably the only EU country that has no experience of coalition governments at the national level despite being rather common at the regional level, specially Catalonia (hence the notion that the fragmented, messy Catalan politics was a harbinger of Spain’s impending political shock). In the EU, around 20 EU countries are governed by coalitions, a third of them considered unnatural or grand coalitions. Inconclusive results and vague mandates coalition governments, are the rule in Europe.

Right now no viable coalition would garner the necessary votes to invest a Prime Minister by Congress (the lower house), whether one formed by conservative PP, or a left coalition of the Socialists and Podemos, bar the tacit consent by a number of smaller parties. There are different red lines at work and a confluence of tactical interests that so far trump the options on the table – for instance, a self-determination in Catalonia, one of Podemos’ red lines that is ruled out by the Socialists.The scenario of a formal Germany-style PP-PSOEGroße Koalitionis thus far in principle discarded because it would firmly enshrine Podemos as the main reference for the left, maybe giving the final blow to PSOE as a main party. Multiple concessions will be needed, and some of the red lines will need to become orange, or else new elections will have to be reconvened, which does not seem in the interest of most parties now.

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Spain’s hitherto stable European path could enter more troubled waters, especially as regards the economic recipes requested by Eurozone membership (the prospect of instability already sent jitters to the markets and questions Spain’s ongoing economic growth). But not necessarily put in definite jeopardy – most main parties are very pro-European and support continued European integration.

In any case, it is only a matter of time that the demands both of economic reforms and democratic and institutional regeneration find their way in a multiparty parliamentary system. It is time to forget about Game of Thrones, in which the naked struggle for power is glorified, and enjoy delicious Borgen series, in which the Danish Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg tries to keep cohesion in his coalition government. We are heading towards a new normal that will require changes in the Spanish political culture/behaviour, in parallel to ongoing changes in Spanish society. The parliament will return to the center of public life. It will not be a quick or easy process, but there is no turning back. Spain is no different.

Álvaro Imbernón, is researcher at ESADEgeo-Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics


Francisco de Borja Lasheras is Associate Director, Office in Madrid of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)


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