The European left can’t catch a break. There is more sad news from Spain. After the December 2015 elections shattered the traditional two-party system, and six months of failed negotiations detonated a call for re-elections, the new left coalition, Unidos Podemos, has failed to meet the number of seats that all polls had lined up for them. Last night, Pablo Iglesias’s plan to ‘take the heavens by storm’ has suffered a major setback since Podemos’s meteoric rise began two years ago.
1. Great expectations, mediocre results.
The polls didn’t even get the voter turnout right, which remained higher than assumed (69%). But the real problem came in estimating the vote transfers of left-wing voters.
For weeks, polls were suggesting a low mobilisation of centre-ground parties and a sharp polarisation on both ends of the ideological spectrum. The 7.30pm exit polls confirmed these expectations and projected a whopping 95 seats for Unidos Podemos (up from a combined 71 in December), overtaking centre-left rival PSOE (the party of old social democracy) – the main objective of these re-elections. Three hours later, as results started coming in, this didn’t happen: Unidos Podemos had stagnated at 71 seats and lost over a million votes. Against all odds, PSOE has somehow resisted the encroachment of the anti-austerity radicals and defended the throne of the parliamentary left.
The polls had better foresight with the swings on the right. The new liberal party Ciudadanos collapsed and lost eight of its 40 seats. What they didn’t foresee, however, was the extent of Partido Popular’s (PP) victory. Exit polls predicted 117-121 seats, but the conservatives finished the night with 137 (up 14 since December). Despite Ciudadanos’s fall, this result effectively tips December’s fragile balance into the right’s favour and augurs the return of PP to power in the coming weeks or months.
2. The resurgence of bipartisan politics.
PP has soared despite the continuous excretion of evermore outrageous corruption scandals. As always, the solid loyalty of its voters never ceases to surprise analysts. The party’s scaremongering strategy against Podemos has been highly successful amongst its traditional electorate. Besides Catalonia and Basque Country, PP has won in every region of the country, particularly in rural areas, reaping the benefits of the skew in the conservative’s favour that is built into the Spanish electoral system.
Given the expectations, the resilience of PSOE is – by default – a victory. However, the result is by no means good. The vote has delivered the party’s worst result since the 1970s. Podemos continues to defeat PSOE in the large urban areas of the north and east, as well as amongst the youth. PSOE only holds its ground in the south, in rural areas, and amongst older voters – which doesn’t offer good long-term projections. Last night (down five seats since December) destroyed the party’s chances to seize power without striking a deal with pro-self-determination forces from Catalonia; something very strongly opposed by the party’s old guard. Ahead of a worse result, PSOE’s leader, Pedro Sánchez, was expected to be purged by a coup coming from the southern branches. This lukewarm victory only buys him some time.
3. A setback for ‘new politics’.
Last night was a setback for the tide of ‘new politics’ that has swept across Spain in response to the corruption scandals of the two old parties, PP and PSOE.
Ciudadanos (C’s), a new right-wing party appealing to disaffected PP voters, has paid dearly for its equivocations during negotiations. Snubbing PP’s leadership, C’s turned to PSOE in an attempt to lift Sánchez into power. The failure of these manoeuvres has driven many conservative voters back to PP. This swing threatens to consolidate Ciudadanos as a minor protest party of the right.
With the results as they stand, Ciudadanos are not even kingmakers – they are (even more) irrelevant than they were in December. That said, Podemos are not exactly kingslayers either. But, unlike Ciudadanos, Podemos has at least demonstrated it is not going anywhere, thanks to its solid electoral base. The electoral war against austerity is not over.
4. Podemos and socialist strategy.
Podemos needs to carefully dissect last night’s results and review its electoral strategy. The move to join forces with the old eurocommunist party Izquierda Unida (United Left), has not stacked up, and in fact Podemos has lost a considerable amount of votes overall. Ahead of further analysis one can only speculate about what has happened. Perhaps the fuzziness of the party’s post-Marxist communications strategy has failed to rally the loyalties of the old hard left. More likely, however, is that it has bled from the political centre because of Brexit. In the run-up to the election, Britain’s referendum and the turmoil of financial markets dominated Spanish news. Given the uncertainty, radical economic policies, and the promise of a binding self-determination referendum for Catalonia, Podemos’s offering may have seemed less glamorous to centre-left voters.
Most likely, this will open a long-delayed debate at the heart of Podemos: how to combine the grassroots internal democracy of a ‘party-movement’ with what Íñigo Errejón has called the ‘electoral war machine’. Podemos’s left sector, Anticapitalistas, has long pressed for a return to the origins of the organisation. The exhaustion of the war machine after constant mobilisation may be turning Podemos’s leadership towards this position: earlier this year, the appointment Pablo Echenique (a prominent figure on the party’s left) as organisation secretary was interpreted as a sign of such a shift, and Errejón’s own words last night – “We are not a political party, we are building a popular movement” – suggest Podemos may be about to reinvent itself.
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