5 Things to You Need to Know About the Spanish Election Results

by Javier Moreno Zacarés

21 December 2015

Yesterday, Spanish politics entered a new age: the two party-system which has dominated the country for decades was shattered, giving birth to a multi-polar era of unclear consequences. Traditionally, electoral choice was mapped on a grid with two axes: the left/right divide and the centralism/decentralism divide (which confronts the national identities that coexist within the state). We have now witnessed the emergence of an additional axis – the ‘old/new politics’ divide – which disturbs this balance and has given rise to two new state-wide parties: Podemos and Ciudadanos.

The terms and conditions of government formation have been rewritten. In the past, short of outright majorities the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) and the centre-left PSOE (Socialists) would strike minor deals with Catalan and Basque nationalist forces. Now, executive stability stands on much shakier foundations: the new balance of power will facilitate the ousting of ruling parties by constantly-shifting parliamentary alliances.

Paradoxically, this will not make the demands of smaller nationalist parties any less pressing. In Catalonia the situation has crossed a point of no return: the regional government is in rebellion, determined to culminate a state-building process in a unilateral declaration of independence; concessions from Madrid will no longer do. In the meantime, the four large parties have irreconcilable disagreements over how to handle the Catalan question, further complicating the viability of post-electoral agreements.

1. PP resists in the bunker.

The Spanish old right technically won the election. Not only was PP the most voted party (28% of the vote) but it was also rewarded with a disproportionate amount of parliamentary representation (123 seats). However, having been rewarded with nigh-absolute power in 2011, yesterday’s was rather a bitter victory.

spain election

After four years of brutal austerity and an incessant stream of corruption scandals, last night’s results confirm PP has lost one third of its voters – and prospects are dark for the foreseeable future. The party polarises opinion and is the least likeable, proving incapable of stealing votes from any other party. Moreover, it stirs a strong sense of rejection amongst the youth as its die-hard voter base ages fast; it has been estimated that 400,000 of PP’s lost voters have not swung to any other party, but to natural causes.

Nevertheless, the current party of government has demonstrated the robustness of its organisation (PP is one of the largest parties in Europe), and the loyalty and resources that its vast clientelist networks can mobilise. Moreover, it has resisted the assault in its traditional rural heartlands (especially Castile), which are greatly overrepresented by the Spanish electoral system.

2. PSOE is weakened but not Pasokified yet.

The party which has taken the biggest hit from the rise of new political forces has been PSOE, bleeding from all sides. Like Labour in Scotland, PSOE has struggled to reap good results in its traditional stronghold, Catalonia, due to its unclear stance on how to respond to the pro-independence sentiment that has swept the region in recent years.

But across the country, the party has never recovered from the 2010 betrayal of its left-of-centre base, when it took a U-turn in social policy and introduced harsh austerity measures in the midst of the Eurocrisis.

In the absence of a clear ideological stance on most burning issues, PSOE has turned to a US-style vacuous campaign, too reliant on the good looks of a mediocre candidate. Struggling to outflank its attractive new rivals, PSOE has limited itself to the old-school strategy of demanding the tactical vote of the left. And it has paid dearly for such patronising strategy: 22% of the vote and 90 seats.

Still, the loss was not nearly as bad as expected. Like PP, the skew of the rural vote has allowed PSOE to save face. However this comes at the expense of its ‘spinal’ role, capable of appealing to regions as diverse as Catalonia, Basque Country or Madrid; it seems Podemos has now displaced PSOE in this regard. PSOE support is now largely confined to the south: a quarter of its seats coming from Andalucía alone.

3. Ciudadanos: the passive revolution on hold.

Ciudadanos was born in Catalonia in 2006 to fight the surge in pro-independence sentiment, and until early in 2015 it was confined to the region. In recent months the party has staged an extremely successful jump to the state-wide scene, buttressed by the support of a financial elite overwhelmed by the dazzling rise of Podemos in the polls.

A ‘Podemos of the right’, Ciudadanos has put forward a project of reform that ultimately remains friendly to the business interests which have underpinned the ills of the Spanish economy. This is what Antonio Gramsci called the ‘passive revolution’: a ‘sensible change’ which can ensure that everything will stay the same.

The week before the elections, all the polls suggested Ciudadanos would be successful in this task, either by backing a PP government or by determining the nature of a coalition against it. But Ciudadanos did not meet these expectations. Its 40 seats (14% of the vote) are insufficient to provide either PP or PSOE with a solid majority, making Ciudadanos irrelevant to the formation of government. Nevertheless, the party has succeeded in its onslaught against Podemos, which only a few months ago was single-handedly carving into the two-party system.

4. The rise and fall and rise of Podemos.

In a night of bittersweet victories for everyone, Podemos’s was the sweetest. Since its creation in 2014, Podemos has grown spectacularly and seen wild fluctuations in support. In spring Podemos ranked first in official polls; after the Catalan elections in Septermber, it had dropped to fourth position; over the course of the last week, it rose again to almost topple PSOE’s leadership of the opposition. And it came really close, reaching nearly 21% of the vote (only 1% behind PSOE), though the rural skew of the Spanish electoral system has translated this into 69 Podemos seats (21 fewer than PSOE).

The party that vowed to give voice to the indignados movement has always relied on the momentum generated by a widespread enthusiasm for change. Over the last few months, its decline in support has been largely due to the eruption of Ciudadanos, which deprived Podemos of the monopoly over the ‘new politics’ brand. The sharp downward tendency was also due to the disaster of the Catalan elections, when Podemos deployed a strategy which alienated pro-independence figures like Ada Colau, the popular radical housing activist and now mayor of Barcelona, and delivered a highly disappointing result.

The last few weeks have seen a reversal of this strategy, Podemos instead forging alliances with left-wing nationalists and vowing to give visibility to Spain’s plurinational identities. The success of the new approach has been notable: in Catalonia Podemos and Colau’s En Comú movement have ranked first in polls, but also breathed down the neck of PP in two of its conservative strongholds, Valencia and Galicia.

5. Now what? Post-electoral combinations.

Spain’s proportional representation system allows for multiple parliamentary alliances that could seize power. Bearing in mind that neither Podemos nor Ciudadanos are willing to go into cabinet with PP or PSOE (to avoid becoming crushed like the Lib Dems), there are three likely outcomes:

  • PP goes into government with the parliamentary backing or acquiescence of Ciudadanos and/or PSOE, and attempts to rule the country with only 123 seats and the occasional legislative support of Ciudadanos.
  • PSOE goes into government with the parliamentary backing of Podemos and all other minor nationalist forces from Catalonia, Basque Country and the Canary Islands. However this would come with strong conditions attached, like the binding referendum of self-determination for Catalonia that Podemos supports. As a unionist force, PSOE is highly unlikely to fold to such a demand.
  • PP and PSOE form a German-style grand coalition. Backed by PSOE’s old guard, this would be the most stable choice, but it would inevitably destroy the party electorally and hand over unrivalled leadership of the left to Podemos (signalling PSOE’s Pasokification proper). As would be expected, there is strong resistance to contemplating this option within PSOE.

Photo: Adolfo Lujan/Flickr

Graph: BBC

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