After Spain’s December elections delivered an inconclusive result, months of sterile negotiations have met a dead end: parliament has been dissolved and re-elections have been called for late June.
The last elections shattered Spain’s two-party system. The traditional bipolarity between the conservative People’s Party (PP) and the third-way ‘socialists’ of PSOE saw the eruption of a new liberal party on the centre-right, Ciudadanos (commonly abbreviated as C’s), and the meteoric rise of the far-left Podemos. Though it’s unlikely a new ballot will affect voting patterns much, the slightest of changes could break the stalemate by tipping the balance to either side of the political centre.
In a surprise turn of events, Podemos and the anticapitalist United Left (IU) have announced they will be joining forces in a far-left front, which could disturb the fragile balance of power. Let’s unpack what is at stake:
1. The spectacle of negotiation, or why government formation has failed.
Though PP technically ‘won’ the elections, the fact it fell considerably short of a parliamentary majority opened the possibility of different government coalitions.
Having abused its parliamentary majority for years to rule in an authoritarian and unaccountable manner, PP is out of friends in Congress. Moreover, the party continues to excrete a relentless stream of corruption scandals – something that makes it hard even for the liberals of Ciudadanos to come to the rescue. Though still the most popular, PP is the pariah of Spanish politics no one wants to be associated with. C’s has suggested a massive overhaul in the leadership and internal organisation of PP as preconditions for a future right-wing coalition government, but a still strong – and vain – PP is unwilling to consider such changes.
Instead, C’s has broken its electoral promises and shifted towards PSOE over the last few months, all in the name of moderation and responsibility. Ciudadanos’s plan was to bring PSOE to the right and provide a bridge with PP that could facilitate a German-style ‘grand coalition’ government – but this would leave Podemos to lead both the opposition and parliamentary left, and PSOE isn’t willing to commit political suicide just yet.
The truth is PSOE has found itself in a very difficult position over the last few months. Bleeding from all sides of the political spectrum, the socialists have tried to avoid falling into Podemos’s narrative (i.e. that they are the same as PP), but have also avoided mixing themselves with the far-left. Given that in terms of seats C’s alone is an insufficient partner to form government, the PSOE leadership has dabbled in twisted political contortions to bring both C’s and Podemos into a coalition; something which, predictably, didn’t work – not least because both parties refuse to negotiate with one another.
This reads like further evidence of the lack of ideological backbone in PSOE, but the reality is much more complex. Internal strife within the party, mostly radiating from its southern branches, has sought to sabotage and ultimately replace the current leadership, headed by Pedro Sánchez. One week after the December elections, PSOE’s federal committee, which commands the guidelines of government formation, vetoed any deal with PP or pro- self-determination forces, in clear reference to one of Podemos’s star proposals: a binding independence referendum for Catalonia. In other words, negotiations were long bound to fail and re-elections were always on the horizon. However, PSOE’s leadership dragged the situation out so it could blame Podemos’s radicalism for the breakdown of negotiations.
Podemos has gladly played the game. Headed by media-savvy post-Marxist academics, Podemos has constantly managed to outflank the socialists’ communication strategy by offering them ‘poisoned gifts’ – apparently generous offers which PSOE couldn’t accept under its self-imposed straitjacket. By constantly returning the ball to PSOE’s court, Podemos has exposed the centrist bias of the socialist leaders in an attempt to drive a wedge between them and their grassroots.
Months of negotiation have in fact been a performance to shift the blame back and forth between the two parties. While this strategy has allowed Podemos to hold what ground it commands towards the centre, the spectacle of negotiation and what increasingly comes across as an arrogant and patronising strategy have become increasingly dislikeable amongst the radical left. Opinion polls suggest many Podemos voters on this front have started to flock back to United Left (IU), the old eurocommunist party.
2. Sorpasso: towards pasokification?
Last week it looked like all parties were going to run in the June elections with the same programmes, same leaders and same discourse. But in the 11th hour, Podemos and IU have struck an electoral coalition. This comes as a surprise because Podemos has long been apprehensive of being associated with IU: an old-school left party with a history of corruption cases and a lack of internal democracy – baggage too heavy to share.
In December, Podemos had expected to completely overrun IU. However, IU succeeded in resisting the encroachment by refashioning the party as a ‘new left’ organisation, with bottom-up decision-making procedures and an active use of social media. Despite securing around 1m votes, the skew of the Spanish electoral system granted IU just two seats. By contrast, 5m Podemos votes translated to 69 seats. At the time, many on the left lamented the magnitude of votes gone to waste by the disunity of both organisations – most blaming the reluctance of the Podemos leader, Pablo Iglesias, to consider an electoral alliance.
Podemos’s strategic U-turn comes at a time when it has become evident that the party has exhausted all its gains on the political centre, and is now losing ground to its left. Barely 300k votes behind PSOE in December, a coalition with IU could promote Podemos to leading the parliamentary left.
An Italian loan-word recurs in Spanish political commentary these days: sorpasso (the ‘surpassing’). Originally making reference to the possibility of a communist victory in the 1976 Italian elections, the term was again used in Spain during the 1990s to theorise the potential of IU to outstrip PSOE. Neither of those events materialised in their respective eras. But this time, the word has been resuscitated to speak of a more likely possibility: a Podemos victory over PSOE. If this happens, the latter would find itself in a very difficult position – surpassed by the far-left and facing the prospect of pasokification.
3. What happens next?
Polls in recent months have suggested an entrenchment of voting behaviour. Ahead of any polls addressing recent developments, the question remains of whether the far-left coalition can attract both the more centrist among Podemos voters and those IU voters who remain suspicious of Podemos. But even if there are some losses in this regard, an absence of large electoral swings suggests PSOE will get surpassed anyway. Assuming that a still-weakened PP fails to rally its traditional electorate with fearmongering tactics, it’s possible a left-wing bloc could tip the balance in its favour and seize the government.
But, once again, the ball will be in the court of PSOE, which will have to decide whether to share power with Podemos and its allies, or PP – the socialists’ traditional nemesis. If the opinion of the party’s old guard is indicative of something, it looks like PSOE is likely to fold to the wishes of PP and C’s and join them in a German-style Grosse Koalition. Of course, this would be the ultimate betrayal for its voter-base, and would hand leadership of the opposition to Podemos. The other logical alternative would be to go into power as a junior partner of a Podemos-led administration, but this would symbolise a capitulation of PSOE’s leadership over the left, which would disable the socialists’ traditional strategy of appealing to tactical voters. Either way, the 137-year old party seems to be on the edge of the abyss.
Perhaps the only way out for PSOE would be to hand over government to Podemos while staying out of a coalition to keep Podemos in check from parliament. With a minority government, Podemos would have to govern with a precarious grip over the state that would likely disappoint its hopeful voters, who aspire to nothing less than bringing the war against austerity to the heart of the EU. By manoeuvring this way, whether Podemos fails to deliver or gets crushed by exogenous forces, and in the event of yet another future re-election, PSOE could still claim to be a left alternative to Podemos.
Whatever the outcome, the only thing clear is that the elections on 26 June mark a critical juncture in the history of Spain and the EU.
Photo: Adolfo Lujan/Flickr
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