On the 26th of June, the Spanish government celebrated a second general election after more than six months of political deadlock. The result was yet another stalemate, but this time the conservative PP (Partido Popular, or Popular Party) grew in the number of votes and seats gained in Spain’s Congress of Deputies, while every other major political force – PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party), Ciudadanos (Citizens) and the newly-formed left-wing populist party Unidos Podemos (United We Can) – lost both votes and seats. The incumbent President Mariano Rajoy, leader of the PP, was quick to proclaim victory and thank his voters for their support, despite still being a long way from recovering his party’s absolute majority, lost in the December 2015 elections.
Now, the country is faced with three possible outcomes to these elections, all of which would be the first of their kind in the history of modern Spanish democracy: A minority government, a coalition government or, once again, new elections six months from now.
A SYSTEM WITH NO CONTINGENCY PLAN
In order to grasp how this situation has come about, it is necessary to understand that the Spanish system of government is predicated on the condition that any political party that wins in the general elections can form a government only when it has an absolute majority of seats in the Congress of Deputies of Spain – this being defined as holding 176 seats out of 350. The system is meant to ensure that, in theory, any party which does not attain absolute majority must form a coalition government with other groups through agreements and compromises. The December 2015 elections resulted in no one party – even the PP, which collected the most number of votes and held the largest number of seats in Congress – being able to achieve that absolute majority, and so all four major political groups entered into negotiations with one another, ostensibly to discuss the creation of a coalition government and come to an agreement on how to do so.
But the hope that a compromise would be reached eventually faded as the months passed and the negotiations dragged on, often filled with recriminations and mutual accusations of an unwillingness to co-operate. It soon became increasingly clear that a solution to the political quagmire the country had stumbled into would not be materializing any time soon.
And so, after six long months of largely fruitless talks, new elections were held this past June. The PP grew in votes and in seats, while the other political groups lost both, but once again no one party achieved the numbers needed to obtain that elusive absolute majority in Congress. Once again, the four main political parties have entered negotiations with one another, but now the question is: What will happen if no agreement is reached?
If no agreement is reached, then the Spanish democratic system will be faced with a situation for which it has no contingency plan, as its constitution only contemplates the possibility of a single repetition of the country’s general elections, and PP currently remains as a caretaker government until further notice.
THE SPANISH POPULIST LEFT: LOSING MOMENTUM?
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the elections was the apparent loss of momentum suffered by the far-left populist movement Podemos, which disappointed and frustrated – but above all surprised – both its leadership and its supporters, who had expected the party would become the second political force in Spain and instead saw how they wound up losing votes.
The results of the December 2015 elections were a remarkable success for the group, as they went from a party with no congressional representatives to suddenly holding 69 seats. The subsequent merging between Podemos and the far-left party Izquierda Unida (United Left) – forming the group Unidos Podemos – was expected to enjoy greater success in these elections. There was talk of a Sorpasso, a situation in which the group would overtake the PSOE in seats and votes and, effectively, become the second political force in the country.
At this point it is important to note that, on the Spanish political scene, there is no major figurehead for the far-right. France has Jeanne-Marine Le Pen, Austria has Norbert Hofer, Greece has the Golden Dawn, but Spain has only loose groups – among them reduced remnants of the Fascist Falange party – with no real unity, and no leader who can boast a significant presence either in the political landscape or in the media. Instead, it is far-left movements such as Podemos which have become increasingly relevant on the Spanish political scene, something that soon gave rise to comparisons to Greece’s SYRIZA party.
Both SYRIZA and Podemos enjoyed a remarkable growth in their early days, thanks to support among those voters most affected by the economic crisis, and their anti-austerity rhetoric is often very similar. Indeed, Pablo Iglesias – the General Secretary of Podemos – has often expressed support for Alexis Tsipras, leader of SYRIZA and now the Prime Minister of Greece. There was serious talk that the next Spanish government would be a coalition, headed by Unidos Podemos – similar to the coalition government of Greece, formed by the left-wing SYRIZA and the right-wing ANEL.
But the results of the elections have apparently put a brake on those hopes of success held by the party and its supporters, instead added only two more seats to their previous result – going from 69 to 71 – despite pre-election polls predicting much better results. A number of reasons can be put forward for this apparent setback; notably there has been a growing disenchantment among many of Podemos’ supporters, who feel that the group’s growing focus on politics has distanced them from their original anti-austerity rhetoric. This, along with visible disagreements among the party leadership and a higher number of abstentions in this year’s elections than last year’s, all seem to have contributed to the wind being let out of the group’s sails.
Whatever the reason, the current reality is that Spain’s populistic far-left, before so buoyed by an unexpected popularity and success, is now in serious danger of losing its momentum as it becomes a major player on the country’s political scene.
A LONG ROAD AHEAD
For six months now the PP have remained in power as a caretaker government rather than an official one, and no-one seems to want to contemplate what could happen if this situation is not resolved. Another repetition of the general elections has been discussed, and while it is a possibility, it is also becoming apparent that both politicians and ordinary citizens are getting tired of the stalemate and just want to reach a solution, any solution. A coalition government would, for many, be ideal, but two weeks on and no immediate agreement between any of the major political players appears forthcoming.
Another, possibly more likely, outcome is that the PP will simply form a minority government. If this were to happen, not only would it be the first of its kind in the history of modern, post-Francoist Spanish democracy, it would also no doubt please the millions of citizens who voted for them. But it would also deeply anger the millions of others who did not, and leave a divided Congress full of groups largely unwilling to give the PP any of the free rein it has had thus far to enact its policies, and determined to mount a fiercer opposition than has been faced by Mariano Rajoy.
There is a lot of talk now about what to do and what the immediate political future could be, but a common Spanish saying seems to sum up the current situation best:
Del dicho al hecho hay un trecho.
There’s a long road between what is said to what is done.
Image: “Adrian faces his first bull” by Keith Williamson, flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0