Stalemate in Spain

Dormíamos, Despertamos

I walked into the packed bar in Malasaña, a district of Madrid famous for the hedonistic, post-Franco ‘Movida’ movement of the 70’s and 80’s. Every table was full with people chatting intensely over short glasses of beer and bowls of olives. I weaved through to find my friend. “They’re all talking about the same thing.” Moises exclaimed as he stood up to greet me, “What’s going to happen next?”

No Clear Winner

The results of the General Election in Spain on December 20th 2015 provided no clear winner. The incumbent conservative PP won the most votes, but not enough for a majority required to form government and 64 fewer seats than last time around. The main opposition party, PSOE, came second in the vote – although they won a historically low number of seats. Podemos, the anti-austerity party led by Pablo Iglesias, were hailed for causing the biggest impact on the Spanish political landscape with 20.7% of the total vote. The results of centre-right party Ciudadanos were tainted somewhat by exaggerated media expectations and when they emerged with 29 seats fewer than Podemos it was seen as a disappointment. However, both newcomers made considerable gains given that neither ran in 2011.

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Coalition or Re-Election?

We can see from the graph above that 176 seats are required to form a majority government, so neither of the more ‘natural’ combinations of the PP and Ciudadanos or Podemos and the PSOE is possible. A broad left-wing government is possible if the PSOE and Podemos were able to join together with a selection of smaller parties shown here as ‘IU’ and ‘Others’. Another coalition possibility, and that most favoured by establishment powers and economic elites, is a so-called ‘Grand Coalition’ between the PP and PSOE. However, if the PSOE were to form a coalition with the PP, they may face a similar demise to the Lib Dems over recent years in Britain. In this case Podemos could foreseeably fill the principal opposition void left behind.

The alternative to any of the proposals above are re-elections. Several senior PSOE and PP politicians have already accepted that a re-election will take place. However, this is a risk for them since Podemos were on the rise in the weeks leading to the election and could grow further still in the event of a re-election, especially if they allied with the leftist Izquierda Unida party (‘IU’ in the graph above).

What’s going to happen?

The country is in political stalemate. The PSOE are, at present, not willing to join with the PP or Ciudadanos on account of ideological differences. Nor are they willing to join with Podemos by compromising on their stance against a Catalan referendum.* The indecision will continue for weeks to come. And, even then, who’s to say that an agreement will be reached.

The long term survival of the PSOE might depend on joining with Podemos in a coalition government. Similarly, Podemos need to capitalize now on the crisis of legitimacy of the traditional political regime; otherwise the wave of welcome change they’ve introduced might dissipate into a temporary revolt against bipartisan hegemony in Spain.

The kind of pragmatic negotiations that took place behind closed doors during the transition to democracy in 1975 may prove vital to fulfilling the hopes of many Spaniards and bringing about a new, fairer Spain.

* Many citizens of Catalonia, a highly industrialised and populous region in North-East Spain that accounts for a fifth of the country’s economic output, desire the right to vote on their independence, much like in Scotland.

Below are some photos I took to capture the mood in Madrid on 29/12/15:

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Campaign posters cover the city.
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Satirical graffiti mocking the PSOE, PP and Ciudadanos.
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A statement at Podemos’ offices that reads ‘Closed for Christmas Holidays’ has been altered to ‘Closed for Electoral Failure’. Some were still not pleased with election results despite the party’s strong performance.
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Modest Podemos offices in Lavapiés, Madrid.
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The Townhall of Madrid with ‘Refugees Welcome’ draped over the entrance. Podemos’ Manuela Carmena has been the Mayor since June 2015, in which time she has lowered debts, increased social spending, opened the town hall to the public and introduced a €20 per month travel card to any area in Madrid for under-26’s (imagine that in London!)
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A pigeon ponders the different possibilities of future government in Spain.
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Decisive Role of Newcomers in Spanish Elections

Today the most unpredictable General Election in Spain since the transition to democracy in 1975 is taking place. Every election since then has been a two-horse race between the incumbent conservative Partido Popular (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE). But over the last year two new players have entered the fray and now the outcome is much more difficult to predict.

A decisive moment for Spain

A knowledge of Spain’s recent history is important to understand the significance of the vote today. After the crumbling of Spain’s global empire at the end of the 19th Century, the country became embroiled in nepotistic ‘caciquismo’ politics. Cronyism and intimidation were the cornerstones of the ruling classes in a country that was developing at a far slower rate than its increasingly powerful Western neighbours. An economic downturn at the start of the 20th Century compounded the nation’s woes as it fell into a quagmire of backwardness. Several movements emerged to counter this stagnation, such as Joaquin Costa’s regenerationism and nationalist movements demanding greater autonomy for their regions. However, there was little change to the sociopolitical fabric of the nation by the time Primo de Rivera became dictator in 1923 and subsequently Francisco Franco in 1939. 36 years of protectionism, slow development and brutal oppression followed.

In 1975 King Juan Carlos turned his back on Franco and undertook a brave strategy, along with his appointed Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, to democratise the nation. Both are still lauded for their efforts in bringing about a peaceful transition to democracy – straddling the fragile tightrope between placating Franco’s senior politicians still in power and the Spanish public hungry for change. However, as a result, many Francoist sympathizers remained in positions of power. A constitution was drawn up and regular democratic elections were held. But cronyism never disappeared and is still rife today.

The newcomers

Podemos and Ciudadanos are the two new parties that have formed since the last General Election. The former is a left-wing formation that developed from the 15-M anti-austerity protests in 2011. Podemos have expertly used inclusive rhetoric, new technology and charismatic leadership to build a new model of 21st Century politics. In regional elections earlier this year, Podemos’ allies won in major cities such as Barcelona and Madrid. Ciudadanos is the other newcomer – led by an engaging lawyer from Barcelona called Albert Rivera. His party wishes to rid Spain of political corruption and build on the PP’s neoliberal model for growing the economy.  

 

A unique situation

When Spain’s housing bubble burst following the economic crash in 2008, the country suffered enormously. Unemployment in Spain is still above 20%, labour legislation favours temporary employment and restricts workers’ rights. There is also a housing law that leaves the evictee with huge debts after an eviction has taken place. Furthermore, emigration from Spain is higher than it’s been for years – with countless young people moving from Spain to find work abroad.

What will happen?

Metroscopia

An absolute majority for any party is very unlikely thanks to the rise of new entrants. A coalition is therefore more probable. But who will form it?

The upswing of the Spanish economy by 3% this year has favoured the PP. Also, Spain’s electoral system gives disproportionate weight to sparsely populated rural provinces that are more likely to vote for Rajoy’s party. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that recent polls suggest the PP will win a majority. However, crucially, they will require support from another party to form a government. Ciudadanos would be the most likely ally given their position on the right-hand side of the political spectrum. But a fundamental pillar of Rivera’s campaign was to stand against corruption. So the PP might have problems finding a coalition partner. An alternative possibility is the formation of a broad left-wing coalition between the PSOE and Podemos. So the most likely scenario is several days of horse-trading following today’s polling results, until the world find out Spain’s political future.

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No matter what the outcome of the vote today, the political landscape in Spain has been turned on its head, and it’s very likely that Podemos or Ciudadanos will play the decisive role in forming a government when the votes are counted later this evening.