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.
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?
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.
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.
- I recently interviewed one of Podemos’ founding members, Luis Alegre, to discuss their chances in the elections today. Check it out if you’ve any interest in the above.