Change is here. The results of the Spanish elections are what everybody had predicted: the end of the reign of two-party politics, with up to four forces being potentially instrumental in an inevitable government coalition. The time when political deals depended exclusively on the strategies and negotiations of two strong political organizations, the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and the social-democrat Partido Socialista (PSOE), is over. Political plurality is the key to open the doors of La Moncloa, the Spanish presidential palace. But managing plurality tends to be a skill few political operators possess.
The unprecedented, disastrous fall of both PP and PSOE is the strongest signal of the arrival of new political times to Spain. Together they lost over 5 million votes and 83 members of parliament (MPs) compared to the last parliamentary elections in 2011. Back then, PP and PSOE garnered 73% of the votes. After the elections of Sunday, they only had 50%. While PSOE (90 MPs) have delivered their worst result ever since the beginning of Spanish democracy in 1977, PP (124 MPs) are showing their worst figures since their foundation in 1989. Both organizations have consistently failed to understand and address the massive social dissent born in 2011 from the austerity measures both implemented; the Indignados movement .
Since mid-2014, support to the two major parties has fallen to unprecedented levels of unpopularity, starting with the European Parliament elections on May 2014 and the city council, provincial and state elections held only on May this year. Instead of rethinking their strategy or discourse, both parties re-enforced their old narratives with more passion than ever.
The political groupings to benefit most from the old regime’s debacle are the emergent social-democrat Podemos and neoliberal Ciudadanos, with the former rising as the new key for Spanish governance. Created less than two years ago, the grassroots movement turned political party Podemos obtained over five million votes, gradually incrementing its influence with every new election. Challenging all the government and mass media polls that insisted they would never grow beyond 16%, Podemos surged to 20.66%, landing them with 69 brand new members of parliament .
On the other side of the coin, Ciudadanos has not met the promising predictions of the same polls, which placed them close to 20%. With 13.93% of the votes, the party will have 40 representatives in the parliament. Although disappointing at first sight, Ciudadanos still outperformed the best result of any third party in the democratic history of the Spanish parliament, more than doubling CiU’s 16 MPs in 2011. Mainstream media commentary and government polls were totally off the mark. There was also poll inflation on the part of several mass media outlets favouring Ciudadanos .
None of the main political blocks, PP and Ciudadanos on the centre-right (163), or PSOE and Podemos in the centre-left (159), gathered enough seats in parliament to secure a stable term in La Moncloa. The destiny of the next government will rely on a plethora of political organizations seating in the most varied, colorful, and inscrutable parliament in Spanish democratic history. Ten different parties makeup a political ecosystem that will have to figure out how to facilitate coexistence and cooperation. It may well provide, as some have claimed, for the collective healing of many of Spain’s old wounds, still raw from the struggles of the 1936-39 Civil War.
This potentially ungovernable parliament can be put down by in large to Podemos’ brave new political vocabulary dared to unveil. Some others, like EQUO’s (the Greens) Juantxo López de Uralde or Izquierda Unida’s (United Left) Alberto Garzón joined the effort to rub historic taboo topics at state-level politics, mainly the recognition of the country’s multiple internal nationalities. This explains, to some extent, the victory of Podemos-lead coalitions in both the Basque Country and Catalonia, historically secessionist fiefdoms with a strong influence on Madrid’s parliament.
In both regions, the key for political success used to be the polarization of the electorate, the sometimes painful but always necessary positioning between voting to remain in Spain or supporting an uncertain push for independence. Those who tried to avoid the question were usually punished by the electorate, as was the case for Podemos in the September 2015 Catalonian parliamentary elections . Extremely polarized by the pro-independence Catalonian Premier Artur Más, who promoted the elections as a non-binding plebiscite and failed, and the Spanish President Mariano Rajoy, who usually declines to even discuss any new arrangement for Catalonia within Spain, the elections left no room for social policy-centered narratives like the ones Podemos tried.
But the promise of a referendum, and the leadership of Ada Colau, the savvy former social activist, now major of Barcelona has landed a historic victory for Podemos in the region, with 24.74% and 12 MPs from the Catalonian portion of the Spanish parliament. Meanwhile Ciudadanos, who excelled in the September Catalonian elections becoming the main opposition party, has now resoundingly failed obtaining only 13.05% of the votes and 5 MPs . The party’s leader, Albert Rivera, thought that the confrontational style that was successful in fighting institutional secessionism in Catalonia could work in the rest of Spain.
Rivera took this idea to the Basque Country, recently suggesting the abolition of the existing self-governing regime in order to bring it in line with other regions . It was a surprisingly naïve move, not consistent with the rest of his otherwise daring, smart campaign, as its special fiscal and economic regime is one of the very few things accepted by a vast political majority of the Basque Country. Ciudadanos’ poor performance in the Basque Country (4%) is self-explanatory. Meanwhile Podemos is offering many Basques and Catalonians the opportunity to vote for someone instead of against someone (either secessionist or unionist), which until now seemed to be the only option for politically-minded voters.
Ciudadanos has featured a slightly neoliberal, corporate-friendly approach that some believed to be the ideal counterpunch from the right side of politics to the Podemos rising threat to the establishment. It has not been the case. When discussing the national nature of Spain, Rivera showed the same rigidity as the old regime. The last nail in his coffin, electorally speaking, was his statement about positioning himself against any government that would include Podemos in a “losers’ pact” only 48 hours before the election and after weeks of playing with ambiguity regarding post-electoral alliances .
The alternative positioning by Podemos to PP’s and Ciudadanos’ immobility is significant due to the strength of nationalist parties in the new parliament, with up to 26 seats. This could potentially facilitate a PSOE-Podemos governing alliance, supported by some of the strongest nationalist parties. But it would most probably depend on PSOE’s acceptance of a referendum for independence in Catalonia, which could then lead to a long-waited referendum in the Basque Country, something difficult to envisage. Besides, Podemos has also showed difficulties in creating electoral alliances themselves. Even though they managed to create successful coalitions in some regions, they failed in creating the most anticipated national alliance with historic Izquierda Unida, which could potentially have landed more MPs for the party. Also, internal organizational problems between factions have proven problematic within Podemos in secessionist regions, with the entire Basque franchise governing council resigning only weeks before the elections .
Although the mandate of the Spanish population is more heterogeneous than ever, it is united in saying something loud and clear to its political representatives: get together and talk. Sharing the table with the recently-appointed head of state, King Felipe VI, the colorful representation of Spanish political wills will have two months to form a government that reflects that mandate. It is a massive and complex task with an unpredictable outcome. Such is the nature of real change.