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The Battle Rages on in Spain: the Country Prepares for Repeat Elections in June

The clock that started ticking on December 20 2015 after the most anticipated parliamentary elections in Spanish history stopped on April 28. At this point the term, allocated by the Head of State King Felipe VI, for the elected political leaders to create a coalition for governance expired. The Parliament has since dissolved, giving an end to the shortest ever term in Spain’s young democracy. New elections are now scheduled to be held in June. The enormous expectation around possible agreements to create a government were not matched with grandiose coalitions a la Germany, uniting the two main dominant parties, and (at least apparently) irreconcilable PP (conservative) and PSOE (social democrat), or a la Greece, with a big left-wing conglomerate led by the emergent Podemos. [1]

La Moncloa, the Spanish Presidential Palace is still inhabited by the acting President Mariano Rajoy, leader of the conservative Popular Party. A calm, slow-moving, extremely cautious politician, who prefers to wait for others to get burned before stepping inside a hot kitchen himself. Rajoy’s apparent inaction seems to desperate more and more members of his own party, including former conservative President Jose María Aznar, also the political father of Rajoy. Now turned into some kind of dormant Saturn about to devour his political son, Aznar is asking for a new leadership in line to the challenges the country is facing, implying Rajoy needs to change, or rather go.[2] Aznar and many other in the PP still can’t fully believe Rajoy twice rejected the formal offer by the King to create a new government for the country. Despite being the most voted candidate, Mariano didn’t believe he had enough support in the Parliament, and preferred to yield the floor to his theoretical arch nemesis, the social democrat Pedro Sánchez. He was probably trying to set up a stage for Sánchez to fail, so that he could claim, again, that the PP is the only party capable of governing the traditionally indomitable Spain. Furthermore, Rajoy’s image is now irredeemably linked to an endless account of embarrassing corruption cases at the very core of the party he leads, which affects their leverage and leadership chances.

Meanwhile, the theoretically social-democratic PSOE, still suffering the grogginess created by the ideological vacuum created by Blair and Shroeder’s 1998 Third Way in the European centre-left,[3] signed a surprising government agreement with Ciudadanos, new neoliberals. Both parties don’t even get close to a sum of votes that would guarantee them governance, but they apparently found it adequate to condition all their next movements to a bizarre toast to the sun, naively hoping that PP and center-left Podemos would bless it with their abstention in a failed investiture session in March.

The emergent Podemos, identified as the main representative of the reigning social dissent and initially perceived as the big winner after Election Day, are not living their best moment either. They tried an approach to PSOE that was perceived by many as hostile and overly demanding. An exacerbated Pablo Iglesias, leader and co-founder of the party, publicly listed the Ministries he expected to control in a hypothetical center-left agreement. That was shortly before attacking in Parliament Aznar’s equivalent in the PSOE’s side, former President and rundown political legend Felipe Gonzalez. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work out. Not only Podemos has not been able to create strong coalitions with initially obvious partners like Izquierda Unida (United Left), but their own internal regional coalitions, dependent on the agreement of a whole plethora of social movements, seem sometimes rather fragile. The common problem seems to be the excessive centralization of power in the party’s headquarters in Madrid, contradicting the initial principles of horizontality and grassroots-driven decision-making.

In the center of such controversy stands Podemos’ number two, Inigo Errejón. Leader of one of the two main internal factions, the one more inclined for a strong, centralized political apparatus to facilitate electoral wins, Errejón exercised a strong influence on the regional franchises of the party through the now former Organizational Secretary Sergio Pascual. The sudden cessation of Pascual by party leader Pablo Iglesias initiated an unprecedented crisis in a long-lasting political marriage between him and Errejón. Friends, colleagues and co-builders of the party’s ideology, Iglesias and Errejón feel now further apart than ever before, despite their public denial. Iglesias replaced Pascual with Pablo Echenique, a physics researcher and co-founder of the party, who always advocated for horizontal hierarchies and was initially removed from leadership precisely by Errejón’s faction. This is perhaps one of the high prices of politics, old friendships risked by the mathematics of power.

Now, with Echenique back at the centre, Iglesias feels free again and legitimized in his rejection of a coalition with Sánchez’s PSOE due to their agreement with Ciudadanos. Many consider the PSOE-Ciudadanos covenant a Third Way-style approach, trying to find balance in a moment of extreme political polarization. The problem, both for Podemos and IU (United Left), is that PSOE seems to have placed the political center at Ciudadanos, a neoliberal organization that openly flirts with right wing ideology and doesn’t hide its proximity to Big Business interests and free market dogmatism.

Podemos preferred to maintain a firm positioning against the establishment, a move supported by 88% of almost 150,000 supporters that voted online in an unprecedented internal referendum to decide on government coalition agreements.[4] The party aims to be perceived as the last defense against the immense power of the global financial markets, which seem to have invaded all the political and economic powerhouses on the Spanish commanding heights. The last victim is El País newspaper, now one of the symbols of a decrepit hegemony.[5] Traditionally progressive, the editorials have been openly hostile to Podemos from day one, and suspiciously friendly to Ciudadanos. The media will be again a key player in the second round of this fascinating political battle between the efforts of grassroots politics and the dominance of global private financial interests.

Facing new elections in June, the conservative PP survives between the uncertainty of a weak and unpopular leadership, and the positive prospect of a growing division at the left side of the political spectrum. PSOE fears being punished (again, after receiving the lowest number of votes ever in the December election) for their adventurous flirting with Ciudadanos. The latter have somehow managed to play a central role in almost every negotiation opened after the elections, even though they were only the fourth party in votes. Podemos feels confident. They are excellent campaigners, have gone back to their roots with Echenique controlling the internal power dynamics, and seem to have learned the lesson about being flexible in negotiating with electoral partners. Recent polls show that a Podemos-IU alliance could even beat PSOE and become the second political force in the country. [6] All the parties are going to be both punished and rewarded for their behavior and strategies in the last four months. Uncertainty is still reigning, the battle is still on.

Notes.

[1] https://www.counterpunch.org/2015/12/22/the-new-spain-between-uncertainty-and-hope/

[2] http://politica.elpais.com/politica/2016/03/29/actualidad/1459273011_885519.html

[3] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/205948.stm

[4] http://podemos.info/resultados-de-la-votacion-sobre-el-gobierno-de-espana/

[5] http://ctxt.es/es/20160413/Firmas/5156/Tecetipos-Gerardo-Tece-actualidad-noticias-teletipos-Espa%C3%B1a-.htm#.VyJNiUnB9s0.twitter

[6] http://politica.elpais.com/politica/2016/04/30/actualidad/1462033581_231781.html

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Victor Lasa is a PhD candidate with the Centre for Global Research, RMIT University, and chief editor of the Spanish news site Geopolitica HOY. With an interest in information politics, he has contributed as an advisor to emergent political parties in Spain and Australia. Follow him at @victorlasa

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