In December, Spain’s leftwing parties scored a narrow triumph over the incumbent, pro-austerity People’s Party (PP), Mariano Rajoy’s prime minister. They won more votes and were in a much better position to form a government. They failed, however, to reach an agreement, so a second election was held on Sunday. Rajoy, whose party is awash with corruption scandals but has overseen a return to growth in the Spanish economy, won. Spain now faces several years more of austerity and internal devaluation.
The so-called “Spanish revolution” proclaimed by the indignados (outraged) who turned out in their hundreds of thousands in Spanish city squares in 2011 and which was later taken up the remarkable Podemos party appears to have fizzled. On Sunday night, PP supporters shouted “Yes, we can!” to Rajoy, taunting Podemos by using its own famous slogan.
Will a brave new Spain rise from the election stalemate?
This second round of elections was sparked by several factors, including the battle between insurgents and established parties – with socialists and PP battling against the newcomers of Podemos and Ciudadanos, respectively. But it was also the result of a parliament that was so fractured that any government would necessarily have required a pact between people who disagreed on at least one of the two fundamental issues facing Spain.
One of those issues is the economy and how to get a country with 20% unemployment back to work. The other is the battle over the rise of separatism in Catalonia and calls for a referendum to settle the matter.
The latter proved an insurmountable obstacle to the left – which is split on whether a referendum should be allowed. The socialists do not want one; Podemos does. Yet, in order to govern, the two parties would have needed the backing of Catalan separatist parties in the Madrid parliament.
What’s the mood in Spain following the election?
Podemos was not too worried. It thought it could overtake the socialists as the leading force on the left and either lead the government or lead the opposition, and it will now do neither.
It would take a near miracle to form a leftwing government now. Pedro Sanchez, the socialist leader, was cheered by his followers for holding off the Podemos challenge. If he wants to govern, however, he must first persuade Podemos to back him. Then he must also reverse his party’s policy on Catalonia in order to win the support of separatists there. That seems unlikely to happen. Rajoy may also struggle to form a government but is far better placed to do so. If he can strike a deal with the liberal Ciudadanos and with moderate nationalists and regional parties in the Basque Country and the Canary Islands, he will be just one seat short of a majority Dba Press.
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Unidos Podemos: Spain’s leftwing alliance hoping to end political impasse
That does not mean Spain is returning to its old ways. Voters have delivered a clear message that politics is no longer a game of absolute winners and absolute losers. In December, they transformed the two-party system that had emerged during Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1970s by voting for a fractured
parliament where no party has more than 35% of the vote. Corruption, unemployment and recession had knocked popular support for both PP and socialists. On Sunday, even though the insurgents lost ground, the message remained the same.
Political leaders in Madrid, in other words, must get used to the idea of power-sharing. The left failed to get that message after December’s close-run elections. Will the right, with PP and Ciudadanos, now show that they understand?
The results were a major blow for Podemos – the first in its short, two-and-a-half-year life. Pablo Iglesias, the ponytailed young politics lecturer who almost single-handedly made the party popular, may find his leadership questioned.
As soon as he entered parliament, many potential voters were offended by Iglesias’s fierce criticisms of former party leaders, like four-time prime minister Felipe González. In one notorious speech, he blamed González for the death squads against suspected armed Basque separatists in the 1980s.
Other voters may have blamed Podemos for refusing to back a proposed government led by Sanchez with the support of Ciudadanos. Podemos was founded, in part, by anti-capitalists. The raised, radical fist was often present at party meetings in its early days. Yet, the party has also proved to be a chameleon. Strategy, and winning power, have often appeared to trump policy and principle.
In its latest incarnation, Podemos branded itself as representing what it called “new social democracy.” In simple terms, that meant going back to a form of social democracy that existed before Tony Blair set off on his “third-way” politics, taking the Labour party with him. Yet while trying to shed the “radical” tag, Podemos also went into these elections in coalition with communist-led Izquierda Unida (IU). Either way, it is no closer to power than it was six months ago.