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Spanish voters wake up to new political landscape

Yesterday’s Spanish municipal and regional elections confirmed what the opinion polls have shown for the past year: the electorate is in a flux, and the voters punished the old parties and rewarded the new ones.

Pablo Iglesias lends his support to the Ahora Madrid party in Spain's capital. Demotix/Marcos del Mazo. Some rights reserved.Yesterday’s Spanish municipal and regional elections confirmed what the opinion polls have shown for the past year: the electorate is in a flux, and the voters punished the old parties and rewarded the new ones.

The results of the elections were no big surprise. The conservative Partido Popular (PP) were the biggest losers, dropping from 37% to 27%. They no longer have an outright majority in any of the regions and are forced to enter into alliances and coalitions even in their stronghold Castilla-La Mancha, where it is now up to the socialists (PSOE) and Podemos to form an anti-PP alliance. Likewise in Valencia, the banana republic of Spain, there is now a majority against the PP.

The size of the anti-PP vote, and the turn to the left, is perhaps the biggest story of the elections. Across Spain, the left and the centre-left got more votes and more seats than the right-wing PP. The story that PP have been telling all night is that they came first and are the biggest party. They are indeed still the biggest party, with PSOE just behind at 25% (dropping 2% from the last local elections in 2011). The problem for PP is that they are toxic, and the other parties will be hesitant to prop up local PP administrations. That then leaves the challenge of forming coalitions of the left and the centre-left.

The two new parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, did not do as well as they have been doing in national opinion polls. Podemos only ran in the biggest cities and in the regions where they are strongest and where they could control the process. They did particularly well in Barcelona and Madrid. In Barcelona, Barcelona en Comú – an electoral platform that includes Podemos – came first. In Madrid, Manuela Carmena from Podemos took on Esperanza Aguirre, the former PP leader of the region of Madrid, and won. While PP came first in Madrid, Carmena is set to become mayor with the help of PSOE, making the Madrid mayoralty the jewel in the crown for Podemos. Barcelona and Madrid are big symbolic victories for Podemos, and they will have to build from these strongholds in order to make a bigger impact in the general elections which are likely to be held in late November.

The centrist Ciudadanos scored 6.5% and became the third largest party nationwide. That is not bad for a party that was, until recently, only a minor party in Catalonia. Although they polled far below their numbers in recent national polls, they are now holding the key to power in many regions and municipalities, sitting in the middle of the political spectrum and being able to go right or left in alliances and coalitions with PP or PSOE.

While Podemos have been eating into the voter base of PSOE, PP were mainly hit by Ciudadanos. Like Podemos, they bang on against corruption, and they present themselves as new in both style and content. Headed by the young and media savvy Albert Rivera, Ciudadanos rightly saw that there was a demand and a space for a centrist party for those voters who are disaffected by the duopoly of PPSOE, but find Podemos a tad too radical. The regional elections in Andalusia in March and yesterday’s local and regional elections proved them right: from 1% in Catalonia in 2011, they are now a national force to be reckoned with.

The two old parties – PP and PSOE – are now confronted by two new parties, with new faces and a fresh style. It is also a change of generations. Podemos and Ciudadanos have self-consciously played up the relative youth of their leaders. And it works: ‘old’ is out, ‘new’ is in. ‘Change’ is the buzzword of the day.

What, then, is the fallout from yesterday’s elections? PP are unlikely to be rocked by the results. They have chosen to stick with their leader, the Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and his refrain that the economy is looking better now than it was. In PSOE, Pedro Sánchez might just get another shot at the general elections in November. While young and a fresh face, he has come across as lightweight and has never quite won over the party, let alone the electorate, since he was elected leader a year ago. Both PP and PSOE will be focused on bringing out their core voters and hoping that, with time, the newcomers – Podemos and Ciudadanos – will implode.

As for Podemos and Ciudadanos, their popularity has come fast, and one is left with the impression that they might implode anytime. There is also the possibility that Podemos will be torn apart by internal divisions after the national election. Cracks are already visible between those (including the leader Pablo Iglesias) who are moving to a more moderate position in order to capture disaffected PSOE voters and those who want to stick to the party’s more radical roots. It is essentially a clash between those who want to go the way of a social-democratic catch-all party and those who see Podemos as a more horizontalist and leftist political movement.

The most likely outcome of these – and the national – elections is a four party system where the parties will have to enter into alliances and coalitions to govern at local, regional and national level. That is uncommon in Spain where the electoral system favours the bigger parties. It is unlikely that the other parties will want to touch the toxic PP, and so we will see more or less stable and workable coalitions of PSOE, Podemos and/or Ciudadanos. The latter two will be wary of entering into any coalitions in order not to be tainted by the reputation of the old parties – after all, their success depends on not being part of the old political caste. This has already been happening in Andalusia: PSOE became the biggest party in the regional elections in March, but have so far been unable to form a government. The other parties are playing hardball, and have wanted to keep their distance until after the local and regional elections.

And then I have not even mentioned the ‘old’ two small parties: the centrist Union Progreso y Democracia (UPyD) and the left wing Izquierda Unida (IU). Both did poorly in yesterday’s elections. For many years these parties raged against the political caste of the PPSOE, but once changed arrived, they too were associated with the old party system. UPyD has been squeezed out by the success of Ciudadanos who are competing for the same kind of voters, and their leader, Rosa Díez, just resigned after a dismal performance in the local elections. Izquierda Unida have suffered in the shadow of the left populist Podemos, but are in a slightly better shape. The national elections in November are likely to be the last chance for UPyD. Izquierda Unida stand in a better chance because they can compete with Podemos from the left.

Both party system and electorate are in a flux. What seemed set in stone, has disintegrated in little more than a year. And although the party system seems to have reached an equilibrium with the current quartet of PP, PPSOE, Podemos and Ciudadanos, there is no telling what things will look like in a year.

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About the author

Lasse Thomassen is Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics & International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the co-editor of Radical Democracy: Politics Between Abundance and Lack (2005) and the author of articles on, among other things, representation, radical democracy and post-structuralism.

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