Can Europe Make It?

The Andalusian Test

Looking forward from the Andalusian test, the Spanish party system has been transformed. What used to be effectively a two-party system is now a four-party system.

Lasse Thomassen
1 April 2015

Pablo Iglesias galvanises supporters at a pre-election rally in Andalusia. Demotix/Kiko Jimenez. All rights reserved.The regional election in Andalusia on Sunday 22 March was the first of three elections in a big election year in Spain. On Sunday 24 May, citizens will vote in local elections across Spain and regional elections in most of the regions, while general elections are set for November. Last year’s EU parliament elections, Sunday’s Andalusian elections and consecutive opinion polls have shown that Spain’s party system has been rocked by the advent of Podemos and, more recently, the centre-right party Ciudadanos. Despite its local peculiarities, the Andalusian election was a test of what is to come. 

The Andalusian election did not topple Spain’s two-party system. Since the transition to democracy in the late 1970s, Spain has been dominated by two big parties: the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and the social-democratic PSOE. While PP did poorly, dropping from 40% to 26%, PSOE only dropped four percent to 35%.

Andalusia is an old PSOE stronghold, and they were helped by a campaign centred around their regional leader Susana Díaz, who is far more popular than her party. In Andalusia, PSOE have been able to keep an edge vis-à-vis PP and are still seen as the defender of the welfare state and the poor. That edge has been missing at the national level for the last decade, where PSOE initiated the austerity policies continued by the current PP government. PSOE are heading towards bigger losses in the local and national elections later this year.

PP were never going to win Sunday’s election, but still did worse than expected. While PSOE are seen as part of the political caste – to use Podemos’ phrase – PP is the incarnation of that caste. They will probably hold on to many councils and some regional governments in the May elections, but they are heading for opposition in the next parliament, as corruption cases continue to surface. In Andalusia, PP suffered because their voters stayed at home or voted for the new kid on the block: Ciudadanos.

Ciudadanos is not, like Podemos, a new party, but was created a decade ago in Catalonia. Until recently, they were only a force – and a minor one – in Catalonia. In Andalusia – at the opposite end of the country – they scored 9% and came fourth. In the latest national opinion poll from Metroscopia, published in El País, they were tied with PP at 18%. Until Sunday, PP were revelling at the way that the Johnny-come-latelies of Podemos were threatening PSOE’s monopoly on representing the centre-left. Now they know what it feels like to be threatened by a neophyte.

The rise of Ciudadanos has been even more meteoric than that of Podemos. Where Podemos feed off disaffection with the political system in general and PSOE and Izquierda Unida (IU) in particular, Ciudadanos appeal to a different kind of voter. These voters are sceptical about the old parties; but Ciudadanos are not anti-systemic in the way that Podemos are. They appeal to those voters who have tired of PP, but think that Podemos is one step too far.

Doing so, Ciudadanos have occupied a space previously occupied by the small Unión Progresso y Democracia (UPyD). They are the Spanish equivalent of the Liberal Democrats, trying for years to break the duopoly of PP and PSOE, and among the first to protest against the corruption in Spanish politics. Yet, they have not been able to capitalise on the disaffection with the two main parties and they did very poorly in the Andalusian election. Instead, they have come to be seen as part of the old party system. Only last year, UPyD rejected overtures from Ciudadanos to merge or form an electoral alliance. Now Ciudadanos no longer need them, and it may only be a question of time before they implode completely. Their once widely respected leader, Rosa Díez, is in big trouble, and it is just a matter of time before she has to make way for a younger generation within the party.

There is a strange irony at play. The two big parties before the election – PP and PSOE – are still the biggest parties in Andalusia. While the two smaller established parties – UPyD and IU, who have always fought against the duopoly of PPSOE – both got hammered in the election. While PSOE and, especially, PP did lose voters because they were seen as part of the establishment, so did the established anti-establishment parties. Instead the new kids on the block – Ciudadanos and Podemos – made big progress.

Where does that leave Podemos – that much talked about phenomenon in Spanish politics? Podemos came in third at about 15% of the votes in the Andalusian election. That was far below the 20-25% they score in national opinion polls, but this was to be expected. They had not managed to get an organisation up and running before the election was called. More importantly, PSOE in Andalusia is still seen as a real alternative to PP in a way that PSOE are not at the national level. That has got to be the lesson for PSOE for the national elections: to present themselves as a real alternative to the austerity politics and corruption of the conservative PP government.

Podemos siphons off voters from PSOE and from the small left-wing party IU. Where UPyD would have been the natural party to go to for disaffected centrist voters, IU would have been the natural party to look to for disaffected PSOE voters. It was like that for a while after the indignados protest in 2011, but, as soon as Podemos entered the political scene, IU was marginalised. With their populist message of indignation and hope, Podemos were able to do what IU’s sister party in Greece, Syriza, did. Only a few years back, Syriza were in the same situation as IU, but they were able to channel the rejection of austerity politics and the popular disaffection with the political system. Today, Podemos, and not IU, look like the Syriza of Spain.

Looking forward from the Andalusian test, the Spanish party system has been transformed. What used to be effectively a two-party system is now a four-party system. The old major parties have not imploded (yet), but the two-party system has gone (for now). Voters’ identification with the new parties is precarious however, and it is difficult to say that Ciudadanos and Podemos will survive in their present form.

PP are in dire straits. While currently holding on to a majority in the Spanish parliament, there is now a huge electoral majority against PP: from the centre-right Ciudadanos to the left-wing IU, and from the establishment PSOE to the populist and anti-establishment Podemos. In Andalusia, the PSOE leader, Susana Díaz, has announced that she is going to govern alone in a minority government. At the national level, PSOE can go right (Ciudadanos) or left (Podemos and IU). Both options are fraught with dangers, but at least they have a chance of being in government, unlike the conservative PP.

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