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Home Opinion Everything is at stake in Spain’s repeat elections
State of the Left - Spain

Everything is at stake in Spain’s repeat elections

Elisa Díaz-Martínez & Marta Romero - 19 May 2016

The outcome of Spain’s bid to alleviate electoral stalemate will determine the future leadership of the country’s left

Spaniards will be voting again on 26 June as a result of the failure of political parties to form a government. The general election is perceived as a peculiar second round of the elections that took place in December 2015.

The 2015 general elections were considered an important test of the strength of the emerging political parties: leftwing Podemos and centrist-liberal party Ciudadanos. These political parties started competing with the majoritarian, traditional parties – the conservative People’s party (PP) and the centre-left Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) – in the 2014 European elections, and were pivotal players in the regional and local elections of 2015 in which they became decisive for government formation.

Given the fragmented parliament following the elections, the public’s perception was that it was highly unlikely any party would be able to form a coalition government. The possible coalitions, although arithmetically possible, were not feasible in political terms. PSOE played a central and active role in the formation of possible coalitions. Neither a German-style grand coalition between the PP and the PSOE, nor a coalition with Podemos and the nationalist parties had the necessary support within PSOE. They would have not been accepted by a significant part of its electorate either. The strategy chosen by the socialist party was to sign a wide-ranging policy agreement with Ciudadanos, which was successful. However, the deal did not have the endorsement from other political parties.

Failure to form government was triggered for the first time in recent Spanish history and repeat elections will be held in just a few weeks. Opinion polls indicate thea repeat of the electoral fragmentation and the increased risk of abstention. However, polls may change in the coming weeks to reflect the different strategies political parties are currently pursuing. Furthermore, key questions such as who will emerge as the lead figure of the spectrum of forces on the left are at stake, and that might bring some electoral and post-electoral coalition surprises.

Is this the (final) contest to rule the country?

The degree of success or failure for political parties in the coming general election will be determined by comparison with results in the 2015 general election. The fragmentation of the parliament resulting from the elections will be important in the competition to form a government. A keen eye should be kept on the key tensions between traditional and emerging parties, the left and the right, and moderate and radical nationalist parties. There will be a special focus on the results in Catalonia.

The strategy followed by the different political parties to increase electoral support before the elections might be crucial. Those strategies might imply changes with respect to the 2015 results. Podemos, aiming to enlarge its support, has conglomerated most forces in the left spectrum into a single alliance: Unidos Podemos (United We Can). Podemos’s rationale is that it will benefit from the polarisation of the elections. They believe they will benefit from the public perceiving a need to choose between the continuation of a rightwing government (formed by PP, potentially in coalition with Ciudadanos) and a leftwing government that will ensure the change that citizens are demanding as a result of the rising inequality since 2008.

This polarisation might also benefit PP, which is currently leading in the polls. The conservatives will seek to appeal to the tactical vote with the message that it is the only political party that can avoid the threat that it argues a populist and radical government would impose on the country. With this strategy – stoking fear of chaos and extremism – the conservatives will seek to recapture the votes that went to Ciudadanos last December. Together, PP and Ciudadanos got two more seats that the parties of the left, so they are considered a clear possible ally.

This polarisation of the electoral contest is therefore likely to harm both PSOE and Ciudadanos – the moderate options that remain.

The battle for the leadership of the left

Since its inception two and a half years ago, Podemos has strived to lead the left in Spain by seeking to replace PSOE. It is no accident that most of its voters come from the socialist party.

Podemos’s opposition to a government led by PSOE is explained by its belief that they can, as Syriza did to Pasok in Greece, gobble up the Socialists and become the leading party on the left of the political spectrum. 

Thus, in addition to issue of who will govern, 26 June will also be a battle at the polls for the future leadership of the left. Podemos has moved on from the discourse on the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ way of doing politics (with which it competed to attract a vote from the entire political spectrum) and has entered the main political arena, pursuing an ideological battle to win the left. Podemos has adjusted its strategy to get ahead of the PSOE in this second election with the Unidos Podemos alliance. The goal is to damage the Socialists by polarising the campaign and leaving them stranded in the centre, looking like losers.

For the Socialists, this ‘all-or-nothing’ attack from Podemos is very dangerous. It delves into internal divisions over what strategy the party should follow and consequently undermines the leadership of Pedro Sánchez.

At the moment it seems that the Socialists will try to resist by appealing to the party’s traditional electorate, showing the strength of its regional political power and the advantages of the Spanish electoral system (in which small populations are over-represented). While young and urban voters support Podemos, PSOE have a larger support from the middle-aged population as well as those in rural areas. Using a defensive strategy, the Socialists will try to win the support of those voters and will reinforce the message that only the PSOE is a guarantee of tangible progressive change, against the government of the right and the radicalism of Podemos.

Another test for social democracy

Inevitably, the upcoming Spanish elections will be a test to calibrate the strength of social democracy, which either in decline or facing limited prospects of growth in many European countries. If Podemos gets ahead of the PSOE, the comparison with Greece and Pasok will be unavoidable. If, on the contrary, the Socialists are successful in this second election and end up forming a government with Podemos and other parties from the left, Spain will be compared with Portugal, where the Socialist Workers’ party formed a coalition government with the Left Bloc and the Communist’s Green Alliance. A lot is at stake.

Elisa Díaz-Martínez is director of the thinktank Laboratorio at Fundación Alternativas

Marta Romero is deputy director of the thinktank Laboratorio at Fundación Alternativas

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin reporting from across the world of social democratic politics

Tags: Elisa Díaz-Martínez & Marta Romero


Jose Joaquin Perez
24 May 2016 01:52

The real fight, at any so called "democratic" election, not just in Spain or Europe but anywhere in the World, is not the apparent contest between beige colors of left and right, supposedly fighting for the imaginary "political power", but the real fight between political knowledge and economical power, the real power behind any human throne. As long as human power subordinates human knowledge and despises human Wisdom (the very attribute of the People), any political activity is futile. Populism is nothing more than the abuse by mediocre burocrats and bad politicians, to try and instrumentalize, the legitimate Vocation of the People to Become United and subordinate the Liberty of the Good Politics and the Equality of the Good Economy, for the Good of All. If this comment makes me sound like an anarchist, is precisely because the worst form of anarchy you can possibly get is this "cratocracy" disguised in invented "democracy" clothes and fighting against the relentless Laocracy the since We already Dreamt, is coming. By the way Laos is the Greek word for People and not demos.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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