The stalemate in Spanish politics has entered its second month and shows no sign of resolution. The 20 December 2015 general elections ended in a four-way stalemate, with no single party or likely coalition achieving a majority.
On 22 January, Spain’s king invited conservative (PP) leader Mariano Rajoy to form a government. However, Rajoy strategically declined the offer, as he had no realistic prospect of winning the parliamentary vote necessary to confirm his position as president.
The conservative PP was the highest-voted party, winning 123 seats in the 350-seat parliament. However, their right-wing fellow-travelers Ciudadanos (Citizens) won only 40 seats, leaving the likely coalition and favorite of Bloomberg short of the 176 seats necessary to form a majority government.
Meanwhile, the misleadingly named Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), which has been a stalwart of Spanish democracy since the end of the Franco dictatorship and which governed from 1982–1996 and from 2004–2011, was reduced to a representation of just 90 seats. The PSOE vote superseded that of the new left party Podemos (We Can) by just 1.35 percent nationwide. With Podemos’ vote concentrated in the industrialized north and northeast, which have lower parliamentary representation than rural areas, the party won just 69 seats.
The combined PSOE-Podemos vote amounts to just 45 percent of seats, but in any event the PSOE’s positioning within the neoliberal status quo makes any hypothetical center-left pact with Podemos improbable. The left-wing upstarts Podemos have demanded constitutional reforms guaranteeing rights to healthcare, education, and housing and referendums on “plurinational” autonomy for Catalonia, Galicia, Valencia, and Basque Country. The latter proposal was described as “very concerning” by a PSOE spokesperson.
This “concern” will be amplified by the new president in Barcelona, Carles Puigdemont. On 10 January Puigdemont declared Catalonia in a state of “pre-independence” from Spain. As such, PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez may justify a coalition with the PP and Ciudadanos on the grounds of forming a united front against Catalonian independence. This maneuver would be as much a desperate attempt to extricate themselves from their current situation, outflanked on the left and the right, as it would be a product of opposition to Catalonian autonomy.
In the long-term, however, the PSOE cannot form an alliance with the PP without alienating their support base with potentially fatal consequences. A PSOE abstention would be enough to get Rajoy over the line, but ceding to the PP in such a way would mean that in the long-term the party bleeds vote to Podemos as well as Ciudadanos.
Sensing the hopelessness of the PSOE’s position, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias offered to form a coalition government with the PSOE, with Sánchez as President. Yet given that such a coalition would rely on the support of Basque and Catalan nationalists who have aligned with Podemos thanks to their call for a “plurinational” state, the offer appeared to be a poisoned chalice, designed to lay the blame on Sánchez for the ongoing stalemate.
As such, the most likely outcome remains another election in two to three months. The latest polling shows the PP’s vote set to consolidate and Podemos’ support continuing to rise at the cost of the PSOE, implying that polarization and the current impasse will precede its resolution. Sadly, the push for rights to housing and basic income that emerged from the 15-M Indignados movement now take a backseat to the war of words over Catalonian independence.
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How did Spain’s two-party system reach such an impasse? Because popular confidence in the system was destroyed by the economic crisis. The two parties who dominated electoral politics in Spain since the transition to democracy in 1982 now account for barely over 50 percent of the vote combined. The rest is up for grabs.
After the mortgage crisis hit, Spanish families were being thrown out of their homes in neighborhoods across the country and youth unemployment topped 50 percent, yet billions were given to bailout the banks. Stimulus loans from the European Central Bank were funneled through Spanish banks before they reached the Spanish government, leaving state finances and basic social services impoverished. Twenty-one percent of the working-age population remains unemployed. Something has to give.
The first new contender was Podemos, a party that emerged out of the 15-M occupations that preceded Occupy Wall Street but now has a complicated relationship with the movement. Pablo Iglesias, party leader and former political science professor, gave speeches whose intonation matched that of Latin American socialists. He spoke of raising taxes on the rich and the banks, paying a basic income to all citizens, and stopping people being thrown out of their homes in the wake of the mortgage crisis. In January 2015, Podemos become the highest polling party in Spain, topping both the PP and PSOE.
At the time, Greece’s Syriza was promising to challenge austerity and financial sector hegemony in the European Union. Like Syriza, Podemos were lefties who had dropped all mention of Marx, class, and –isms. Popular economics had escaped out from under the poisoned banner of the USSR, shrouded in the saccharine rhetoric of “Change” and “¡Sí se puede!” (“Yes We Can!”). A revolution via the ballot box seemed in the cards.
But Podemos has two major problems. First, in Madrid the party became alienated from the local assemblies around which the 15-M uprising was organized. Podemos won only 20 percent of the votes in the city, despite the fact that the candidate of the assemblies, Manuela Carmena, was elected mayor of Madrid in June. By contrast, Podemos comfortably won the vote in Barcelona in alliance with the popular movement, Comú.
Its second problem is Ciudadanos. After winning two seats in the European Parliament in May 2014, Ciudadanos launched as a national party in December 2014. Its leader, Albert Rivera, echoed the rhetoric of Podemos in every way he could while hardly giving anything away regarding his policies. It was all about transition and change; the old corruption vs. the new generation.
Ciudadanos stood for nothing except “Spain”, which in practice meant opposing any talk of autonomy for Barcelona and the Basque Country. In effect, this split the Podemos vote by presenting a second fresh-faced candidate for “change” while opposing Podemos proposals for “plurinational” regional autonomy. Although Ciudadanos did not supersede Podemos, as polls had predicted since November, they still managed 3.5 million votes nationwide.
A Ciudadanos rally is a surreal sight. Press passes are on offer to whoever will take them. Huge screens are strung up behind the podium. The crowd is elderly and adorned with matching orange scarves. They clap politely as Rivera is introduced by a Danish centrist politician in broken Spanish and then sit patiently as party promotional videos that double as television campaign ads are played on the screens. They clap politely again. The scene is an utterly conformist public-relations operation that you can almost see being sketched up in some office somewhere on a Tuesday morning, though it plays at being a Nuremberg Rally.
Their public relations campaign produces a simulation of the kind of people power that led the 15-M assemblies to control municipal governments in Madrid, Barcelona, Zaragoza, Cádiz, and Santiago de Compostela. Ciudadanos had nothing but money and a leader who went on television every day looking freshly showered. Yet in national-level politics, that’s enough.
Although Ciudadanos has carefully cultivated an image as “the radical center” that has been lapped up by international outlets like The Guardian and The New York Times, the party has been affiliated with the EU Libertas coalition established by Declan Ganley. The Irish businessman describes himself as “avowedly pro-life” and organized the “No” campaign in the Irish referendum of 2008. Rivera promises to maintain the center in the aftermath of a swathe of privatizations and pro-banking wealth transfers, as if the center were a universally fixed point rather than something inherited from past policies. Their relationship with the PP is aptly summed up in the following meme:
The PP is the party of old money and power, the “born-to-rule” party. Case in point: Mariano Rajoy, the incumbent president.
Rajoy linked up with the PP before graduating university at 23. At 24, he was appointed property registrar in the city of Elche, Alicante, and was the youngest person to ever hold the position. Property registrars earn six-figure annual salaries. Rajoy later received two simultaneous salaries from the office by holding property registrar positions in Barcelona as well as Alicante, and to this day he still holds the title, “Head of Special Services on Temporal Leave” at the registry. The office in Alicante, in the southeast of the country, paid him a salary for two decades, even while he also held elected office in Galicia (in the northwest) and a position on the board of the public broadcaster, based in Madrid. Once in government, Rajoy brought in numerous privatizations while denouncing public sector inefficiency. He would know!
In the 1983 article, “Human Inequality,” Rajoy praises a book by Luis Moure Mariño which he describes as “irrefutable proof of the falsity of the idea that all men are equal.” It used to be “affirmed as an incontestable truth that lineage makes the man. This knowledge that man intuitively possessed–it was an objective fact that the sons of good lineage surpassed the rest–were later confirmed by science.” Rajoy followed this up in 1984 with another article titled, “Egalitarian Envy.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising that Rajoy was punched in the face by a teenager while campaigning on the Wednesday before the election. But it was.
What wasn’t surprising that the first three audible responses were “Hostia!“, “Ay no!“, and “Qué loco!” Afterward, a spokesperson for the president claimed that Rajoy was “unhurt.” Hmmm…
Among the Spanish left, the PP are regularly dubbed “the fascists” (los fachas), in reference to the alleged continuity between the party and the Franco regime. The party’s image reached a new low in the provincial and municipal elections of May 2015 following scandals concerning potential electoral fraud. In Melilla, the local treasurer of the PP was allegedly detained with “a fistful” of postal votes that he was attempting to mail out from a local post office. OECD observers have criticized the postal voting system in Spain.
In the same campaign a video surfaced from Cáceres showing borderline senile retirement home residents at a polling station with pre-prepared ballot papers supporting the PP. One testified that the nun at the retirement home prepared her ballot. Another seemed to have no idea what was happening.
Although the PSOE doesn’t arouse the same emotions as the PP, they hardly present an inspiring alternative. PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez has been tainted by his time on the board of Caja Madrid, which was a public savings bank at the time. The bank’s then president, Miguel Blesa, was indicted in 2013 for fraud and misappropriation, though he was later released on appeal.
Sánchez was also on the board of Caja Madrid when in November 2008 it purchased City National Bank of Florida. The bank turned out to be stricken with worthless assets and was ultimately sold at a loss of $500 million. In 2011, Caja Madrid was merged with another smaller public-savings bank and became Bankía, which by May 2012 had received 22.4 billion euros in bailout funds, one of Europe’s largest bailouts. Both the brokerage of the City National Bank sale and the accounting that preceded the bailout were carried out by Goldman Sachs.
As it has many times before, Spanish politics has become a microcosm of developments elsewhere. The previous system is collapsing under the weight of its own corruption and the demands of poor citizens pushed beyond their limits. Unfortunately, it looks like there will be at least another year of squabbling over borders before we turn our attention to the leaders actually proposing policies for building a fairer and more sustainable society.
@Christian_Tym, co-authored with Roberto García-Patrón (@GPatronR)
All photos are by the authors unless otherwise credited.