Spain: and now for something completely different

Peter Fieldman

Not since the Transicion in 1978, which brought democracy to Spain after the demise of the Franco dictatorship, has the country seen such a dramatic political change. Last Sunday’s elections signalled the end of bipartisan politics with two new parties, which did not exist two years ago taking almost 30 % of the vote.

Although 60 year old, Mariano Rajoy, current Prime Minister and leader of the Partido Popular, called it a victory, the reality is the PP lost its overall majority, losing 63 seats – down from 186 to 123. Not quite the Great Leap Forward he predicted during a summer swim while on a campaign visit to northern Spain. The PSOE socialist party, led by 43 year old, Pedro Sánchez, in his first election as leader, also saw its share drop from 110 to 90 seats, but this was hardly a surprise given the meteoric rise of Podemos and other left wing parties in the ring.

Podemos (We can) grew out of the anti capitalist, anti corruption movement, Los Indignados, which took over La Puerta del Sol in 2011. Its young, charismatic leader, Pablo Iglesias, 37, a university professor, with his trade mark pony tail and casual dress, succeeded in attracting the country’s disenchanted youth, many of whom were voting for the first time. Having already made inroads in the European Elections in 2014 and last spring’s Regional Elections, as a result of its success in its first ever General Election, it will hold 69 seats in El Cortes.

Cuidadanos, the Citizens party, with 40 seats, was founded in Catalonia by a group of personalities in 2006. Its leader is Albert Rivera, a 36 year old, university educated, lawyer who became leader of the party at its first conference. Considered either as a centre left or centre right party, its campaign is based on liberty, more equality and a return to morality. It appeals to an electorate who feels ignored by the country’s traditional right and left wing parties bogged down by decades of sectarian politics in which clientelism, nepotism, waste and rampant corruption have caused so much economic and social inequality. Although the party was founded in Catalonia it is both anti nationalist and pro European.

Iglesias called the election a second Transicion and he has been proven correct. But will it, or can it, result in a stable Government, which can govern, or the chaotic situation, which for decades made Italy, with its numerous parties and conflicting interests, a political nightmare. Pedro Sanchez immediately accepted that Rajoy, as leader of the party with the most votes, has the right to try to form a Government. But given the fragmented vote, he faces protracted negotiations in an attempt to reach a majority by building “los pactos.”

Not an easy task since the programmes of Podemos and Cuidadanos, which hold the key to any coalition, have made it clear that they will not work with any party or politicians accused of or implicated in the corruption scandals which have rocked the country for so long and which so far have not led to many convictions. If Rajoy fails, Sanchez could, in theory, reach a majority and form a socialist government in a coalition with Podemos and other left wing or nationalist parties. There were several heated moments during the campaign. One involved a teenager who punched Rajoy in the face at a rally in Galicia before being subdued by security guards, albeit a little late. And Sanchez, Iglesias and Rivera all centred on the corruption issues in the pre election debates using strong language, directly aimed at Rajoy who has himself been accused of receiving secret payments, sobresueldos, to supplement his salary, It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Pedro Gomez de la Serna, a former diplomat, who was elected in Segovia. In the most recent corruption scandal, he has been accused of accepting a huge commission for his involvement in arranging a major overseas contract, while representing the Government.

Although populist parties have made inroads in many European countries, their rise has been linked to immigration and security issues. This is not the case in Spain where austerity, unemployment, social cut backs and corruption are at the heart of people’s concerns. Different voting systems also affect the results. Although the French National Front party obtained most votes in the Regional elections earlier this month, the French system of requiring an overall majority in two ballots, left it without success. The two major parties entered into pacts to ensure that the losing party withdrew to allow the other to achieve victory.

Spain’s system of a single vote has until now always given one of the two major parties a majority. December 20 2015 is the beginning of a new era.

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