Although the political and business elites of Spain seem unaware of the fact, it appears that the European Monetary Union has destroyed yet another country’s political system. The elections in Spain last Sunday have yielded unclear results and much confusion domestically and abroad. The German cabinet is so perplexed that their spokesperson has declared that they do not know whom to congratulate for the electoral results. Shocked and confused, the Spanish establishment are still trying to digest the unsavory menu served by last Sunday’s elections. Only one thing is clear: it will not be easy to form a government in Spain. This is the first time that Spanish citizens went to bed after a general election not knowing who their next president of the government was going to be.
The following table shows the results in votes and seats. As expected, the two new upstart parties, Ciudadanos and Podemos made it into the Cortes with a large harvest of new deputies. Neither had representation in the Cortes until now. Remember that the latter did not even exist a year ago so their feat is the more astonishing.
Table 1. Electoral results and seats in the two houses of the Cortes by political party.
Pollsters faced an unprecedented challenge trying to forecast the outcome of the elections. It was clear that these new parties were going to collect a significant number of votes but there was no precedent on how to predict the electoral results, especially because there were many citizens who were undecided on the eve of the elections. Nevertheless, polls in the last week before the election were not too far off. Their biggest mistake was their estimate for Ciudadanos. Two weeks ago, some opinion polls were projecting that they could come in second ahead of the Socialist. However, they gained only 40 seats with 3.5 million votes, not a minor feat. Many cynically wondered if the pollsters had confounded their wishes with reality.
The conservative party, PP, came in first with 28% of the vote, as predicted, but it was a Pyrrhic victory: they have lost more than 3.6 million votes after amassing an unprecedented level of support in the previous elections of 2011. The electoral system, where a small number of deputies represents many underpopulated provinces, gives the party coming in first a premium. Thanks to the distortions in the system, the PP got a portion of the seats in the lower House larger than its share of the vote as well as control over the Senate. Nonetheless, many of the PP’s former supporters did not buy the narrative of the economic recovery and corruption scandals angered many center right voters who turned to Ciudadanos instead. We ask ourselves if Mariano Rajoy has any remorse regarding their lack of empathy toward the victims of the economic crisis and the austerity policies or their tepid response to the constant flow of corruption scandals affecting his party.
In the left, the Socialdemocrats of PSOE obtained their worst result in their history since the return of democracy. However, given that opinion polls were predicting an even more catastrophic outcome for them, the party bosses were actually relieved and their leader, Pedro Sánchez, did not have to resign on the same night of the elections. They managed to retain some of their historic strongholds in Andalusia and Extremadura but they have become irrelevant in major regions such as Madrid, Catalonia and the Basque Country.
One wonders if the Socialist leadership is not embarrassed to see their party hemorrhage 5.5 million votes in less than 11 years. One further wonders if they are asking themselves the right questions about what they have done wrong. Sadly, for them, the initial response of president Zapatero to the Global Financial Crisis, a major stimulus package, was the correct one. In fact, the economy had started to recover in 2010. However, Zapatero’s quick submission to the austerity policies imposed by the Merkel-Trichet-Sarkozy hydra destroyed his party’s credibility. They now only retain the loyalty of aged working class voters. They have paid dearly for their Europeanism. Audaces fortuna iuvat; if they had shown some muscle before the demands of the European institutions in 2011 they might have retained the loyalty of the voters who have now abandoned them. For a party that wants to win elections in the leftist electorate being seen as a supporter of austerity is suicide; everybody knows that austerity leads to regressive distributions of income and wealth.
Looking at their faces when party leaders were making their statements on the night of the elections it was clear that only Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the Podemites, was satisfied. With 69 seats, they are now only 340,000 votes shy of displacing PSOE as the main party in the left. It was a bit odd that Pablo Iglesias drew several red lines as a condition for agreeing to a coalition with the Socialists. These include a change in the electoral system to make it more proportional, a referendum for the self-determination of Catalonia and shielding several social rights —such as the right to a home and public healthcare in the Constitution—. One would have expected that they would have put the emphasis on jobs and getting people out of poverty. The condition of a referendum in Catalonia is likely the price paid to include the supporters of the mayor of Barcelona in Pablo Iglesias’ coalition. The outcome of Podemos was spectacular in Catalonia where they came in first, displacing pro-independence parties who together got less than 35% of the vote in that region. Many citizens of that region want a referendum but not necessarily independence so, perhaps, other parties would be wise to consider this solution to the Catalan independence soap opera. Podemos also came in first in the Basque Country and Navarra, again displacing nationalist and regionalist parties who have dominated politics in those regions for decades; this is one of the most unexpected and interesting outcomes of these elections.
If Podemos had formed a coalition with Alberto Garzón’s Unidad Popular platform, led by Izquierda Unida (IU), they would have had gained an additional 14 seats, enough to form a left-wing coalition a la Portuguesa with PSOE. However, they ran separately and the electoral system has pummeled IU: only two seats despite receiving more than 900,000 votes. Many now blame Garzón and Iglesias for letting their egos get in the way of a radical anti-austerity coalition.
We now have the most fragmented Parliament in Spain’s history and this complicates the formation of a stable government beyond belief. An opinion article in El País read, “Welcome to Italy… but without Italians to manage it”. The Congreso de los Diputados or Lower House has 350 members. A candidate to form a government needs to win at least 176 thereof in a first vote or more ayes than nays in a second pass. It is hard to see which leader has the capacity to muster a stable coalition with the required level of support. The following table shows how many seats each potential coalition would total.
Figure 1. Potential parliamentary majorities.
Clearly, Mariano Rajoy cannot form a center-right coalition with the sole support of Ciudadanos as it would fall short of the required parliamentary majority. A center-right coalition with the multitude of conservative nationalist and regionalist parties is unlikely since the PP has few friends amongst those who want to “break the unity of Spain”. A left-wing block is not easy to form either. Podemos, after all, is integrated by local coalitions in some regions, so they need to convince too many parties with conflicting agendas. Some “barons” in the PSOE have warned that they will not support a coalition with the “radicals” of Podemos who want to question the sovereignty of Spain in Catalonia. In any event, this left block would still fall short of the 176 votes needed. A rainbow coalition of left wing, regionalist and nationalist parties would also be challenging to manage. It is hard to see those who want independence of Catalonia in a coalition with the Socialist party.
Will we see a German style “Gross Koalition” of PP, Ciudadanos and PSOE? This would probably be the preferred choice of the European Commission, Mario Draghi, Angela Merkel and many in the Spanish establishment. However, it would be suicide for the Socialist: in two years’ time, Podemos would be the new Syriza and PSOE would follow the path of the now practically defunct PASOK. Pedro Sánchez has already declared that he will not support a cabinet led by Mariano Rajoy. Another scenario is that the PSOE allows the PP to govern, conditioned to a constitutional reform. The new magna chart would have to be endorsed in a referendum followed by dissolution of the Cortes and new general elections; probably in less than two years. Many, especially in the left, want constitutional reform to address the Catalan issue and shield some social rights in a nation traumatized by the dire consequences of austerity. The problem is building a consensus in the now fractious Cortes on what that new text should look like. In any event, with its control of the Senate, the PP can turn down any amendment to the constitution that is not to its liking.
The King has two months to propose a candidate who can secure a mandate. If no candidate earns the confidence of the Parliament, the monarch will have to call elections again. Spain has entered into unchartered territory since there is little experience with coalition governments that are more common north of the Pyrenees. The only thing clear is that the new government will have very little legitimacy to do anything meaningful, let alone Brussels style structural reform.
We hope that Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin have picked up the message that their austerity, internal devaluation and structural reform recipe has failed to deliver and is self-defeating. The policies sponsored by the European leaders and dutifully applied by the two-party system led to appalling unemployment —the rate reached 27%; more than 50% in the youth— eviction of hundreds of thousands from their homes and sunk 30% of the population under the poverty line. The parties who applied them are now at risk of disappearing from the political scene to be replaced by upstarts. It is unlikely that a new government will now have the stomach to force down more “bitter pills” down the throats of their citizens. Spaniards want growth and jobs, not reforms without results.
Stability has vanished from the Spanish political system. In return, however, political life may become more democratic, interesting and transparent. We might also witness the formation of a Southern front within the EU.