Spanish elections: All change in 2015?

Post date: 07/05/2015

Justin Byrne looks forward to elections in Spain that will be a test both for the traditional two-party system and for new parties for ‘indignant’ voters.


Regional elections in Andalusia on 28 March marked the start of an almost full round of elections in Spain this year. Voters all over the country will go to the ballot box to elect local councils on 24 May, when the regional government will also be up for grabs in 13 of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities. 


Most importantly, a general election is to be held by November, when voters will have the chance, and polls suggest the inclination, to smash the two-party system that has operated in Spain since the return to democracy in the late 1970s. This represents a major threat both to the two traditional parties of government, the Socialists (PSOE) and the Popular Party (PP), as well as to the floundering minority communist-led coalition, Izquierda Unida (IU).


The strongest and better known of the newcomers is Podemos, which has already shaken the foundations of Spanish politics to the core. Tracing its roots back to los indignados (the indignant people) movement of 2011, the party was formed to fight the May 2014 European elections, when it won just under 8 per cent of the vote and five seats. Since then it has consolidated itself as the principal electoral channel for popular discontent with the dramatic effects of the economic crisis: austerity, corruption and the lack of prospects for so many Spaniards, especially the young. 


In Andalusia in March, when the PSOE won enough seats to renew a minority government and IU’s vote slipped to just 7 per cent, Podemos took 15 per cent of the vote, a result considered disappointing but which nonetheless gave it 15 of the 109 seats in the regional parliament. It is running at 20-24 per cent in recent national opinion polls, not far behind, and sometimes ahead of, the PP and the PSOE. 


Podemos is a fluid, diverse and complex phenomenon. While its founders and the vast majority of activists are leftists, they eschew the traditional language, identities and structures of the old left in favour of a consciously new style of populist politics. Podemos appeals to the “people” to mobilise against “the caste”, the nebulous term used to refer to the political and economic elites of both right and left. 


For Podemos now is the time not just to protest, but to construct a new “social majority” to overthrow the “regime of 78”, currently tottering under the weight of systemic corruption, the economic crisis, and the “caste’s” slavish and self-interested commitment to Troika-imposed austerity. And this can only be done by winning elections and gaining power, something the old left looks conspicuously incapable of achieving. 


The party’s electoral pragmatism may help explain why its diagnosis and strategy are rather clearer than its programme. The promise of radical change in political practice and  policies has evolved into an ill-defined social-democratic, anti-austerity and anti-privatisation platform, based on defence of the public sector and sphere, sustainability, democratic renewal and transparency. 


Attempting to appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of the electorate, Podemos has seemed in no rush to set out concrete policies that might alienate any potential support. The task is made harder by the internal complexity of the movement. Despite strong, even hyper leadership exercised from the top, and above all by the charismatic young political scientist and activist Pablo Iglesias (pictured) and his inner circle, Podemos has a strong culture of internal democracy and participation, which has inevitably slowed things down. Both dynamics have been at work here in Madrid. In the regional elections Podemos is standing under its own name, presenting a consensus list of candidates drawn up in rather “old school” negotiations and manoeuvring between different groups and organisations, but elected in primaries. The candidates include Trotskyists, recent defectors from the IU, as well as Podemos party loyalists. 


In the local elections it is running in a broader coalition called Ahora Madrid (Madrid Now), which includes candidates elected in primaries from an even wider spectrum of the left, social movements and independents, not all of whom share the leadership’s populist, catch-all vision and strategy. No-one says it is going to be easy.


Podemos now faces another competitor for the indignant vote, this time from the centre right. Founded in 2006 in Catalonia as an anti-nationalist party, Ciudadanos (Citizens) came from nowhere to take over 9 per cent of the vote in the Andalusian elections, helping to send the PP’s vote down from 2012’s 40 per cent to 26 per cent. Led by young, clean-cut lawyer Alberto Rivera and others of his ilk, Ciudadanos presents itself as “the feasible and sensible alternative to transform Spain”, offering a liberal-sounding programme of democratic and economic regeneration, reordering of the State of the Autonomies to cap the powers of regional governments, and the defence of citizens’ individual and collective rights. Polls suggest it might take as much as 15-20 per cent of the vote nationally.


While it is too early to predict any results, the various elections this year will almost certainly confirm the demise of two-party politics in Spain and the consolidation of these two newcomers at all levels and in many places. 


This means that politics is going to become more plural and much more complicated, with both winning and losing parties forced to define their positions in negotiations for coalitions or minority governments. This can surely only be for the good, even if, as in Andalusia, the promised change may prove rather less profound, or radical, than many are hoping for or expecting. 


Justin Byrne is a historian and teacher in Madrid. He is active in the AABI Spanish Friends of the International Brigades:


This aricle first appeaed in the current issue of the IBMT Newsletter (2-2015).

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