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Podemos (We Can) party leader Pablo Iglesias gestures to supporters after results were announced in Spain's general election in Madrid, Spain, December 21, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

Lefts and Rights and Revolving Doors: Spanish Government Set to Change after General Elections

Charles Gasparovic

The Spanish government will have a radical new look next year.

But who will lead it is still up in the air.

With 99% of the votes tallied, the ruling center-right Partido Popular (PP) received 29% of the vote in the general elections held on December 20. That percentage conceded them 122 out of 350 parliamentary seats in the Congress of Deputies, the chamber responsible for selecting the country's president (effectively the prime minister).

Since no single party other than its irreconcilable rival the socialists (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE) earned enough seats to form a majority coalition with them (91 seats with 22% of the vote), the results leave open the possibility of one forming among the opposition parties, involving the PSOE and new parties both to the left and right of the PSOE.

Failing such a coalition, or an even less likely 3-party one involving the PP, new elections will need to be called, leaving it to the voters to re-evaluate their choices with the hopes of pulling their government and their fragile economic recovery out of limbo.

The PP has ruled with an ironclad 186-seat majority since the 2011 elections, capitalizing on the global economic crisis, a massive real estate bust, and discontent with the way the socialists were handling it at the time. But after 4 years of weakened labor laws, curtailed social services, and unpopular policies on issues ranging from education to health, its campaign message - that Spaniards are better off because their economy is now leading the European Union in growth - did not resonate with the great majority of the voters.

Unemployment stills hovers above 22%, the majority of new jobs touted by the PP are temporary, low-paid ones, corruption cases involving the PP abound, and most are not happy with the PP's passive-aggressive handling of the Catalonian separatist movement, particularly in Cataluña.

The PSOE also fell short of its 2011 results, losing 19 seats. In spite of bringing a cadre of fresh faces to the forefront of the party in the last year or so, led by tall and handsome Pedro Sanchez, the PSOE has not regained the political weight that would have allowed it to turn the tables on the PP. And, indeed, after alternating periodically with the PP to lead Spain for nearly half of its 37 years as a modern democracy, it is unlikely that it ever will again.

The reason is that the political landscape in Spain has changed dramatically in the last few years. After several years of economic free fall and well over a decade of onecorruption case after another filing before the citizenry like penitents in a religious procession, there are new contenders in the Spanish political arena. They come from both the left and the right, with strong anti-corruption platforms, and are both now battling for the center. And they no longer appear to be mere populist blips.

In the case of the PSOE, the biggest challenge comes from Podemos ("We Can"). Along with closely allied parties flying under different regional banners, it funneled off most of the remaining left-leaning voters (a combined 69 seats with 21% of the vote), leaving the United Left, also allied with other left parties (Ahora en Común-Unidad Popular), 4% of the vote and 2 seats. The Catalonia Republican Left along with other Catalonian separatist parties (ERC-CATSI) pulled in 9 seats with just 3% of the vote. The disproportionately much lower number of parliamentary seats won by parties other than the PP, PSOE, ERC is due to an electoral allocation system (the D'Hondt method) that favors the top parties in each voting district.

Podemos, which came in third overall in voting and seats, traces its ideological roots to the "indignados" occupy movement of May 15, 2011 in Madrid (which preceded Occupy Wall Street by several months). But it rose as a political party only months before capturing 8% of the vote in the EU parliamentary elections of May 2014. A year later, with affiliated new parties or the United Left, it managed to unseat conservative mayors in cities across Spain in the countrywide municipal elections of May 2015, most notably in Madrid, Barcelona.

The party was co-founded and is led by 37-year old Pablo Iglesias, a former political science professor, a rapid-fire debater, and a current European Union (EU) delegate. Its anti-austerity, pro-worker and pro-small business platform was spearheaded by an anti-corruption stance against the political "caste" system, in its rhetoric. It is a system, Iglesias echoed in nearly every speech and debate, that is sustained by a politician-corporate board member "revolving door." This message, whether already obvious to many or not, has been very effective in keeping in the forefront of everyone's mind the relationship between the entrenched self-interests of the old guard and the daily news of new or ongoing political corruption trials. Since injecting the term "puertas giratorias" (revolving doors) into the national dialogue, the PSOE has had to coopt it into their own platform and propose specific measures to reduce it.

Podemos looked poised to displace the PSOE as the leading center-left party before the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) rose and offered another home for the political center. Unencumbered by corruption and led by preppy but unaffected Albert Rivera, a 35-year old Catalonian, Ciudadanos captured 40 seats with 14% of the vote in its first general election. Even though the party has its roots in conservative Catalonian politics and supply-side economics, its attacks on the scandal-ridden PP were more relentless than they were on the PSOE. Consequently, in spite of warnings from the left that it is indeed right-wing and anti-labor to the bone, it has been successful in branding itself a centrist rival of the PP.

If the election results weren't enough, the run-up to them was also unprecedented and arguably the most entertaining in Spanish history. A long series of popular TV show appearances and debates preceded the vote, a la American politics but as if they were trying to get a leg up on it. It included PSOE's Sanchez rock climbing for the first time on an adventure show, Cuidadanos's Rivera rally racing in a subsequent episode, and, more sedately on a different program, Rivera and Podemos's Iglesias meeting for an informal debate over cups of coffee in a working class bar, which turned out to be remarkable in its civility and mutual respect. Not to be outdone, but handicapped by the robotic clumsiness of the 60-year old sitting president, Mariano Rajoy, the PP had the younger vice president of the government, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, shed her normal headmistress demeanor and line dance on one show, impressively well.

The formal debates among the major parties were predictable, but more fact-filled and less bombastic than any from the US I've watched lately. However, Rajoy, exceptionally uncharismatic and sometimes fumbling when having to deviate from the party line, agreed to debate only with PSOE candidate Sanchez in the week before the elections, under the traditional and gentlemanly format of the last 30 or so years for the two parties (line dancer Santamaria stood in for him at a previous debate with a more problematic number of candidates).

Knowing he needed a nudge up in the polls and probably thinking he had nothing to lose, Sanchez surprised all by attacking Rajoy not only politically but personally, calling him out repeatedly on his "lies" and links to corrupt members of the PP, and saying that he was not "decent" man. Taken aback, Rajoy responded by calling him "cruel, mean-spirited, and despicable."

Pundits will be debating for years over whom the debate helped or hurt more, but a chorus of ranking PP members called Sanchez things like a "barrio chulo" (neighborhood tough) while upstart opposition leaders Iglesias and Rivera were delighted for the opportunity to appear above the fray.

In a disturbing turn of events, a few days after the debate and 4 days before the vote, a real barrio chulo, a 17-year old soccer hooligan intent on his 15 minutes of Twitter fame, punched Rojay in the face while campaigning in his home town in Galicia. There was a nationwide outpouring of support for Rajoy, including from all opposition parties, as he impressively brushed off the attach and stuck to his busy public agenda that day. Since the young thug was a supporter of a radical Galician independence group, no one in the PP could exploit the attack by suggesting that Sanchez's aggressive remarks inspired it. However, the violence undoubtedly drew more negative attention to them and, given Rajoy's aplomb in dealing with it, likely not only solidified the PP's base but drew back voters from Ciudadanos.

The dust is still settling on these elections and great uncertainties lie ahead in the governance of Spain, with politics not as fragmented here since the civil war (1936-39) and economies across Europe still on unsteady ground. Can a tri-party coalition, with two lefts (the PSOE and Podemos) and one right (Ciudadanos), work?

"The left is always divided. That's the problem," a young man handing out campaign flyers, ironically for the United Left, said to me a week before the vote. It brought to mind George Orwell's first-hand account of the civil war as an anti-fascist volunteer, in his Homage to Catalonia, of leftist factions sometimes shooting at each other when not at the fascists.

Yet these current divisions, on both the left and right, are long overdue. And all three parties of a possible coalition of opposition parties seem to agree that a corrupt relation between business and politics is at the root of Spain's still ailing institutions and economy. The origins of most of the crimes lie, no doubt, in the heady greed engendered by the pre-2008 boom years combined with a congenital lack of oversight inherited from nearly 40 years of dictatorship, when a nod and a wink by a government official was part of any business deal. But the modus operandi is all too familiar to the citizens of any modern democracy.

One could look at the number of cases being prosecuted and conclude "see, the system works", as the PP has, or claim, as the PSOE tried, "we love you and won't do it again." Sound like American Republicans or Democrats, at least those not named Warren or Sanders?

But here's the difference: most of the Spanish electorate, as evidenced by the polls and support for anti-corruption platforms, is concerned that it might be looking at the tip of the iceberg, and know that only structural changes can solve their problems, structural changes that seriously address the relationship between capitalism and democracy, including, and perhaps above all, those puertas giratorias.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Charles Gasparovic

Charles Gasparovic is a neuroscience researcher living in Spain.

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