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No Change in Spain: New Vote Reflects a Still Divided Electorate

Pablo Iglesias, leader of the Podemos party in Spain, surrounded by press in Madrid on Sunday. (Photo: Francisco Seco/AP)

The Spaniards went back to the ballot boxes today, six months after their December 20 general elections concluded without a majority winner.

In December, the conservative Partido Popular (Popular Party, PP) and the socialist party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE) were uprooted from their nearly 40-year hegemony by new parties on the left (Podemos, We Can) and right (Ciudadanos, Citizens) (see Common Dreams, December 21, 2015). They came in first, second, third, and forth, respectively, with the sitting PP government left in charge until either a majority parliamentary coalition could be formed or new elections were held.

Mud and slogan slinging ensued. Multiple rounds of negotiations among the leading parties to form a coalition were held. Meanwhile, a dysfunctional parliament served as a stage for hurling recriminations at each other for the failures of those talks. Rancorous televised debates only exacerbated the polarization, leaving a large portion of the electorate increasingly disenchanted. Finally, King Felipe the Sixth, the arbiter in this constitutional monarchy, threw in the towel and called for new elections.

With 99% of today's (June 26) vote counted, the major difference in the outcome was a gain in overall conservative votes, with a shift of votes from neoliberal newcomer Ciudadanos back to the PP, while, on the left, PSOE lost votes and an leftist alliance lead by Podemos, obtained results similar to their December outcomes.

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The PP, which ruled with an absolute majority since deposing the PSOE in 2011, still comes out on top, with 33% of the vote and 137 out of 350 possible seats in the president-determining Congress of Deputies, an improvement of 14 seats since December. Ciudadanos, campaigning as fervently against PP corruption as against Podemos ideology, fell to 32 seats, losing 8, by pulling in just 13% of the vote.

Pre-election polls just a week ago predicted that an alliance of Podemos and its affiliated regional parties with the United Left (Izquierda Unida, IU) and Equo, a reformulated party of Greens, would comfortably supplanted the PSOE at second place and pave the way for leftist coalition at the head of government. But this prediction turned out to be strikingly inaccurate.

The PSOE, in charge when the global crisis pricked the Spanish credit and real estate bubble in 2008, held on to 85 seats with 23% of the vote, 5 seats less than its December result. The Podemos-led alliance, Unidos Podemos (United We Can), took 21% of the vote and 71 seats, essentially equaling the added results of Podemos and the IU when the parties ran separately in December.

Most of the balance of seats were won by either leftist (9 seats) or conservative (8 seats) pro-independence Catalonian parties.

Now the negotiations for a coalition government begin anew, but with the math no less complicated.

Before the elections, the four leading parties pledged to a weary electorate that a third round of elections would not be necessary - that a coalition, however grudgingly, would be formed. But as the leaders of Unidos Podemos and the PSOE appeared before the public this evening to concede their disappointment, there was a palpable pessimism that a progressive coalition government could be an outcome.

Indeed, if the leaders of the top parties honor their pledges not to repeat elections, only a PP-PSOE or a PSOE-Unidos Podemos-Ciudadanos coalition would have sufficient seats for an absolute majority.

After the December vote, a grand coalition of all the leftist parties would have included pro-separatist Catalonian ones, unacceptable to the PSOE. Although those parties could have been left out of the coalition and might have abstained from a parliamentary vote on the presidency, enabling a PSOE-Podemos simple majority, the PSOE opted to reach across ideological lines to conservative newcomer Ciudadanos, with the vain hope that Podemos would join them.

But this was a non-starter for the Podemos leadership, who were unwilling to collaborate with any form of the right, at least not without stronger incentives in terms of top government posts. It was clear they preferred their chances in new elections, with the renewed goal of outflanking the PSOE to become the left's standard bearer.

During the election interlude, new corruption cases surfaced at their usual weekly-or-so pace, old ones took new twists, and the Catalonian independence movement, with a separatist regional government now in power, moved, if only shakily, forward.

Among the scandals, a minister of the PP government was forced to resign due to revelations from the Panama Papers, another PP minister was taped colluding with the Catalonian anti-corruption office to dig up dirt specifically on separatist leaders, and two former PSOE presidents of the autonomous community (like a state in the US) of Andalucía sunk deeper into an ongoing embezzlement case. In another judiciary investigation, the PP was forced to pay a deposit of 1.24 million € before further testimony in a case involving undeclared PP finances, with its former party treasurer already in jail.

For all of that, and a joblessness rate second only to EU whipping boy Greece, the economy continued to inch forward in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) and new jobs, bolstering the PP's claim that they were on the right path. However, a leaked letter from sitting President Mariano Rajoy to European Union (EU) Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker gave the lie to their campaign pledge of no further budget cuts. It clearly suggested that more austerity measures would follow a PP win in June, ostensibly to avoid a hefty fine for exceeding the EU-imposed deficit ceiling of 3% of its GDP.


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But, for all uproar outside the party, the exposé fell on deaf ears within the party's base and Rajoy's poll numbers didn't budge. After all, they may have concluded, what's better than a good, comforting lie? Or, as one PP voter here in the northern autonomous community of Asturias told me, with a dismissive wave of his hand, "Who cares? They all do it!"

And, indeed, the other party leaders did little to polish their public images during the election interlude. Between the acrimonious TV debates and those in the parliament, the polls reflected that a substantial portion of the electorate found most of them disingenuous and uncompromising.

Given the PP's impervious base, it was perhaps the PSOE's Pedro Sanchez and Podemos's Pablo Iglesias who were more tarnished by the frays. Sanchez's initial charm as a new face in the PSOE simply wore thin, as did his party's hardly credible mantra of "vote for change."

Though not as discredited as the French socialists, whose labor reforms have ignited massive strikes and protests across France in recent weeks, many who have fled the PSOE no doubt recall that it was the PSOE that began budget cuts after 2008, at the bidding of the EU, before handing the reins to the PP in 2011.

But it was Iglesias who really had to roll with punches, which came at him from both the left and the right. After railing against the old "caste" systems of the PP and PSOE since the inception of Podemos in 2014, he has been accused by some on the left as being the leader of a "new caste" system, due to his strong-arm handling of the party direction at times. More theatrically, Podemos has been branded a party of Bolivarian revolutionists by both the socialists and the right, based on consulting contracts its founders had with the Chavez Venezuelan government years before the party was formed. The red-baiting surged again after their alliance with the IU, with its origins in the dissolved Communist Party of Spain.

But as local IU secretary Manolo Villar told me at a Unidos Podemos rally here in the industrial port town of Gijon this week, "We are not calling for an anti-capitalist revolution."

And, in fact, it was Obama, not Marx, who was invoked repeatedly by Unidos Podemos to explain a key concept in their economic plan: stimulus spending. But as a Eurozone country, they can't simply print money and sell bonds, as did the US. So where would the money come from?

Unlike any of their rivals - and notoriously the PP - they were very specific and honest about where: increased taxes. They proposed a higher tax rate on the top wage and investment income brackets and fewer tax breaks. A restructuring of the public debt would provide an additional source of funds. Among other projects, the revenue would be invested in public infrastructure, small and large business start-ups, science and technology research, and renewable energy development. It would also be used to provide a suite of economic aide measures for the long-term jobless and very poor, the spending of which would funnel the money back into local economies.

"Change will be slow," Villar told me. "We need to work within the existing institutions. What the United Left has fought for in the past and what we are fighting for now with Podemos is an economy with more justice and dignity for its workers. One could be pessimistic about our chances, but why not be optimistic? As the writer Coelho said, the optimist and the pessimist both die in the end!"

Looking over the wobbly sociopolitical state of the European Union these days - from a faltering Greece to an exiting UK, with a million refugees in between and nationalist fervor on the rise - it certainly looks like its cemeteries will not be short of former pessimists for the foreseeable future.

More than optimism, Podemos's Pablo Iglesias expressed pragmatism in his post-election speech, a need to look critically at the results of their campaign, and to communicate their message better.

That won't be easy.

They must convince a cynical public that - in spite of the dictums of the EU or Standard & Poor - the way forward toward a truly sustainable economy is to roll back the labor and social "reform" laws of the last five years, laws that left workers more vulnerable than ever to the vicissitudes of global financial markets.

They must convince not just their rank-and-file but a majority of Spaniards that investment in renewable energy, research, and education creates jobs, jobs in which workers are not viewed simply as disposable commodities useful for lowering interest rates and maximizing profits, but as participants in a healthy, transparent democracy.

After the Unidos Podemos rally earlier this week, Villar left me with another quote, one from Portuguese Nobel Laureate José Saramago, which he said captured the win-or-lose sentiment of progressive struggles:

"Defeat has something positive: it is never final; however, victory has something negative: it is never final."

Charles Gasparovic

Charles Gasparovic is a neuroscience researcher living in Spain.

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