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Five Takeaways from the Spanish Election

The 2016 vote may have been a disappointment to Spain's insurgent progressives. But they've proven they're here to stay.
  1. The vote was a stalemate, but the political landscape has changed.

Spain voted on June 26 with polls suggesting that the populist progressive Podemos party would overtake the traditional Socialist Party, PSOE, as the main left-wing opposition to the center-right Popular Party, or PP. Some thought the electoral math might even favor a progressive government headed by Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias.

That didn’t happen.

The best prediction of the results turned out to be what happened on December 20, the inconclusive ballot that led to this month’s re-run. Unidos Podemos — a joint list involving the parties emerging out Spain’s Occupy movement and the older United Left party — came in third with 71 of the 350 seats, exactly the same number as in the previous general election.

The right-wing PP won with an increased share of the vote and raised its tally of seats from 123 to 137, mostly at the expense of Ciudadanos, an alternative right-wing party. But the PP remains a long way short of a majority, and months of coalition talks could follow. The most likely outcome seems that PSOE and Ciudadanos may abstain, allowing the PP to form a minority government.

The result is an obvious disappointment for Unidos Podemos, which underperformed expectations while the status quo was reinforced.

But from a broader perspective things look less bad: a coalition of progressive parties, most of which didn’t even exist three years ago, has gained over 20 percent of the votes in successive elections. The idea that power switches from the PSOE to PP and back again has been decisively broken.

  1. The left-wing list lost votes, but may have averted an electoral disaster.

While the performance of Unidos Podemos looks very similar to their showing six months previously, the vote breakdown tells a slightly different story. Five million Spaniards voted for the Unidos Podemos coalition, which lost over one million voters compared to the combined showing of Podemos (and its regional allies) and the United Left last December.

At this stage, there can only be speculation rather than explanation, but a few theories suggest themselves. It may be that younger voters stayed home while the old still voted. Opinion surveys show that older people are significantly less likely to support Spain’s newer parties, which could explain why both Unidos Podemos and Ciudadanos lost out. It could also be that the electoral pact with Podemos alienated some United Left voters, who were distrustful of the populism of their new allies and of their pledge to grant a referendum on Catalan independence.

Viewed another way, losing votes while holding onto the same number of seats could vindicate the strategy of running a single anti-austerity list. Lost votes were not turned into lost seats. Spain’s electoral system rewards larger parties, and United Left picked up just two seats despite winning close to a million votes last December. Even though the predicted sorpasso (overtaking) failed to materialize, it enabled Unidos Podemos to tell a far more convincing story of its electoral viability than having to defend against a story of decline. It’s worth recalling that Podemos was polling at just 13 percent in April, and fading into relative insignificance looked a real possibility.

  1. Brexit may have had an impact.

Opinion polls seem so routinely wrong in Europe these days that their predictive failures merit little explanation. Perhaps we should just get over these glorified horoscopes. Yet it may be the case that the polls reflected a mood that changed at the last moment.

The Brexit referendum was viewed as a disaster in Spain. One of the few things that unites all four major parties (and almost all of the nationalist parties, too) is that staying in the EU, however flawed, is better than leaving.

Two factors might have contributed to a Brexit effect. Spain’s stock market (IBEX) had its largest ever crash the Friday before the vote, conjuring fears of a return to the worst days of the economic crisis. That might not have changed many voters’ party affiliations, but it could have hardened the resolve of PP and PSOE voters to turn out in large numbers, fearing that Unidos Podemos’s “populism” could derail the country’s supposed economic “stability.” Breakdowns of turnout suggest that voter turnout was highest in areas where the old parties are strongest.

A second, more important factor could be dubbed “referendum fear.” The Saturday before elections is officially a “day of reflection” before the vote, when campaigning is banned. But that didn’t stop every news channel from implying, with a lot of nudging and winking, that referendums are dangerous. Unidos Podemos is the only party active across the whole of Spain that supports an independence referendum in Catalonia, so the inference was clear.

Regional results also give some credence to this theory: Unidos Podemos performed most strongly in the Basque country (29 percent), Catalonia (26 percent), and the Balearics Islands (25 percent), but lost votes elsewhere compared to the results in December 2015.

  1. Nationalism is confounding the left.

The election results leave any potential right (PP-Ciudadanos) and left (PSOE-Podemos) coalitions short of a majority — with the 25 seats won by nationalist parties in Catalonia, the Basque country, and the Canary Islands holding the balance of power.

The terminology of “nationalism” is slightly misleading, since PP and Ciudadanos’s support for centralized rule from Madrid is a form of Spanish nationalism in its own right. But the implication is clear: As in December, no ideologically coherent parliamentary majority can emerge from Spain’s general election.

National questions are a particular dilemma for the left. The center-left PSOE has been the strongest force in Spanish politics since Spain’s transition to democracy in 1978, and its majorities were based on dominance in Catalonia and Andalusia, the country’s two most populous regions. The rise of the independence movement in Catalonia has made it increasingly hard to win both.

The Unidos Podemos vision of a “plurinational” Spain saw it win the popular vote in the Basque country and Catalonia. But it trailed in third in Andalusia, despite promises of a guaranteed minimum income and access to basic services that, on the face of it, should hold strong appeal in Spain’s poorest region. By contrast, PSOE held on to 31 percent of voters in Andalucia but attracted the support of just 16 percent of Catalans.

  1. The achievements of the new Spanish left remain impressive.

It’s the hope that kills you. Spain’s election night started with exit polls predicting a Unidos Podemos breakthrough, after two months of polls predicting the same. That makes a below par result feel like a resounding defeat, while the likely continuation of PP government is a painful blow to people suffering the effects of years of austerity. But Spain’s new parties have still achieved an incredible amount in a short time.

Podemos and its allies have channelled the energy of the indignados into a national electoral force. Spaniards are more likely to blame bankers and corrupt politicians for the crisis than immigrants — no mean feat in the broader European context.

Unidos Podemos ran on a program that promised to tax the rich more, impose a solidarity tax on the financial sector, restructure Spain’s debt, create a minimum guaranteed income, reverse health and education cuts, reinstate unions’ collective bargaining rights, lower the retirement age, provide pension rights to immigrants, ban utilities from cutting off poor people, defend social housing, reimpose rent controls, and oppose the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Over 5 million voters agreed. And when the dust has settled, that should still feel like a strong beginning rather than a precipitous ending.

An earlier version of this commentary appeared at Red Pepper.


© 2021 Foreign Policy In Focus
Oscar Reyes

Oscar Reyes

Oscar Reyes a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and a writer and activist focusing on climate and energy finance. His recent work includes Power to the People?, which takes a critical look at the World Bank’s Clean Technology Fund, and the co-authored Carbon Trading: How It Works and Why It Fails. He provides research and advice on the economics and politics of climate change to various organisations, including Corporate Europe Observatory, Earthlife Africa and Friends of the Earth UK. He is also environment editor of Red Pepper, a magazine that he previously edited.

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