Spanish politics in major flux

Two recent events will complicate and shape Spanish politics in the coming year, with broader implications for Europe and its political economy

Owen ParkerThe national election in Spain on 20 December 2015 (20D) saw the ruling conservative PP, led by Mariano Rajoy, receive the largest share of the vote and the social democratic PSOE, led by Pedro Sánchez, come second.  But the familiarity of this story belies the fact that 20D marked a radical break with the post-transition two-party system in Spain.  The PP and PSOE only received 28% and 22% of the vote respectively, far less than in the past.  Upstarts Podemos on the left, led by Pablo Iglesias, and Ciudadanos on the right, led by Albert Rivera, performed exceptionally for such young national parties, receiving 21% and 14% of the vote respectively.  Their success can be partly attributed to their popular and youthful leaders, but was mainly due to the serious social consequences wrought by the economic crisis in Spain and endemic corruption and cronyism in mainstream politics.

Given the fragmentation of the vote between these four main parties, Spanish political elites are adjusting to the realities of coalition politics and there is much uncertainty as to who will govern.  Each of the various possible coalition scenarios (usefully tabulated here) looked problematic for the key protagonists following 20D, but the last minute and largely unexpected formation of a separatist Catalan government on 10 January 2016 (10J) has now changed the nature of those problems in important respects.  In particular, this event shifted power away from the political left towards the Spanish (and probably European) status quo.

Prior to 10J, the first of the likely possible scenarios – a grand coalition of the PP+PSOE (and possibly +Ciudadanos) – looked politically impossible for the PSOE, given its consistent anti-PP rhetoric and strong suggestions from Sanchez following the election that his preference was for a progressive coalition.  The second possibility, which was a PP+PSOE+Podemos coalition, looked difficult because of stark ideological incompatibilities and big differences on Catalonia.  And the third scenario – a ‘progressive’ PSOE+Podemos coalition – looked like it would require the PSOE to reverse its opposition to the right to self-determination for Catalonia, which is a ‘red-line’ issue for Podemos.  Prior to 10J, and notwithstanding the difficulties associated with this latter question, this third scenario seemed the most likely, albeit a further round of elections might have been required before it could come to fruition.  But after 10J this changed.

Rewinding to the Catalan regional election of 27 September 2015 (27S), this was won by a coalition of pro-independence parties (operating under the name Junts pel Sí) that cut across the political spectrum and presented the election as a plebiscite on secession.  Although there was stubborn opposition to the process from Madrid and in the event the pro-independence parties narrowly failed to gain over half of the popular vote, they nevertheless regarded their victory as providing the required legitimacy for unilateral secession.  However, between 27S and 10J Junts pel Sí repeatedly failed to get the required parliamentary endorsement for its preferred presidential candidate, the controversial incumbent, Artur Mas.  This was due largely to the refusal to endorse him of the Candidatura de Unidad Popular (CUP) – an anti-capitalist pro-independence Catalan party that had decided not to join Junts pel Sí.  In the week before 10J, the very day on which the Catalan parliament would have been dissolved, many media outlets were already reporting new Catalan elections.  Such elections would have halted the momentum of the secessionist movement and, in so doing, removed an important incentive for a grand coalition while increasing the chances of a coalition of the left at national level.  It would also have presented an opportunity for Podemos’ new Catalan affiliate, En Comú Podem – an offshoot of the Barcelona en Comú citizen platform led by the popular new mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau – to gain a significant foothold at the regional level.  Notably, this pro-self-determination (but not pro-secession) party received the most votes of any party in Catalonia in the national elections of 20D.

The prospect of a progressive national coalition was left diminished (although perhaps not extinguished) on 10J, with the last-minute investiture of Carlos Puigdemont as Catalan regional president.  The day before, Mas had removed himself as the nominee, paving the way for his ally Puigdemont, who (to the chagrin of the Podemos leadership) the CUP agreed to endorse.  The new Catalan president has pledged to lead the unilateral secession from Spain for which Junts pel Sí believes it has the mandate.  While nothing is certain in politics, much less in Spanish politics at the moment, this turn of events is likely to strengthen the hand of the PP and increase the likelihood of a grand coalition.  This may not happen in the short term – that would require a dramatic ‘u-turn’ by Sanchez – but could after a new election (and perhaps a change of PSOE and/or PP leadership).  Moreover, in the context of what many are already painting as an existential crisis for the Spanish state, any new election may well lead to gains for the PP and Ciudadanos and losses for the PSOE.
Beyond Spain, EU leaders are following these events closely.  European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, while refraining from any intervention that might be regarded as political interference, has called for stable government in Spain, language that notably echoes that deployed by Rajoy throughout the election campaign and following both 20D and 10J.  Juncker has stated that serious consequences would follow any failure to gain Commission approval for a new national economic budget, a sentiment echoed by the ‘Eurogroup’.  Given the difficulties that even an austerity-friendly PP has had in satisfying Brussels on that front in recent months, a clash would be almost inevitable in the event of a coalition of the left.  Spain’s size and systemic importance mean that in such a scenario it could become an important focal point for a serious EU reform movement in the face of Brussels-Frankfurt intransigence on economic governance.

On the back of elections in Portugal and the ‘post-referendum’ re-election of Syriza in Greece, and regardless of what eventual government emerges in Spain, 20D has made clear that anti-austerity movements in Europe will not be easily cowed.  Many thought that the EU’s fear of a powerful leftist government in Spain was a decisive factor in its rough treatment of a Syriza-ruled Greece in summer 2015.  But, despite attempts from within and beyond Spain to draw unfavourable parallels between Podemos and the Greek ruling party, the former did much better than pre-election polls had suggested, only narrowly missing out on second place to the PSOE in terms of the popular vote.

It would be a cruel irony indeed for the Spanish (including Catalan) left if the national status quo is preserved in 2016, not because of pressure from the EU above, but as a consequence of a separatist – and defiantly anti-status quo – politics below.