Spain heads back to the polls

Wednesday, June 8, 2016




For a small impoverished region in the north-west of Spain, Galicia has a record of producing strong political leaders. Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain from the end of the country’s civil war in the 1930s until his death in 1975, hailed from Ferrol on the north-western tip of the region. Manuel Fraga, a Franco minister and later long-time First Minister of Galicia, was a fierce Galician. Current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was born in the region, as was the father of Cuba’s Fidel and Raúl Castro.



A more familiar stereotype of Galicians is that they are indecisive, and it is this characteristic which has extended across the Spanish electorate - if not the politicians - today. All the talk going into last December’s election was about the effect of two insurgent parties: far-left Podemos ("We Can") and centre-right Ciudadanos ("Citizens"). Set up in the last few years, these parties threatened to break the stranglehold on Spanish politics - since the 1980s the centre-right Partido Popular (Peoples' Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers' Party) have swapped power every decade or so.



In December, the newcomers did not manage to get more votes than the two traditional parties, but they did prevent anyone forming an overall majority. The PP were left with 123 seats out of 350; the PSOE had 90; Podemos 69; and Ciudadanos 40. In fact, the seats between the four parties were so evenly spread that even a right-wing coalition between the PP and Ciudadanos, or a left-wing one between the PSOE and Podemos would not have produced a majority. Attempts by Rajoy (leader of the PP) and Pedro Sánchez (leader of the PSOE) to form other combinations failed.



So, six months on, Spain faces another election, on 26th June. The only real change in the polls has come from an electoral pact made between Podemos and traditional far-left party Izquierda Unida (United Left). This small party does not carry much electoral weight, however it has been enough to nudge the new coalition above the PSOE into second place in recent opinion polls.



Back last year, before the first general election, Pablo Iglesias (leader of Podemos) claimed in a candid article for New Left Review that Podemos’s “vital goal this year is to overtake the PSOE - an essential pre-condition for political change in Spain, even if we don’t manage to outstrip the PP”. As things stand, this objective is on course to be met, albeit six months late.



It is only by surpassing the PSOE, Iglesias claimed, that the latter would “undertak[e] a 180-degree turn and [reject] austerity policies”. At this point, either they will “accept the leadership of Podemos or commit political suicide by submitting to that of the PP”.



This is the situation the PSOE finds itself in - as the Spanish say: "between the sword and the wall". They may either have to enter into agreement with Podemos and risk being swallowed up by their larger rival on the left, or alienate left-wing voters by letting in a right-wing government.



The problems that the PSOE face are similar to those of centre-left parties across Europe, like PASOK in Greece, the Labour party in Britain and the French Socialist Party, who have all suffered through their perceived culpability either for the economic crisis, or for austerity, or for both. The PSOE have also faced charges of corruption. It has just been announced that three former PSOE first ministers of Andalusia will go on trial.



Ciudadanos face a similar dilemma - they cannot pact with the PP without damaging their reputation as standing above and apart from the traditional Spanish right-wing party, who face even more serious allegations of corruption than the PSOE.


It looks unlikely that there will be a majority. Spanish parties will need to compromise, and so the emerging polarisation does not augur well. Politicians need to rediscover the spirit of the "transición", the period in which Spain changed from a dictatorship to a democracy through compromise between political groups which had fought each other in a bloody civil war less than forty years before. This is perhaps the biggest test for Spanish politicians since that period. They need to face up to it.


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