Shortly after the December general election, I wrote that Spain faced three possible choices — a German-style grand coalition, a Portuguese-style ‘coalition of the left’ or a Greek-style stalemate and fresh elections.
Spain chose the Greek option.
Five months after a national election ripped apart Spain’s decades-long two-party system, the failure of the country’s four major parties to reach a coalition agreement means that Spain’s voters will once again go to the polls on June 26 for a fresh vote, after a deadline ran out on midnight Tuesday to find a viable government.
Notably, the rerun of Spain’s national elections will fall just three days after the United Kingdom votes on whether to leave the European Union, a critical vote for the entire continent.
The problem is that, with talks stalled for any conceivable governing majority, the Spanish electorate seems set to repeat results similar to last December’s election. For now, markets are not unduly spooked by the political impasse in Madrid, but continued uncertainty through the second half of 2016 could prove different if no clear government emerges from the new elections and, presumably, a new round of coalition talks brokered by Spain’s young new king, Felipe VI.
Ultimately, in the game of chicken between Catalonia’s regional president Artur Mas and the handful of radical left legislators standing in the way of forming a new executive government, it was Mas who blinked, leading the way for another Catalan moderate, Carles Puigdemont, to take the premiership in an 11th hour drama Sunday night.
On Sunday, he finally gave in, offering to step aside for the sake of winning a majority for a pan-ideological coalition committed to pushing the region’s independence from Spain within the next 18 months. In so doing, Mas acceded to the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP, Popular Unity Candidacy), the far-left group that won around 8% of the vote in the most recent September 27 elections that otherwise delivered a strong plurality to the pro-independence front, Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes).
With six seats short of a majority, Junts pel Sí, dominated by two parties, the center-right Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC, Democratic Convergence of Catalonia) and the center-left Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalonia) had agreed prior to the election, along with several other minor parties, that it would be Mas to lead any resulting government.
Though the CUP also embraces independence (it also rejects membership in NATO and the European Union), it didn’t formally join the Junts pel Sí coalition. Antonio Baños, the CUP’s leader, steadfastly refused to support Mas’s investiture to form a new Generalitat, the regional executive government, because his party opposes the budget cuts that Mas introduced at the regional level during Spain’s economic crisis and due to longstanding allegations of corruption surrounding CDC governments dating back decades.
By stepping down, Mas made it clear that he wasn’t willing to drag Catalans to their fourth election in five years just to cling to power.
Mas’s replacement, Puigdemont, is another CDC veteran. Though he comes from the same moderate background as Mas, he has long been among the most outspoken advocates of Catalan independence, unlike Mas. For now, at least, that represents sufficient change for Baños and the CUP to support the independence-driven government.
Increasingly, Mas used the pro-independence fervor to maintain his own grip on power, to the point that it forced a split in the CDC’s longtime two-party governing coalition, Convergència i Unió (CiU, Convergence and Union) in a bid to hold onto the premiership.
While CiU governed the region consecutively for nearly a quarter-century from the 1980s to the early 2000s, it took a markedly nationalist stand. But, for the most part, it always leaned more toward regional autonomy and not in favor of independence.
Not so with Puigdemont, however, who is much more of a true believer in the independence cause than Mas ever was. Puigdemont is a former journalist and an arts and cultural critic, but his major political breakthrough came in 2011, when he won the mayoral election in Girona, long a stronghold of Spain’s federal socialist party. Continue reading Who is Carles Puigdemont? Catalonia’s new regional president.→
As predicted, Spain’s messy general election resulted in no clear winner, and none of its two largest parties could claim a majority in the lower house of Spain’s parliament.
What’s more, though two upstart parties upended the political status quo that’s existed for nearly 40 years in Spain, neither did so well that they can form a government — or even serve as a kingmaker for one of the two established parties.
While the conservative Partido Popular (PP, the People’s Party) emerged with the largest share of the vote, prime minister Mariano Rajoy has plenty of reason to despair. Much of the party’s support comes from older voters in the Spanish countryside, and the PP benefited from an electoral system that delivers slightly more seats to parties with support outside Spain’s urban centers. Nevertheless, he has lost his absolute majority, dropped 64 seats and, worst of all for Rajoy, there’s no clear or easy path to a governing majority. Though Spain’s economy has stabilized under the past four years of PP rule, unemployment remains staggeringly high (21.2%). The party’s leader since 2004, Rajoy might ultimately be pushed aside during coalition talks for a younger or more charismatic leader, like deputy prime minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría.
Meanwhile, the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) suffered its worst defeat since the transition to democracy in the late 1970s. Its new leader, Pedro Sánchez, a moderate economist, simply could not convince voters to look beyond long-simmering corruption scandals (which, by the way, also plague Rajoy’s party) and the record of the prior PSOE government, which took the first steps toward the path of austerity measures in the aftermath of the 2009-10 eurozone debt crisis.
Indeed, the PSOE just barely outpolled Podemos, an anti-austerity alternative that burst onto the Spanish political scene in 2014, embracing the anti-establishment protests of the ‘indignados’ movement. Despite leading polls earlier this year, Podemos crashed as fears grew that it would cause the kind of economic pandemonium that plagued Greece after the election of the far-left SYRIZA this year. Its leading spokesperson, Pablo Iglesias, began to moderate his movement’s rhetoric, and rallied to a strong third-place finish.
The center-right liberal Ciudadanos (‘C’s,’ Citizens), a federalist, economically liberal party founded in Catalonia in 2007, made the leap from regional politics to national politics, but its leader Albert Rivera must be disappointed that it failed to steal more voters from Rajoy.
With another handful of seats going to various pro-independence Catalan parties, as well as Basque and Galician regional parties, the net result is that no one has enough seats in the 350-member Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), the lower house of Spain’s legislature, the Cortes Generales (General Courts).
Notably, Rajoy maintained the PP’s majority, however reduced, in the far less powerful upper house, the Senado (Senate), which can be overruled on most matters (i.e., not ‘organic laws’ that deal with constitutional matters, civil rights and federalism) by majority vote of the Chamber of Deputies.Voters elected 208 senators on Sunday as well (an additional 58 senators are appointed by regional assemblies).
Two sets of statistics are worth considering.
First, the traditional major parties (the PP and PSOE) won just 50.7% of the vote in aggregate, compared to 83.8% in the 2008 election and 73.4% in the 2011 election. Obviously, that means Spain is entering a new era where coalition politics are more important. That’s not entirely unprecedented — when José María Aznar won 156 seats after the 1996 elections, he had to work with Catalan, Basque and Canarian nationalists to form a stable government. But the success of Podemos and Ciudadanos has transformed Spain’s politics from a two-party matter to a multiparty affair.
Secondly, among the four major parties to emerge from the 2015 election, it’s staggering just how evenly divided the Spanish left and right are. Together, the PP and Ciudadanos won 42.65% of the vote and the PSOE and Podemos won 42.67%. Spain’s electorate, in the broadest sense, delivered neither a mandate to a sharp left turn or a sharp right turn.
What Spain now faces is a difficult choice of among three different paths, all of which carry their own risks and challenges. Spain’s new young king, Felipe VI, will also take a more hands-on role in the coalition formation process than his father, Juan Carlos I, ever did. The good news for Spain is that the three options each mirror paths taken by three of its fellow European Union member-states in the last three years:
Germany 2013: a ‘grand coalition’ between the two established parties;
Portugal 2015: a fragile coalition government that brings together all of the parties and movements of the left; and
Greece 2012: deadlocked coalition talks lead to fresh elections.
To the extent that Spain is entering a new coalition-based era of its parliamentary politics, a reshaped Spanish political landscape might transcend 20th century fractures and the transition to democracy that’s dominated Spanish political life for a half-century.