The left fails in Spain

Yesterday’s general election in Spain has delivered a very different result to that predicted by the polls, although it is less surprising that it has replicated the indecisive result of last year. The election not only failed to deliver any single party a majority, but once again made the formation of any government dependent on the negotiation of terms for a coalition.

It was a relatively good day for the Centre-Right. Despite the eruption of yet more corruption scandals during the election campaign, the right-wing (Christian Democrat, socially conservative) People’s Party (PP), which has continued to govern Spain as a caretaker administration since last year’s electoral reverse, has gained 400,000 votes in comparison with last year (on a similar turnout). The support of a third of the electorate has delivered the PP an increase in seats, to 137.

The big difference from the previous election is that this time Podemos, the party that emerged from the demands for a new politics generated by the street protests of the indignados, entered into a formal alliance with the United Left (IU), which includes the Communists. The polls had predicted that this stronger left-wing option would make Podemos the second biggest party, supplanting the centre-left (social democratic) Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), which had replicated the history of similarly constituted parties in other European countries, including the British Labour Party in its “New Labour” incarnation. The PSOE had enjoyed long periods in government since the return of democracy in Spain, the last ending in 2011, but not only found itself increasingly criticised for its economic policies by the Trade Union movement but also suffered from its own corruption scandals.

The Podemos-IU alliance did not work. Although the PSOE lost ground, it still has the second largest number of MPs. The left coalition has ended up with 71, and lost 1.23 million votes (in comparison with the PSOE’s loss of 268,000). The other new party that contested the 2015 elections, the centre-right Ciudadanos (Citizens), lost half a million votes and has eight fewer MPs than six months ago. Although these are the main parties, the support of smaller parties will also prove important in efforts to form a new government.

Although 35 separate green parties decided to come together to form a confederation in 2010, green politics is represented by parties with other agendas in the electoral arena, but the Basque and Catalan nationalist parties are important electoral players. The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) is Christian Democrat, and won 5 seats. EH Bildu is left-wing and pro-independence, and emerged with 2 seats. The Republican Left of Catalunya (ERC) is also on the left but makes its demand for independence from Spain a red line in negotiations with other left-wing political forces. The Catalan Democratic Convergence (CDC), in contrast, is liberal and centrist, and allied with the Democratic Union of Cataluya, which is Christian Democrat. ERC and CDC won 8 seats each, more than the Catalan versions of the PSOE and PP.

The biggest winner in Catalunya, with 12 seats, was En Comú Podem (In Common We Can), an electoral coalition of Podemos, Barcelona en Comú, the Catalan Greens, and the United and Alternative Left, led by Barcelona mayor Ada Colau. But this is cold confort to the Podemos-IU coalition in terms of results in Spain as a whole.

The Spanish political arena is highly fragmented, a reflection of deep historical divisions that are regional as well as a reflection of the fact that Spain is not a country made up of a single nation. In some ways this former centre of continental and transatlantic empire replicates the history of the United Kingdom (violent expressions of nationalism in the Basque country, less violently expressed but strong desires for independence that have won a very considerable degree of autonomy in the case of Catalunya, a nation that parallels Scotland in terms of its close relations with France). Another similarity, at least with England, although the underlying causes and consequences are somewhat different, is that the Spanish electoral system itself, based on “electoral list proportional representation”, skews the results in terms of number of MPs won towards two party dominance, and also favours more conservative political forces, thanks to the way the system was engineered by the Franco dictatorship.

Amongst the undemocratic consequences of Spain’s electoral system that can also be associated with political corruption are a concentration of power in the hands of provincial party bosses who choose candidates and rank them in the lists. The candidates at the top of provincial lists can enjoy the equivalent of British “safe seats”. But the main problem is the skewing of the number of seats obtained in relation to the number of votes obtained. National minority parties such as IU may do as well as regional nationalist parties in terms of total votes or percentage of the vote, but under the existing system they do not get the same number of seats proportionately in relation to their vote as parties that concentrate their total votes in a few provinces, as the Catalan and Basque nationalists do.

These kinds of structural problems are important (and germane to any proposals that might gather new traction in future about reforming Britain’s “first past the post”, simple majority, system). But these are not the only considerations that we need to think about in looking for explanations of the failure of the IU-Podemos coalition to fare as well as expected.

One speculation is that Brexit promoted anxieties amongst some voters that led them to opt for the devils they knew, the PP and PSOE. The PP is tarnished by corruption but it is also socially conservative (even more so than the British Conservatives).Although the PP’s harsh austerity policies were not popular with many voters, the PSOE might have seemed a safer alternative for at least some amelioration of policy in this respect and a more liberal approach to wider social issues. Obvious signs of personal opportunism aside, that this might happen in the UK  seems to be the hope of the Blairites and other elements of the parliamentary Labour party who are now trying to remove Jeremy Corbyn from leadership of the PSOE’s British equivalent in the hope of returning to power (in an election that would require the repeal of the existing fixed term legislation introduced by the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition that replaced Labour in 2010). But the fact that the PSOE has not suffered a completely catastrophic loss of seats does not erase the fact that the PP actually gained seats and the social democrats still lost some votes.

The electoral system certainly does not do Podemos and its allies any favours, even if its Catalan coalition got the largest number of seats in Catalunya (though less than the number won by the combined nationalist parties). But my money would be on the hypothesis that voters lacked confidence that the alternative that the Podemos-IU coalition advocated would actually be implemented in any feasible coalition government, and within the framework of EU politics and institutions. After all, the only example of a party purporting to represent a “new politics” of the Left that is actually in power in Europe is Syriza in Greece. Syriza has been forced by the EU to swallow more and more austerity, privatisation, and dismantling of the welfare state, and its leadership has proved powerless to resist (if not more interested in retaining power than in the welfare of the Greek people). Podemos might be seen as principally the political expression of a generation of young middle class Spaniards who see their future economic prospects as dismal. It does offer a kind of left-wing alternative, but it is a moderate one, and even if voters found the policies on offer attractive in the abstract, the fact that Podemos failed to advance even after accepting alliance with the traditional Left and its remaining working class supporters would seem to strengthen the hypothesis that the alternative was simply not seen as viable by enough voters.

Detailed research on voter behaviour which pays attention to local and regional situations is needed to explore these issues further. An ethnographic approach could certainly contribute much to this kind of investigation by providing direct evidence on what was going through voters’ minds as they went to the polls, to supplement inferences based on analysis of quantitative data on voting patterns. Ethnography can also illuminate the kinds of local political manipulations and horse trading that are central to candidate selection and other aspects of the way the Spanish political system works in practice.

But the election results are now clear, and the next stage of the process will also be about negotiation and horse trading, presenting pretty much the same dilemmas as it did the first time round. The bargaining power of Ciudadanos has been reduced by its loss of seats, but it could still be a possible coalition partner of either the PP or PSOE. The relationship between PSOE and Podemos is probably more complicated than ever since PSOE sought to blame Podemos intransigence for its failure to form an alternative government in the previous round (and some electors may have shared this view). The support of the nationalist parties tends to come at a price that both the two dominant parties have always rejected. Mariano Rajoy, the PP leader and still in effective charge of government, is going to talk first to the PSOE, in the hope of securing a pact of governability that will enable his party to rule. But his fifty seat advantage over all other parties offers him no guarantees, and even if he was to combine with the nationalist parties that share the PP’s ideological orientation and Ciudadanos, he would only achieve the support of 50% of the deputies in parliament. So the question of which way the PSOE will jump is crucial. Opinion within the party is clearly divided. Preventing a new government from emerging could well increase the disillusion with the entire political process that is already marked amongst Spanish electors, but the costs of accepting PP policies, even by abstaining from challenging them, could be very heavy indeed for the PSOE in the longer term.

Whatever happens in the end, June 26 was not a good day for the Spanish Left and the prospects of the country abandoning the economics and politics of neoliberal capitalist austerity.