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Five keys to understanding the Spanish election

A second Spanish general election in six months saw gains for the right-wing PP, which is again expected to form a government. But the insurgent left has also shown that it is here to stay, writes Oscar Reyes.

June 27, 2016
7 min read


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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unidos-podemos Photo: Adolfo Lujan/Flickr

A Unidos Podemos rally in Madrid in the days before the election. Photo: Adolfo Lujan/Flickr

A stalemate, but the political landscape has still changed

Spain went to the polls on Sunday 26 June with polls suggesting that Unidos Podemos would overtake the traditional social democrats of PSOE, and that the electoral maths might even favour a progressive government led by Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias. That didn’t happen.

The best prediction of the 26 June election results turned out to be what happened on 20 December, the inconclusive ballot that led to this month’s re-run. Unidos Podemos – a joint list involving the parties emerging out of 15M (Spain’s Occupy movement) and the old Izquierda Unida (IU, or United Left) – 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 would abstain in an investiture vote, 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 did not even exist three years ago, has gained over 20 per cent of the votes in successive elections. The idea that power switches from PSOE to PP and back again has been decisively broken.

Left unity lost votes, but may have averted electoral disaster

While the performance of Unidos Podemos looks very similar to their showing six months previously, the vote breakdowns 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 IU 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 IU voters, 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 IU picked up just two seats last December despite winning close to a million votes. Even though the predicted sorpasso (overtaking) failed to materialise, 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 per cent in April, and fading into relative insignificance looked a real possibility.

A Brexit effect

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 on Friday, 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 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 did not 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 per cent), Catalonia (26 per cent) and the Balearic Islands (25 per cent), but lost votes elsewhere compared to the results in December 2015.

National questions pose a dilemma for progressives

The election results leave any potential right (PP/Ciudadanos) and left (PSOE/Podemos) pacts 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 centralised 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 centre-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 per cent of voters in Andalucia but attracted the support of just 16 per cent of Catalans.

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 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 15M occupations 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 programme 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 and reimpose rent controls, and oppose the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Over five million voters agreed, and when the dust has settled that should still feel like a strong beginning rather than a precipitous ending.

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Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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