Spain: Radical Changes in the Political Landscape
People hold a banner reading the words 'is
now' as they attend the 'March for change' in
Madrid, Spain, 31 January 2015
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Doctor of History, Professor, Comparative Political Studies Department of the MGIMO University, RIAC Expert
The regional and municipal elections held in Spain on May 24, 2015, confirmed the trend from recent years, namely the decline in the popularity of the two leading parties: the People's Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). Of course, it’s too early to draw any final conclusions: the general elections to the Cortes Generales will occur towards the end of 2015. However, it is already clear that the political party system in Spain is undergoing dramatic changes.
The regional and municipal elections held in Spain on May 24, 2015, confirmed the trend from recent years, namely the decline in the popularity of the two leading parties: the People's Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). The results from public opinion polls testify to the growing influence of Podemos (We can) and Ciudadanos (Citizens) in many autonomous regions and municipalities making these parties serious competitors for the established leaders. Of course, it’s too early to draw any final conclusions: the general elections to the Cortes Generales will occur towards the end of 2015. However, it is already clear that the political party system in Spain is undergoing dramatic changes.
Traditional parties: a crisis of confidence
Increased social inequality as compared to the pre-crisis year of 2007 has been one of the most tangible effects of the global economic recession in Spain. The earnings of many segments of the population have dropped, and social benefits have been cut. The unemployment rate is very high: 23.8% in the first quarter of 2015 . The share of temporary and part-time employment in the structure of employment is large (Spain leads the EU in terms of the proportion of employees with a short term contracts). All of this hinders the quality of life of the population and creates an atmosphere of anxiety and worry about tomorrow.
This feeling of frustration is intertwined with a crisis of confidence in political institutions in the minds of many people. Corruption scandals surrounding the administrative and political structures at various levels, including the royal family and the majority of parties and trade unions, have contributed to this process and have cast a shadow on the entire establishment. According to a survey carried out in November 2014, Spaniards considered corruption (63.9% of respondents) second only to unemployment (77% of respondents) in terms of the problems that worry them most. The same survey revealed that 87% of respondents were of the view that the political situation in the country was “bad or very bad.” 
This feeling of frustration is intertwined with a crisis of confidence in political institutions in the minds of many people.
The reasons behind the declining level of support for the PP and the PSOE are both general in nature on the one hand, and specific to each party, on the other. The position of the government of the conservative People’s Party, led by Matriano Rajoy, has been weakened not only by austerity policies, but also by the lack of constructive ideas to address the backlog of political and institutional problems. Having prioritized post-crisis economic growth, and having reached unquestionable success to this end, the authorities are not paying due attention to the political sphere. The leadership of the PP has chosen to take a passive stand in this regard and has displated little if any initiative. In many cases, it is trying to duck complicated questions, preferring to maintain silence and to go with the flow.
The positions of PSOE have been weakened even further. In 2010, the Socialist government, which was then in power and unable to cope with snow-balling unemployment, the budget deficit and external debt, reoriented its policy from promoting increased production and demand to monetarist solutions. This volte-face caused a wave of criticism from Spanish society, especially on the part of the supporters of the Socialists, who accused the party leadership of betraying traditional social-democratic principles and ceased to regard the PSOE as a force capable of reforming the system. The party hopes that 42-year-old Pedro Sanchez, who was elected Secretary-General in July 2014 by direct vote of PSOE members, will help overcome the crisis of confidence.
Having prioritized post-crisis economic growth, and having reached unquestionable success to this end, the authorities are not paying due attention to the political sphere.
The discontent among voters with the policies of the PP and PSOE is not the only reason for the weakening of bipartisanship. Many peculiarities of the parties’ internal structures and functioning have drawn strong criticism from the electorate as well. Given the historical domination of authoritarian and bureaucratic methods of management in Spain, caudillo-like hierarchism makes up the backbone of both parties’ structures. All decisions are taken by the party leader and a very narrow circle of his confidants. Due to the omnipotence of the party leadership, the lack of an independent audit of the financial activities of political parties, and the substitution of elections for elective offices by co-optation, corruption has been institutionalized and has become an integral part of the development of political parties.
It is hardly surprising that the level of confidence in Spanish parties and politicians among Spanish society is quite low. The majority of voters associate the established two-party system in the country with poor governance in socio-economic development and with corruption.
The new parties: “troublemakers”
According to some polls, its 35-year-old leader
Albert Rivera ranks first among political figures
The discontent of voters with the policies of the leading parties, the protest against austerity policies and the deficiencies of the political system, and the collective calls for social justice have led to the emergence of the party Podemos (We Can), which has gained ground in the political arena of Spain in virtually no time. The results of the elections in European Parliament just four months after its establishment in January 2014 were a sensation: 1.2 million people voted for the new party and it received 5 seats. Its leader, 36-year-old political science professor Pablo Iglesias, became quite popular in the country due to his regular participation in various TV programs, and contributed much to the success of Podemos.
Podemos accuses the “caste”, namely national and European financial capitals and corrupt political elites (including the leadership of all systemic parties), of being the source of all the ills of modern Spain. According to the leaders of Podemos, Regime-78 (as they call the modern democratic political regime in Spain, legitimized by the Constitution of 1978) has failed and needs a radical transformation.
The party has no concrete comprehensive program, and its image is changing. Initially, the leaders of Podemos took a liking to the regime of Hugo Chavez (some of them were advisors to the Venezuelan leader). In its statements, Podemos in particular emphasized the need to nationalize key industries and banks, and to repossess excessive living space from owners without paying compensation while assigning it to the needy. However, the improved economic situation and declining protest activity in Spain in 2014 made the leaders’ rhetoric quite moderate and they intensified their efforts to portray Podemos as a “system force.” The election program of the party is devoid of “revolutionary demands”. Certainly, this calculated ambiguity is designed to satisfy the demands of different social layers and turn the party into a mass-based one.
The majority of voters associate the established two-party system in the country with poor governance in socio-economic development and with corruption.
Podemos is the heir to the anti-austerity movement (also referred to as the Indignants Movement), which emerged in May 2011 and was a new type of mass protest movement. It emerged not from the call from political parties or trade unions: people self-organized in protest against the “traditional, discredited” policies of the leading parties and demanded “direct democracy.” Many of the “Indignants” want Podemos to be a party fundamentally different from the traditional ones, which will be based on a horizontal relationship as well as on direct democracy. In practice, however, Podemos is developing into a centralized party, similar to the traditional Spanish caudillo-type party, in which everything is determined by the will of the leader.
The party of Ciudadanos (Citizens), which describes itself as centrist, has become another “troublemaker.” It was founded in 2006 in Catalonia, has extended its representation to most parts of Spain, and has considerably strengthened its positions, thanks to the skilful organizational and propaganda work. The well thought-out program of Ciudadanos focuses on the renewal of the party political system in Spain and on promoting the social rights of the population and the welfare state. According to some polls, its 35-year-old leader Albert Rivera ranks first among political figures in Spain. Rivera believes that there is no contradiction between the ideas of social democracy and liberalism. “Freedom without equality is intolerable, and equality without freedom is unbearable,” he has claimed .
Reformatting the political arena
The recent regional and municipal elections confirmed the results of public opinion polls. The People's Party gained a victory in 11 of 13 autonomous regions that held elections; however, it lost an absolute majority, which allowed it to rule single-handedly. During municipal elections, the PP also received more votes than any other party, but its electorate declined to 27%, which is 10% less than it received during the elections of 2011. The number of municipal assemblies where it has an absolute majority, decreased from 3300 to 2700 . As the conservative ABC newspaper put it, the PP has won a “Pyrrhic victory with a taste of defeat.” 
According to electoral law, the party which received a simple majority in the elections cannot be the ruling one if its candidate for an executive post fails to receive the number of deputies’ votes required to confirm it. Given the fierce criticism of the PP policies on the part of left and center-left parties, such a development looks quite realistic. The Spanish Socialist Workers' party, having received 25% of the vote in the municipal elections (2.7% less than in 2011) and having won in two autonomous regions (Extremadura and Asturias), needs the support of other parliamentary parties too.
In this situation, Podemos and Ciudadanos have become kind of “arbitrators,” as their results in the elections have turned them into influential political actors. Podemos ranked third in terms of the votes cast, but it’s difficult to assess its success in numbers: in many municipalities, this party had no candidate of its own and united with small left-wing organizations in support of a single candidate. The success of Podemos marked a shift to the left of the party and the political spectrum in Spain.
The victory of Ada Colau, a candidate of Podemos and other left-wing groups, heirs of Spain’s indignados, became a symbol for radical change. Ada Colau left behind a candidate for mayor offered by the forces supporting secession of Catalonia from Spain, thereby weakening the separatist sentiments in the autonomous region. Given the ideological proximity of PSOE and Podemos, it can be assumed that they have reached certain agreements, which in many districts can ensure left-wing candidates’ “entry into power,” although, technically, the conservatives have received more votes in the elections there. Representatives of the PP, having lost the absolute majority, can also rule in some regions if they manage to reach an agreement with Ciudadanos (6.6% of the electorate voted for this party), as the center-right field is not alien to the latter.
The two-party system has survived, but ceased to be dominant.
Given the loss of the absolute majority by the ruling party in many local bodies and the increased number of influential national parties, the format and style of Spanish politics cannot but undergo radical changes: a culture of dialogue, compromises and agreements has to become the imperative for exercising power at different levels of society. Meanwhile, many experts believe that this culture in modern Spain is underdeveloped. Partisan interests often dominate national and regional ones.
Intense rivalries and mutual attacks are commonplace not only between the right-wing (center-right) and the left-wing (center-left) parties, and not only between the “old” and the “new” parties, but also within each of these camps. The camp of leftist forces has never been so fragmented in the years of democracy as it is now: the main rivalry is taking place between the PSOE, Podemos and the United Left (the communists are the core of this coalition), which achieved poor results in the elections. The situation in the camp of the right and center-right parties has been aggravated as well. The People's Party, which has united the overwhelming majority of those who are to the right of the Socialists since the beginning of the 1990s, is now facing competition from new parties, above all from Ciudadanos.
The situation in the autonomous parliament of Andalusia after the elections on 22 March 2015, which were the first in the current election cycle, vividly illustrates how difficult it is to achieve compromises and agreements. The PSOE won the election, but however received only a relative majority which was not enough to make its leader Susana Diaz the President of the Regional Government of Andalusia. Despite all attempts to reach an agreement with the other parties, three rounds of voting failed to ensure the number of votes required for confirmation to the post. Taken together, the votes of the representatives of the People's Party, of Podemos, of Ciudadanos, and of the United Left who had their own arguments for voting against, outnumbered the votes of socialists. With all this going on, the ideologically diverse opposition had no alternative candidate.
All things considered, a fierce rivalry between the old and the new parties in local elections has resulted in the victory of the former, who have suffered significant losses. In other words, the two-party system has survived, but ceased to be dominant. If the PP and the PSOE used to enjoy the support of about 80% of the electorate, this figure has now dropped to 52% (in 2014 elections to the European Parliament – to 50%). The rotation of power between the conservatives and the socialists is now impossible without agreement being reached with the new parties. However, this satisfies the aspirations of 69% of Spaniards who favor the disappearance of the dominant two-party system and the emergence of new parties involved in governance together with the traditional ones .
1. El Universal. Caracas, 23.04.2015.
1. La preocupación por la corrupción se dispara con un nuevo record. El País, 4.12.2014.
3. Rivera A. Ciudadanos, un proyecto para Espana. El País, 19.04.2015.
4. El PP pierde mayorías absolutas en toda España. El País, 25.05.2015.
5. Victoria del PP con sabor a derrota ABC, 25.05.2015.
6. Preludio para un tiempo nuevo. El País, 25.05.2014.