What changes for Spain now that Podemos has become the third political power? E&M‘s author Rafael Silva explores the birth of a new era in the country.

The general elections that took place in Spain on 20 December will be remembered by the Spaniards as the elections of the change. Two new parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, have burst into a political scene that has been for almost forty years monopolised by the two mainstream parties, thus ending the bipartisanship and bringing hope to those who demand alternative solutions for the country. Among those citizens, we find also the ones who cherish the hope of establishing and independent state from Spain such as the Catalans and the Basques. Their possibilities to negotiate their secession might have increased now that Podemos, which has recognised the right of self-determination of the historical nations in Spain, has become the third political power in the country.

The emergence of Podemos is definitely a key episode in modern Spanish politics. The party led by Pablo Iglesias was derided on its beginnings by the traditional mainstream parties in Spain and the media often refers to its members as radical lefties, populists, and anti-system. However, the rise of Podemos indicates a shift in the Spanish voter’s mentality that cannot be ignored. Some might say this shift is a consequence of the times we are living, with countries like Spain immersed in a profound economic crisis. They might be right. However, in most Europeans countries where the extreme left has risen, their extreme right antithesis has risen as well. The best example can be found in Greece with Syriza and Golden Dawn at both ends of the spectrum. The new Spanish political arena does not comply with this tendency since there is not an extreme right party offering an opposite alternative to Podemos.

Breaking the chains of bipartisanship

Partido Popular vs Partido Obrero Socialista Español. For the last four decades, politics in Spain has always been a ring with room for just two boxers. With the exceptions of Catalonia and the Basque Country, where the regional parties have maintained themselves at the top of the political pyramid, politics in the rest of the state has been the exclusive territory of the blues and the reds. This situation changed on 20 December. The left-wing Podemos and the moderate-right Ciudadanos obtained over 8.5 million votes combined against the 12.7 million votes of the traditional parties. This situation is rather new in Spain and it establishes a very fragmented political sphere in which alliances will need to be addressed in order to form a government for the next four years. The coalition of the two liberal parties PP-Ciudadanos would amount for 173 seats in Congress. On the other hand, PSOE-Podemos would reach to 159. Absolute majority is 176 benches. Numbers do not add up.

This is unknown territory in Spanish politics. Nobody can affirm right now who will be the prime minister of Spain for the next four years. Even less which type of policies are going to be implemented in order to confront the several problems the country is immersed in. Some people do not like this situation. Members of Partido Popular (currently in power) have already expressed their concern for the instability of politics in the country. Personally, I am delighted with the situation. In contrast with what Primer Minister Mariano Rajoy calls instability, I consider this new political arena as a sign of maturity in Spanish democracy, where new proposals and ways of making politics are finding its place. Bipartisanship is not inherent to healthy democracy. Only pluralism is.


Photo: Marc Lozano (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Spain, the multinational state

The primer minister of Spain, as many other members of the traditional political groupings in the country, are afraid that the results of the general elections might open a new front for negotiations regarding the question of independence in Catalonia. The secessionist claims of Basques and Catalans have been gradually growing stronger ever since Spain regained its democratic status back in 1977. In the case of Catalonia, the last few years have been a key juncture for the independency process of the region. Catalan citizens have carried out massive pro-independence demonstrations and the regional government have tried several times to dialogue with Madrid. In contrast to what happened in the United Kingdom in 2014, where a referendum for the independence of Scotland was possible, in Spain the central government has demonstrated no interest to reach a satisfactory solution for both sides. As a matter of fact, the position of members of the government has been rather threatening as proves the declarations made by the Ministry of Defense Pedro Morenés during a show in RNE (Spanish National Radio), where he insinuated that Spain would military invade Catalonia in order to “protect the Spanish constitution”.

Podemos has taken political advantage of this situation, offering a helping hand to the Catalan nationalists thus increasing the popularity of the party in the region. In fact, Podemos counts with the support of the nationalists parties in Basque Country, Catalonia, and Galicia. With this support the alliance PSOE-Podemos could actually obtain the needed seats in Congress and form a government. However, nationalists parties in Catalonia will not back this alliance unless PSOE agrees on a referendum for the Catalans. In case PSOE agreed on such condition, this elections might change not only the bipartisanship character of politics in Spain, but the whole idea of the Spanish state as we know it now a days.

It is remarkable that in Spain there is not a far-right party that has experienced a boost of support as  has happened in France with Front National or in Hungary with Jobbik

Where is the far right in Spain?

Considering what is at stake, it is remarkable that in Spain there is not a far-right party that has experienced a boost of support as has happened in France with Front National or in Hungary with Jobbik. It is not a secret that Spain is one of the most affected countries by the economic crisis in Europe. The population has experienced impoverishment and inequality has increased substantially since 2008. Considering this facts, and adding to the equation not just the separatist question in Catalonia but also the Syrian refugee crisis that is spreading all over Europe, it seems hard to believe that in Spain the extreme right speech has made no impact in society. After all this is happening in countries less affected by the crisis such as Sweden or The Netherlands where the racist discourses of the Swedish Democrats and PVV are sinking in sectors of society.

There are two reasons why in Spain there is not such an extreme right. First of all the Partido Popular has a way of doing politics that encompasses a wide span within liberal politics. Their strategy combines elements of the far and the moderate right, making the party a sort of liberal chameleon that seduces both the bourgeois and the neo-nazi. Secondly, and probably most important, Spanish society still has a fresh memory of Franco’s ultranationalist regime, based on fear and repression. People, simply explained, do not want to revive the ghosts of the past.

Following the results of the elections, the Primer Minister Rajoy said that “we are witnessing a moment of instability” in Spain. I was struck by how this quote delighted me. This so-called “instability” makes me excited because for the first time I perceive politics at the top of people’s agenda – and by people I do not mean intellectuals or students of political science. I mean ordinary people. The ones that represent the biggest percentage of the population. These are the ones that traditionally have not engaged much with politics in Spain. Among the many reasons that could explain this trend, this negligence has sustained a bipartisanship model in which the interests of just a small part of the population are represented. The financial crisis was a wake-up call for Spanish society. People voted differently because they got tired of the old recipes that the traditional parties kept presenting as miraculous solutions to the crisis. People got tired of corruption scandals in the government. People became aware of the cynicism of politicians who turned their back on them to support private banks while they were being evicted by those same banks. All these issues created the perfect scenario for the emergence of Podemos. I am not sure if the new party will be able to implement its proposals in Spain but, whatever happens, the only thing we can be sure of is that these elections have inspired hope for having liberated Spain from the shackles of bipartisanship.

Featured image: Photo: Esperanza Aguirre (Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0

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    Rafael Silva Álvarez is a researcher and practitioner at the Department of Peace Operations at PATRIR. He focuses on the development of alternative and effective counter-terrorism strategies, but also on conflict dynamics and practical approaches to peacebuilding. Before joining PATRIR, he worked in community development projects with marginalised communities in Kenya where he experienced how inequality and lack of opportunities can trigger structural violence among certain groups. He holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain) and an MSc in Conflict Resolution and Governance from the University of Amsterdam.

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