The second election in Spain once again presents no clear possibilities for a stable government. If Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy cannot put together a ruling coalition, another poll is likely.
After an ambiguous outcome in last December’s election and months of frustrated coalition talks between the four main parties, the weeks before the new poll on 26 June were dominated by Unidos Podemos (‘United We Can’). Pablo Iglesias, leader of the upstart Podemos party that emerged from the Indignados movement and which came third in the December election, grabbed the headlines by announcing an electoral pact with the Izquierda Unida (United Left). As polling day moved closer, much was made about the prospect of Unidos Podemos finishing second, overtaking the mainstream socialist party (the PSOE) and potentially being well-placed to form a government of the left.
The results of Sunday’s election, however, proved the speculation false. The ruling Partido Popular (People’s Party – PP), which has pursued austerity policies, actually gained votes and seats, although well short of a majority. The PSOE held its ground to retain second place, while Unidos Podemos and the liberal centrists Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’) saw support for them decline.
What explains the, albeit mild, resurgence of the established parties? The economic situation has continued to improve, despite political uncertainty.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy campaigned on a platform of recovery based on its economic programme, as well as continuity and stability. The Brexit referendum caused shockwaves across Europe two days before Spain’s elections and had the result of nudging voters back towards the mainstream. Likewise, the issue of a referendum on Catalan independence may have been brought into sharper focus as chaos gripped Britain. Podemos had been the only national party to favour a Catalan vote on secession.
The grandstanding and iconoclasm from Iglesias and his colleagues seemingly turned off the very voters required to secure power. Forming an electoral pact with the former communist party seems to have backfired. Linking the freshness of its appeal with communism may have echoed in voters’ minds with Spain’s turbulent past and pushed them back towards the PP and PSOE. Furthermore, the intransigence of Podemos during the coalition negotiations did not present the party in a constructive light. PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez denounced Iglesias for ruining the possibility of a centre left coalition with Ciudadanos.
The still infant Podemos party will need to learn from these missteps if it is to move from protest movement to the more difficult business of governing. Iglesias admitted that the election results were “not satisfactory”.
Can Rajoy form a government?
Having caused a surprise by increasing the PP’s share of the vote, Mariano Rajoy gave a triumphant speech in Madrid. He will be more assertive in attempting to form a ruling coalition, although the numbers still look difficult.
His first port of call will be Sánchez and a possible grand coalition with the PSOE. This, however, seems improbable given the enmity between the two leaders and fear on the PSOE side that a deal between the traditional parties will further embolden support for Podemos.
Rajoy may then look to Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, and some of the smaller regional parties to form a government. An arrangement like this would be fragile.
This then leaves the possibility of yet another election. Events, the economy, and the conduct of Spain’s leading politicians in negotiations will then govern whether the electorate drift once more towards the newer parties, or whether they finally give the establishment a conclusive mandate.