As expected, the Nov. 20 election to the Cortes Generales (the Spanish parliament) was a massive defeat for the ruling Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), as voters punished the incumbents for a brutal economic crisis and for imposing austerity measures demanded by European bankers. However, the Marxist left advanced.
The elections saw a loss of 59 seats in the Congress of Deputies (the lower house), by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s PSOE, resulting from a more than 15.14 percent drop in its popular vote since the last elections in 2008. The right wing People’s Party (Partido Popular or PP) gained 32 new seats, resulting from an increase of 4.68 percent of the popular vote.
The United Left (Izquierda Unida, IU), of which the Communist Party of Spain is a major component, also surged, picking up nine seats based on an increase in its popular vote from 970,000 votes in 2008 to 1,600,000 votes in this election. A number of other smaller parties of both left and right, including ones representing the autonomous Basque and Catalan regions, also picked up seats, mostly at the expense of the PSOE. Turnout was 71 percent.
This gives the PP, headed by Galician politician Mariano Rajoy, an absolute majority in the 350-seat lower house, with 186 of the deputies as opposed to 110 for the PSOE, 11 for the IU, and the rest for smaller parties. The only party to lose seats besides the PSOE was the Catalan leftist party, ERC, which lost one seat. In the 208-seat Senate, the upper house of the Cortes Generales, the PP also won an absolute majority.
Rajoy moved quickly to establish a new government to take power on Dec. 20, with himself as Prime Minister (actually called “president” in Spain, in spite of the fact that King Juan Carlos is the head of state).
The defeat of the PSOE was predicted by public opinion polls and political commentators of all stripes. Like social democratic governments in Portugal and Greece, Rodriguez Zapatero’s government in Spain has found itself facing a massive economic crisis and has been implementing austerity measures which the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (collectively called the “troika”) have been demanding.
Social democrats in Portugal were already punished in the June 2011 elections for following similar policies, when they lost heavily to the right. It is clear that if an election were held in Greece today, the same thing would happen. But reports from Italy are that the center-left would defeat the incumbent right in an election today, which suggests that voters across the economically beleaguered “PIIGS” group of European countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain) are punishing incumbents rather than shifting ideologically to the right.
Both social democratic and conservative parties in power have given in to the “troika’s” pressures for austerity in exchange for bailouts of their critically endangered economies, while in each country the communist party or parties has resisted the austerity policies, and have advanced or held their own in elections. But the increased support for communist candidates has not been enough to prevent right wing parties from taking advantage of the anger with the incumbents.
Rajoy’s electoral strategy was based on letting the PSOE government take the blame for the poor condition of the economy (including 20 percent unemployment and very high deficits) and for the austerity measures, which had led to a widespread protest movement by the “indignados” (indignant ones) similar to, and related to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, while being vague about what he would actually do in power. But Rajoy is likely to implement policies even further to the right and even more painful to the Spanish working class than did Rodriguez Zapatero. Rajoy is close to conservative Catholic Church sectors and is likely to put the brakes on liberalization of social policy initiated under Rodriguez Zapatero. Abortion rights and the rights of gays and lesbians will be endangered.
In foreign policy, Rajoy has clearly stated that he will repudiate the policies of Rodriguez Zapatero’s government, which had improved relations with left wing governments in Latin America, especially those of Cuba and Venezuela, and return to the hostile attitude of Rodriguez Zapatero’s predecessor, the PP’s Felipe Aznar.
Meanwhile, German chancellor Angela Merkel called for the new Spanish government to move decisively to implement even harsher privatization and austerity measures demanded by the troika. Rajoy will do this willingly, with the probability that protests by labor and the general population will increase in the coming period.