Spain’s elections: Establishment parties punished, road ahead uncertain

On Dec. 20, Spaniards went to the polls for elections to the Cortes, the bicameral parliament.  The results constitute a sharp blow against the main establishment parties and an advance for the left, but leave the country with the prospect of months of wrangling before a new government can be formed. So difficult is this prospect that it is deemed “highly likely” that a new election will have to be called soon.

As many expected, voters severely castigated the People’s Party (PP) of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, which lost its majority in the 350 seat Congress of Deputies. With a high voter turnout (73 percent), the PP got only 28.7 percent of the popular vote as opposed to 45 percent in the last election in 2011.

It lost 64 seats in the 350 seat lower house, dropping from 187 to 123.  This was the Spanish voters’ way of punishing Rajoy and his party for the harsh austerity measures  imposed on the Spanish people at the behest of the European ruling class. Their austerity mandate has left Spain with a more than 20 percent unemployment rate (much higher among young workers) and a shredded social safety net.  Hundreds of thousands of Spanish citizens have been forced to leave the country entirely to look for work.

But the biggest opposition party, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, did not reap the benefit. They dropped from 110 seats to 90 in the lower house, with a drop in the popular vote from 28.8 percent to 22 percent. In the 2011 election, they had already lost 59 seats.

Spanish voters had evidently not forgotten that under the previous Socialist Workers Party government of former Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, some of the same austerity measures had been imposed. Although the PP and Prime Minister Rajoy have been particularly disgraced by various corruption schemes, the Socialist Workers’ Party has not been immune to such defects and so they too faced punishment. 

The main winner was the left-socialist Podemos Party which, running in its first Spain-wide election, has become the third largest party in the lower house with 65 seats and 20 percent of the vote, defying pre-election polls. Podemos is a new party that arose from the “indignados” (“indignant ones”) protest movements against austerity and corruption that have rocked Spain for the last 5 years. Due to the indignados movement, left wing candidates won the mayoralties of Madrid and Barcelona earlier this year.

The rest of the vote went to a variety of smaller parties including the United Left (IU), a coalition of the Spanish Communist Party and others, a new centrist party called “Ciudadanos” (“Citizens”) which also arose from the indignados movement but which opposes Catalan and Basque nationalism, and several Catalan and Basque parties that support separation from Spain.

The vote for the United Left dropped from 5.5 percent in 2011 to 3.7 percent in 2015, losing six of the eight seats it held previously. It is probable that some United Left voters joined the tide in favor of Podemos, due to the two parties running united tickets in some areas. Ciudadanos got 40 seats on 13.9 percent of the vote, taking further votes away from Rajoy’s PP.

The next biggest vote in the lower house went to the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the Republican Left of Catalonia, or ERC. It got 9 seats and 2.5 percent of the popular vote. The ERC is a left wing party that advocates for the independence of Catalonia from Spain, a very important issue in the country at present. ERC goes back to before the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939. It was part of the coalition that defended the Spanish Republic against the Fascist uprising headed by General Francisco Franco, and many of its leaders were murdered, tortured, imprisoned or driven into exile when Franco won.

More right wing Catalan nationalists won eight seats.

In the Basque country in Spain’s northwest, right leaning Basque separatists won 6 seats, while left wing Basque nationalists of the Basque Country Unite Party won two. A conservative party advocating Canarian (Canary Islands) nationalism won one seat.

In the elections to the less powerful Senate, PP and the Socialist Workers also lost seats but PP retains its majority because only 208 of the 266 seats were up for election. Podemos, running for the first time, won 16 seats. Basque and Catalan nationalists of both left and right also picked up some seats.

It is difficult to see, based on these numbers, how any combination of parties could be put together to form a stable coalition government. Podemos, Socialist Workers and others on the left, will not form a right-center or right-center-left coalition with the disgraced PP. Socialist Workers will not form a coalition with Podemos because Socialist Workers, like PP, opposes a referendum on separation that the Catalan government has advocated. Podemos recognizes the right of the Catalans to hold their referendum, but does not support the idea of Catalonia breaking away from Spain.

On the left, many are working under the assumption that new elections are inevitable. Jose Luis Centella, the Secretary General of the Spanish Communist Party, wrote in an opinion piece in the party’s newspaper on January 1, that the suffering that the Troika (European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund), the Spanish ruling class and monopoly capital have imposed on the people can only be combatted electorally through uniting the forces of Podemos, the Communist Party, the United Left and mass formations. 

Photo: AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.