The results of yesterday’s Spanish elections leave politics there in a completely new situation with no clear government on offer, but they also mark the breakthrough of a new left party into mainstream politics in a European country with Podemos defying the pollsters and getting more than 20 per cent of the vote.
The final count shows the outgoing right-wing Partido Popular with 123 seats, having lost a third of its seats but still coming in as the largest party. The socialist PSOE also had the worst election since the return to democracy in 1978 winning only 90 seats, down from the 110 it had in the last parliament. The winners were the new parties, Podemos with 69 seats and Ciudadanos with 40. These results mean that no grouping, neither right not left, comes near the 176 seats needed to form a stable government.
While much attention was devoted to the victory of Syriza in Greece a little less than a year ago, what happened in Spain yesterday is even more significant. This is because Syriza is basically an old left party, formed out of small left-wing groups that have been around for decades. Podemos, in contrast, was formed less than two years ago by a group of university professors in Madrid very influenced by the new left in Latin America and fashioning a new form of bottom up politics.
Having fought their first election for the national parliament with a highly imaginative campaign that focused on the power of big capital over Spanish politics and society, and having been treated by most of the media as a spent force being overtaken by the young neo-liberal party Ciudadanos, winning over 20 per cent of the vote is a major achievement. And, even more significant, is the fact that Podemos came within a whisker of beating the PSOE socialist party for leadership of the Spanish left.
While the governing right-wing Partido Popular (PP) won most seats last night, it now faces a very difficult situation to form a government. Ciudadanos, the new party that the PP had hoped would provide them with the additional parliamentary votes to form a government had a much worse result than they had hoped for. They got less than 14 per cent of the popular vote when then had been expected to beat Podemos and come in with around 20 per cent. These elections therefore have been a decisive defeat for the Spanish right.
Listening to the speeches of all the main party leaders last night, it was clear that the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, holds the initiative. He was the only one to lay down a series of red lines, principles that his party will insist on in any negotiations. These include an end to evictions, additional support for public health care and public education and a reform of the electoral system. Laying down these firm principles sends signals to the PSOE that any coalition with Podemos will require a fundamental reform of the way politics is done in Spain. It was a masterly performance from a young political leader (age 37) who decisively won all the political leaders’ debates during the election campaign.
What is striking about Spanish politics is the generational change that has happened in a short space of time. Apart from outgoing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who is in his 60s, all the other main political leaders are in their 30s or 40s. Even the new head of state who took over from his father last year, King Filipe VI, is in his 40s. This again distinguishes Spain in the mainstream of European politics.
Interestingly also, yesterday’s elections saw Podemos win the largest vote and number of seats in Catalonia, beating decisively the parties that have been pushing for independence. This builds on the victory of the coalition formed by Podemos for the Catalan elections last September which saw them winning the mayoralty of Barcelona though they lost out to the nationalist parties overall.
As Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy begins the effort of forming a government, he faces an entirely new situation. Not only has there been a fragmentation of the bi-party system that has ruled Spain since 1982, the ‘cast’ as Podemos labels them, but he faces an electorate that has shifted decisively to the left, beyond the moderate social democratic left represented by PSOE and attracted by the much more racial and imaginative popular politics represented by Podemos.
In this situation, it may well be that Spain faces months of political instability and a new election in the near future. Commentators were already predicting this as the results came in last evening. In the meantime, the even more interesting battle being waged concerns leadership of the Spanish left. Yesterday’s results give Podemos the initiative to project a new left-wing project that could eclipse the PSOE which emerged badly weakened from these elections. If this happens, it puts the whole of Europe on notice that a new form of politics is being born.