With the parliament fractured and the budget out of whack, a new vote in June has been announced. Spain comes therefore close to this electoral round in a climate of uncertainty. Is it possible to figure out a margin of (cautious) optimism in this troubled political scenario?
In Spain, the political scenario has changed radically after the 2011 elections. In addition to the traditional two-party system that dominated the Spanish political arena since the end of the Franco dictatorship, alternating populars and socialists in the Government of the country in the last two years two new political forces emerged, welcomed with plaudits by both right and left: Podemos and Ciudadanos (C’s). According to the latest polls (April 2016), they would account for between 30 and 40% of the electorate.
The latest general elections held in December 2015 resulted in the most fragmented Spanish parliament in history. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular (PP) emerged as the winner, yet it obtained its worst result since 1989 and soon lost its majority in parliament. No happy endings even for the opponent Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) either: newcomer Podemos ranked third, right behind PSOE. Up-and-coming Ciudadanos, a party based in Catalonia since 2006, entered the parliament for the first time, though scored considerably lower than what pre-election polls had suggested. Socialists tried to adjust their position by signing a coalition agreement with Albert Rivera’s Ciudadanos, but they then failed to enroll Pablo Iglesias’ Podemos in order to put an end to the impasse. Although the result potentially marked the transition from a two-party system to a multi-party system, the four leading parties were unable to reach an agreement on a coalition Government, forcing the king to dissolve the Cortes Generales (the legislature of Spain), while calling for a new round of voting on June 26, 2016.
Are we at a turning point or will the political deadlock go on? Are these newly emerging parties expected to introduce some innovation in the Spanish political scenario, or are they just considered political pawns among many others, unable to seriously keep their promises and lead the country to a veritable upswing?
Economic and social context
If, on the one hand, the 2016 GDP growth rate is estimated at 2.3% – among the highest in the euro area – and structural reforms in the labor sector seem to pay off, the Spanish economy is not yet definitively out of the crisis. It is therefore useful to recall that in 2012 Spain had requested the intervention of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM); until November 2013, when the Government decided to quit the aid program, successfully reaching its aim. Nevertheless, the general situation of the Spanish banking system remains uncertain and the unemployment rate in Spain is still the second highest in Europe. Inflation is too low to affect the real value of the discouragingly high public debt in any way. Without overlooking the fact that Spain has been recovering for long, with an election due to be held next month, its growth still remains vulnerable to political turmoil. Spain’s return to growth is certainly not only the result of only austerity measures, but also of further interventions boosting productivity and employment: these are needed not only to shift to a real and reliable growth, but also to meet the Spanish people’s expectations.
Beyond mere populism, Podemos’ new alternative progressivism
Spanish citizens do not let themselves get impressed by the growing economic pace. Rather, their demands have seemed to upsurge during the election time. It is on these demands that the new arising forces are devoting all their propagandistic efforts, repeatedly putting at the centre of debate hot topics like the environment, the introduction of a national minimum wage, a fairer redistribution of taxation and the fight against corruption. It often happens that movements such as Podemos are classified as populist political actors, their political agenda relying most on popular demands. This idea could as a matter of fact drive to a misleading idea of the Podemos’s Indignados, and in order to provide a still uncertain but more accurate definition of this movement, we should perhaps restrict the concept of populism. Reasonably, only actors who claim to be the only authentic representative of the people can be defined as populists. The populists are not only anti-elitists, but are also necessarily anti-pluralistic. The trend to create analogies between all European protest movements (described as ‘anti-systemic’) is likely to hide substantial differences between progressives purposes and the willingness to compromise of some political factions like Podemos, and the vulgar populism that does not include other political strategy but the solitary way to power. Podemos’ leader, Pablo Iglesias, spoke repeatedly of a ‘historical compromise’ to guide the democratic transition of the new Spain after the elections in December. Recent efforts to reach a deal for a joint electoral list with other parties at the new general election to be held on June 26, 2016, seem to further confirm this tendency to compromise in the name and on behalf of the general interest.
One can reasonably distance themselves from Podemos’s policy proposals. Its economic program has been defined as anachronistic and odd to some extent, and many points of its agenda difficult to achieve. Podemos’s calls for increased funds for pensions, wages, public and private investment, and welfare spending in general appear to be short on ideas on how to finance it. Among all the program’s aims, lot of points are devoted to employment. Podemos focuses on enforcing the right to work: in addition to the establishment of a RSA in Spain, the radical left party also intends to raise the minimum wage – SMI (Salario Mínimo Interprofesional), equivalent to the French SMIC (Salaire Minimum Interprofessionnel de Croissance) – by the end of the legislature. The wage gap between men and women is also a concern.
However, all these noble intentions are struggling to be realized in an unreliable economic recovery like the Spanish one. Furthermore, people are becoming more and more skeptic even about some strong points of the program such as those concerning the ecology. The pro-environmental policies implemented by municipalities close to Podemos – for instance in Barcelona and Madrid – have not yet proven to be effective; and this contributes to the fueling of controversies.
Despite all criticism, Podemos and, in his wake, other bottom-up radical left movements, might see recognized the peculiar merit of having awakened in the Spanish citizens a new, fervent attention to issues of common interest often earmarked by traditional policies. Podemos’s first task has been to translate the left’s traditional discourse into issues capable of winning the broadest support: democracy, sovereignty and social justice. Shaped by Gramscian thought, Podemos leaders believe that the political struggle should not truly focus on overthrowing existing social and economic structures – as many European political intransigent movements argue in their discourse- but should be directed against the hegemony legitimizing the domination of some powerful élites on those who are dominated.
Carefully avoiding generalizations in which we can easily and improperly fall by using the term ‘populism,’ we should shed light on the forthcoming elections and the potential of the new Spanish political dynamics. With polls predicting that new elections would lead to the same results, in such a fragmented framework there is reason to believe that another round of elections may be a waste of time and money. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the political potential of new alliances and balances, even in such a puzzled scenario. Compromise and a willingness to create new balances become even more important in contexts of emerging political pluralism, such as in Spain. This is when the political leaders’ ability of playing the right cards proves fundamental.
Whatever the next election result, Spain has unveiled two new decisive phases for the country’s complete recovery and for its citizens. First, the end of a system where a single party could obtain an absolute majority will promote dialogue between the political forces. Second, political action will be broader and of greater quality, which in turn will lead to greater confidence of citizens in their representatives. European leaders and the EU must keep their focus: Spain’s next steps will be far more contagious than expected. Moreover, Spain’s traditional and uncontested commitment to multilateralism and region-building in the Mediterranean region can experience a new impetus, if Spain does not miss the opportunity to return as a major actor in the re-adaptation of priorities and political approaches towards this region. But this is still an open challenge.
Bachelor’s degree in Cooperation, Development and International Studies (University of Turin)
 Podemos recently proposed an offer of joint electoral list for Spanish Senate and the ‘pre-agreement’ reached with Izquierda Unida.
“Back on its feet, Growth has returned, but dangers still lurk,” The Economist, 8 August 2015. www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21660550-growth-has-returned-dangers-still-lurk-back-its-feet
Lambert, Renaud. “Now can Podemos win in Spain?,” Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2015. mondediplo.com/2015/02/03podemos
Powell, Charles, & Steinberg, Federico. “Pain in Spain: The Light at The End of the Tunnel?,” The International Spectator 47(4), 57–63.
Tilford, Simon. “Gain or more pain in Spain?,” The Centre for European Reform, October 2015. www.cer.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/attachments/pdf/2015/pb_spain_st_19oct15-12137.pdf