Spanish Elections: The Apparent Triumph of Democracy?


By Dario Quadri

At one of the political rally meetings that took place across Spain before the general election, a lady from the audience asked Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the Podemos party, a situational judgment question. It went as follows:

“You are in a hot air balloon that is crossing a sea full of sharks. You are the captain of this balloon and are carrying four passengers Mariano Rajoy (Leader of the popular party PP), Pedro Sanchez (leader of the socialist party PSOE), Albert Rivera (leader of Ciudadanos) and Alberto Garzon (leader of Izquierda Unida). The balloon is punctured, so you are falling into the ocean slowly. As captain your obligation is to land safely on the shore. For this you need to throw a passenger into the ocean, but you cannot throw yourself. What do you do?” 

His answer, “As this involves five human lives; I would say, guys, shoulder to shoulder we are going to kill the sharks and we will all swim safely to shore.” 

In many ways, this question has become the perfect illustration of the general elections that took place yesterday on the 20th December. The election results have created the most fragmented political scenario since Spain’s transition to democracy. 

The incumbent party, PP, may have won a majority of seats at 123; yet, this has been a complete failure in relation to the 2011 general election where they obtained 186 seats, 10 seats more than the minimum for an absolute majority– a loss of 63 seats. The fact of the matter is that all parties are indeed going to have to kill the sharks, shoulder to shoulder, if they are to have any chance of governing the country. 

(Result of seat distribution the 350- seat legislature. Source: El Pais.)

The end of bipartisanship

The eruption of the two contending parties that are Podemos and Ciudadanos, a byproduct of problems that arose from the mismanagement of PP in handling the economic crisis, has hit PP and PSOE where it hurts the most. Podemos in just three years have achieved 69 seats from 0. Since Spain’s transition to democracy in 1978, no political party has achieved such an ascension in a general election. 

Pablo Iglesias has said that “the bipartisan political system is over” and that Spaniards have for once decided to put an end to three decades of two- party rule and ping pong game of the PP and PSOE. Together with PP, PSOE’s results were devastating as well. It lost 20 seats with respect to 2011. However, the party is still in a strong position as it is still the leading opposition party in the country and has sufficient leverage in forming a majority government through a coalition of other leftist parties – if only these other parties did not have such contrasting policies to the PSOE. 

Many commentators have already come to the conclusion that bipartisanship is now a thing of the past. In my opinion, yes, it is a thing of the past in the sense that it will be hard for PP and PSOE to be able to gain the same or more number of seats as in past elections; however, they are still the two parties with most seats in Congress and the Senate. The hierarchy has not been reshuffled completely and it does not seem to be changing any time soon. Bipartisanship has been deeply affected but has nevertheless resisted the influence of contending political parties. 

Introducing the coalition game in Spain

Nevertheless, voters and party members already foresaw the end of a bipartisan government and they have already accepted the upheaval of old traditions. Others claim that although the distribution of political representatives has expanded, it is merely a jigsaw puzzle with more pieces. 

Now that Pandora’s Box has been unleashed by the people, compromises will be necessary to form effective coalition governments in order to govern Spain. The big question is whether this will even be a feasible solution considering the disparaging differences between the four main parties. Rajoy has said that he “will try to form a government that Spain needs” but even Rajoy finds it hard to believe in what he says. 

The most possible scenarios to form a government are as follows: 


Scenario A:
PP (123 seats) +Ciudadanos (40 seats): 163. This coalition falls short and would only be possible to govern if PSOE abstains.

Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos’ party does not have enough leverage to create beneficial pacts with any party and on top of this, has been a complete failure in Catalonia where they have not been able to tackle the triumph of Podemos’ alliance with En ComĂș Podem (in common we can) which has gained 13 seats. The journalist Jordi EvolĂ© has said that Ciudadanos were very optimistic in reclaiming seats in Catalonia and in being able to block the progression for independence talks in the region. The reality is very different indeed. Many had predicted a coalition of PP+ Ciudadanos and this really seems to be in tune with that Rivera has said after the results. He plans to abstain from the investiture of a new government to allow PP to rule, but has also asked Pedro Sanchez of PSOE to do the same. His plea to Sanchez is for the following reason: either allow the incumbent government to rule as a minority government with already approved budgets or settle for a coalition that will inevitably be composed of a dozen parties.

Scenario B: tripartite system of PSOE (90) + Podemos (69) + IU (2) = 161. They still fall short and would be ungovernable unless a fourth party joins them. Iglesias has said that, "It is either we understand and accept that Spain is a multicultural and a plurinational country or give in to PP, who has only come out sixth in Catalonia and fifth in the Basque country” reflecting the unpopularity of PP with other key regions of Spain.

Scenario C: A grand coalition between the two most voted parties (PP & PSOE) with 213 seats. This option has always been negated by Pedro Sanchez. PSOE’s position in option B and C is a choice between making a pact with leftist parties that are in favour of a national referendum for the independence of Catalonia or allowing the arch enemy to govern; in other words, the biggest political suicide in Spanish history. 

Scenario D: If no government is formed within the next three months, and this could be the most possible case, new and fresh elections will be held. 

A legislature of pacts or breakups?

Right now nothing is clear. Each party is obliged to think deeply about their positions in relation to the political shuffle in the legislature, now that a majority government cannot be formed very easily. Many people are applauding the inclusion of a more representative legislature and perhaps this is a step in the right direction to advance democracy in Spain. However, the creation of a minority government or any other political construction implies pacts on stances that politicians would have considered them to be irreconcilable before the elections. 

Therefore, the contemporary Spanish political system has broken up to some extent; yet, PP still has a third of the seats in Congress and is the dominating power in the Senate. This is just the end of the beginning in bringing true democracy to Spain. 
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