Is this the dawn of a new era in Spanish politics, as some suggest? Judging from the results of last Sunday’s election, we can safely say that the old era has, at least, been dealt a severe blow.
The conservative People’s Party, which just four years ago won a landslide election victory, has now lost more than three million votes. The case of Spain’s other major party, the Socialist Party, is perhaps more telling: It has spent the last four years in opposition, while its Conservative rivals were implementing unpopular austerity policies, yet it lost more than a million votes as well.
The two big parties that have dominated Spanish politics for decades are being punished not for what they’ve done — or not just for that — but for what they represent: a way of doing politics that many Spaniards now deem obsolete, a two-party system that is suddenly seen as the root of many of the country’s ills and is now being challenged by the emergence of new parties. The left-wing Podemos, the heir to the social protests that swept Spain in 2011, took more than 20 percent of the vote Sunday and is set to redefine mainstream politics, perhaps not just in Spain.
In fact, Spain’s was never meant to be a two-party system, and technically it isn’t. The electoral law is fairly proportional. It is in the allocation of seats to the different electoral districts that there is an in-built bias that provides the two bigger parties with extra seats. This is in part a legacy from the 1970s, the years of transition from military rule to democracy, when stability was highly prized.
Then there is the country’s geography. When the Constitution was drawn up, Spain was still largely a rural country and it made sense to give a strong voice to the many small provincial capitals, even if that meant over-representing them in Parliament.
But there is another factor that is mentioned less often. This dominance of two parties, one on the right and the other one on the left, reflected something deeper about Spain, where that right-left divide has always been very profound.
And it continues to be, apparently. Even as new parties have appeared in the Spanish political landscape, the sum of those on one side of the divide and the other remains little changed. Whether we want to refer this back to the divisions born during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 depends on how much we want to dwell on historicist cliché.
But why have Spaniards now turned on their once favorite parties?
Not for ideological reasons. Rather, the transformation we are witnessing is moral, perhaps moralizing. The economic crisis came to many Spaniards as an epiphany. It wasn’t even the crisis, so much as the high-profile corruption cases that were uncovered at the same time.
Of course, there had been scandals before, but the contrast between the pain of so many families, in a country that, seven years after the financial crisis, still suffers from unemployment at 21 percent, and the lavish lifestyles of a few corrupt politicians who were caught red-handed was like a slap in the face for society as a whole.
And that is when Podemos, which translates as We Can, took off. Founded as a far-left party by a group of university professors and led by a charismatic, ponytailed young leader, Pablo Iglesias — a namesake of the founder of Spanish socialism in the 19th century — Podemos pointed a finger not at this or that particular government but at what it termed as “the regime of 1978” (the year of Spain’s Constitution).
By then, people were so angry that, initially, even lifelong Conservatives gave their support to his avowedly left-wing movement. Podemos’s poll ratings skyrocketed.
That was less than two years ago. A few things have changed since then. Podemos has moderated its discourse substantially, especially after the fiasco of the failed attempt to defy the European Union authorities by a similarly populist left-wing party in Greece, Syriza, made many Spaniards fearful of bucking the eurozone economic orthodoxy. Another relatively new party, Ciudadanos (Citizens), a kind of center-right Podemos, anti-corruption but business-friendly, also entered the race in a bid to prevent Podemos picking up the entire protest vote.
Both new parties did well in last Sunday’s elections, especially Podemos, which came close to overtaking the Socialist Party. But the success of what has come to be known as “new politics” is incomplete. The two-party system has taken a serious hit but retains over half the electorate, and it may well bounce back if the vast experiment in anger management of the election goes awry.
The first test for new politics couldn’t be more daunting. The election has left a Parliament so fragmented that it may not be even possible to form a government. And instability, the usual price of change, is the last thing Spain can afford just now, while it is still slowly recovering from the financial crisis and faces the challenge of the independence movement in Catalonia.
To address this and other pressing issues, all the parties agree on the need for constitutional reform. But when it comes to deciding what kind of reform, they are either vague or only agree to disagree. The parliamentary majorities needed to change the Constitution will be far more difficult to muster now, in any case.
The new situation also offers opportunities. One of the ills of the two-party system was the absence of a culture of compromise. Easily won parliamentary majorities made politicians dismissive of pacts. Bipartisanship is as rare in Spanish politics as a unicorn. Voters themselves tend to frown upon coalitions, which they regard as betrayals. That will have to change now, and fast.
Miguel-Anxo Murado is a Spanish author and journalist.