26 May 2015

Fragmented Spain

If I were to pick a bottom line for Sunday’s Spanish regional and local elections, I would probably go for, ‘Absolute majorities are a thing of the past in Spain’. Voting took place in thirteen of the country’s seventeen regions. In none of them did one single party manage to win an absolute majority – an unprecedented outcome. The two main traditional parties, the centre-right Partido Popular (PP) of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the opposition Socialist Party (PSOE), both suffered losses compared to the 2011 local elections. Four years ago, PP and PSOE together won over 65% of the nationwide vote. This has now shrunk to 52%. The two newcomer parties, the anti-establishment Podemos and the centrist Ciudadanos, hold the key to stable governments in most of the regions.

A disappointing night for traditional parties

Despite remaining the most voted party, Rajoy’s PP came out as the biggest loser of these elections. The party was always unlikely to retain the same level of control it had achieved in 2011 – since it was running ten of the thirteen regions up for grabs, in most cases with an absolute majority. However, in what was a particularly bad night, PP failed to secure an outright victory even in its traditional strongholds – notably including Castilla y León, the region where former centre-right Prime Minister José María Aznar started his political career. As a result, the party could potentially be ousted from power in up to six of those ten regions.

In a sign of how times have changed, though, the losses of PP did not translate into gains for PSOE – which also saw its nationwide vote share fall compared to 2011. Still, the party led by Pedro Sánchez could aim to control a few more regions than four years ago if it manages to join forces with Podemos and other local parties.

Podemos and Ciudadanos: From newcomers to kingmakers

As regards the two big novelties in the Spanish political landscape, Podemos and Ciudadanos, Sunday’s vote confirmed that they are quite some way from being serious contenders for a victory in the general elections due to take place later this year. True, Manuela Carmena and Ada Colau – candidates backed by tickets of left-wing parties, including Podemos – delivered the real shockers of these elections as they could become the next Mayors of Madrid and Barcelona respectively. However, as we explained previously, the Spanish electoral system tends to over-represent the country’s rural areas – where both Podemos and Ciudadanos are currently weaker than in the big cities.

That said, in what could be an omen for national politics, support from either of these two parties will now be vital to the formation of stable governments in a number of regions. Ciudadanos could help PP stay in power in Castilla y León and the Madrid region, for instance, while alliances with Podemos could allow PSOE to re-gain control of Extremadura and Castilla-La Mancha.

With a Spanish general election only a few months away, the coalition formation process at the regional level will be extremely interesting to watch – particularly with regard to what conditions both Podemos and Ciudadanos will set out to grant their backing to either of the two big traditional parties. Happy endings are not guaranteed. There were elections in Andalusia at the end of March, and no new regional government has been formed to date as the Socialist election-winner, Susana Díaz, is still struggling to muster a parliamentary majority.

As I noted on this blog already a couple of months ago, Spain is quickly turning into a four-party country. In such a fragmented landscape, coalitions will almost inevitably become the ‘new normal’. If traditional parties and newcomers fail to find the necessary common ground to work together, the Eurozone’s fourth-largest economy may soon be facing a new phase of political uncertainty.