The May 24 regional and local elections were a total fiasco for one of the pillars of the Spanish party system: the People’s Party (PP), which only managed to win 27 percent of the votes and just one absolute majority (in Ceuta), and in doing so lost almost 30 percent of its 2011 electorate. The Socialist Party (PSOE), Spain’s second pillar, came second with just 25 percent of the votes. Podemos (We Can) and Ciudadanos (Citizens), two young political parties, replaced the communist United Left (IU) and the centrist Union, People and Democracy (UPyD), as the country’s third and fourth political forces. Those last two now are key to who will govern in most regions (11 out of 13) and key municipalities such as Madrid, Seville or Valencia: to form a government, either the PP or the PSOE will need the support of one of these latter two, and possibly other parties as well.
Broken economy, broken promises and broken faith
Why did the governing PP lose so much electoral support — around 2.5 million votes — as well as regional (dropping from 11 to 4 regions) and local (from 26,507 to 22,750 councilors) power?
First, the vast economic crisis, after various years of austerity policies, still continues to hit the country hard. The unemployment rate is still 23 percent (more than 4.5 million) and the public deficit still equals 5.7 percent of GDP. Notwithstanding a moderate improvement last year in economic growth (1.4 percent in 2014) and job creation (400,000 new jobs created), it is still too early for Spaniards to realize that their enormous sacrifices have paid off.
Second, the PP has been involved in many political corruption scandals at all levels: local, regional and national. Perhaps the two most well known and damaging for the PP, are the so-called “Gürtel case,” in which public contracts by different local and regional governments (mainly in Valencia and Madrid) were allegedly awarded in exchange for illegal party funding, and the “Bárcenas affair,” in which the former PP treasurer allegedly received illegal cash donations and used a parallel bookkeeping system party to pay bonuses to senior party members.
Finally, PP failed to deliver on the electoral promises made during its 2011 campaign: significant tax reductions, freezing salaries for pensioners and civil servants, fighting corruption and passing laws that would reform abortion or the labor market.
And yet PP’s electoral losses did not benefit its main opposition party, the PSOE. That’s because the PSOE is also considered very corrupt, with a number of open court proceedings like the “ERE case” in Andalusia, in which regional leaders are being investigated for misappropriation of public funds. The PSOE is also considered equally responsible for the bad state of the economy.
So who did benefit? Ciudadanos and Podemos, the latter of which grew from the Indignants Movement that, since March 15, 2011, has frequently swept through Spain’s public squares, clamoring for a radical change in Spanish politics. Both parties focused on ending corruption, introducing more participatory forms of democracy and reforming the economy. While the economic program of Podemos is more statist than that of Ciudadanos, which is more liberal, they agree that it’s necessary to remove politicians implicated in corruption and to introduce party primaries. These two new parties have managed to do what nobody had in almost 40 years of democracy: Namely, to break the Spanish two-party “cartel,” in which the major parties colluded to prevent any other party from enjoying the spoils of office. These two newcomers managed to enter different local councils and regional parliaments and have now become decisive when governments are being formed.
Spain’s two-party system changes into a two-bloc system
As a result, various observers are predicting the end of bipartidism —having two main parties contend for power — in Spain. But Spain is not Greece, where electoral support for the two main parties (New Democracy and the Socialist PASOK) simply collapsed. In Spain, by contrast, the two main parties (PP and PSOE) continue to receive more than half the country’s votes. Their electoral support increased by 3 percent compared to the last European elections, which took place in May 2014. What’s more, both parties continue to be the main forces in 13 of the 17 Spanish regions. That’s also true at the local level: In 44 of the 52 provincial capitals, either the PP or the PSOE was the most popular party.
What we have in Spain is not so much a collapse, as happened in Slovenia (2014) or Greece (2015), but a change in the party system. Previously, in most regions and municipalities, one of the two main parties had won an absolute majority or a rather comfortable majority, and had formed a government. Now, Spain has a structure of partisan competition in which no party can govern alone; even the major parties require the explicit support of one or more additional parties.
Thus, in four out of 13 regions (including Madrid), the PP will require the support of Ciudadanos to govern. In the rest, with the exception of Navarra and the Canary Islands, the PSOE will be able to lead a coalition government, either with Podemos’ support alone or together with IU and other regional parties. And the same can be said of most municipalities.
In other words, what we can observe is not so much the end of the two-party-dominated system, but the beginning of bi- or multi-pactism, with more than one player per government.
What do these local and regional elections portend for the next national election? Bear in mind that those 13 regions elect only 202 of the 350 members of the low house of the Spanish parliament. Still, if we extrapolated those results to the national level, Spain would see the following distribution of seats: 81 for PP, 63 for PSOE, 26 for Podemos, 11 for Ciudadanos, two for IU and 19 for other minor political formations.
This hardly portends the collapse of a two-party-dominated system: Together PP and PSOE would get almost three-quarters of those 202 seats. However, and notwithstanding the still uncertain role of the two main regionalist parties (the Basque Nationalist Party and Convergence and Union), especially given their current involvement in attempting to break from the Spanish state, this would deliver a change.
Here’s how the coalitions would go: PP and Ciudadanos on the right would face PSOE, Podemos and IU on the left. Taking into consideration their almost equal support in terms of legislative seats (144 vs. 143, respectively), we can foresee Spanish politics entering a new era in which the confrontation between PP and PSOE will be substituted by a political battle between two blocs, still led by the same traditional parties.