Spain: Fall-out from the Weekend Elections

Published on May 27, 2015

The strong performance by the anti-austerity Podemos (“We Can”) Party in Spanish local elections last Sunday has raised fears Spain could soon follow the Greek lead in rolling back the painful labor and market reforms implemented by the ruling center-right Partido Popular since 2011.

*** We would offer caution on such a turn in Spanish domestic politics, as our sense is that the extent of the Podemos victory, while impressive, is also being somewhat exaggerated. Besides the big cities, where Podemos formed local alliances with other anti-government organizations, it failed to do any better than third place in the more representative regional elections, and failed to surpass the “traditional” Socialist party at the national level. This was largely in line with expectations. ***

*** The establishment Partido Popular (PP) and the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol (PSOE) parties retained more than 50% of the vote, even at a time when their consensus is at historical lows. Although their combined score at the previous regional elections was 65%, that result is not considered a total debacle. Although it is very premature to make forecasts for the November general elections, our expectations are, especially as the Spanish economy continues to recover, for the Popular party to be returned to power, and its current reforms to remain in place. ***

*** The PP is unlikely to win an absolute majority, however, which may importantly create an “across the aisle” effort to discuss and approve constitutional and electoral law reforms. These reforms would likely include the national electoral law, regional autonomies and their own electoral legislations, a new Senate, as well as, finally, trying to solve the Catalan issue. Cataluña, as well as the Basque Country, could be for instance named “States” and given further autonomy, a move that would tame the already weakened independence movements. ***

A Local Victory, with Help

While the local results of Madrid and Barcelona were unexpected, their political significance needs to be framed in the broader context of what happened in other cities and regional entities.

Podemos ran at a local level with the support of a number of political formations opposing the status quo and the main parties, and it normally fares much better in urban areas than it does elsewhere. The future Barcelona mayor, Ada Colau, is actually the leader of Barcelona en Comu, a coalition of local parties that includes Podemos. She still needs to look for support elsewhere to hold a majority in the city council.

And the candidate in Madrid, 71 year-old judge Manuela Carmena, ran with the support of a similar coalition of local parties and movements, including Podemos, but she is not a party member; instead, she is member of a think tank close to the PSOE.

On this note, the PSOE will in fact fight hard to distance itself from Podemos in the upcoming November general elections in order to at least finish second, and thus remain the main party on the left – something that is likely to happen despite the current weakness of the Socialists.

It won’t help Pablo Iglesias’s Podemos party that it wants to run on its own in the general elections, without mixing itself with local community leaders as it did last Sunday in Madrid and Barcelona, as well as in Galicia. In Galicia, for instance, Podemos ran with support from local nationalists (among others, a leftist movement called “Marea Atlantica” or the “The Atlantic Tide”).

Incidentally, at the regional level, the PSOE has a chance to govern in Aragon, Valencia, Castilla La Mancha, and Extremadura (where the PP will abstain in order to allow PSOE to govern), all regions where the mainstream Socialists fared better than Podemos.

General Elections and Constitutional Reforms

In the upcoming November national elections, the main two parties are likely to fare much better, while still suffering an erosion in their overall popular support. There is the possibility for either the PP or PSOE to build working majorities, perhaps through an agreement with the new center-right Ciudadanos (“Citizens”) party (both parties could potentially form a pact – but not a coalition – with this centrist formation).

But far less likely is a PSOE-Podemos “left-of-center” majority government. The PSOE is indeed not going to support Podemos at the regional level, and it is equally unlikely to accept agreements with Podemos at the national level.

Although there is no clear rule in the Spanish constitution, a stand-still situation after the November elections would likely determine that the party with the largest popular vote at the national level gets the first opportunity to form a government. And there is a fair chance that a “moment of consensus” might arise at that point.

A dialogue between parties, fostered by an initiative by both the PP and the PSOE (who seem to have a rough agreement in this sense) could, we understand, be the basis for a series of constitutional reforms that might facilitate governance in Madrid, in this new multi-party scenario, and appease local autonomies.

These reforms could include a revision of the territorial structure of Spain, with the Senate possibly becoming a territorial chamber, as well as some local communities allowed to be called “States,” something that could appeal to Catalan as well as to Basque and Galician nationalists.

They could also include a change in the size of electoral colleges, although it is currently unclear in which direction, as some parties would like to shrink them to a “first past the post” size, and others would like to make them even bigger to eliminate “blocked” candidates chosen by party leaderships.

In that sense, some are proposing a system of institutionalized party primaries for each candidate, US-style, while others are thinking of a second round a’ la Francaise.

Last, but not least, in an attempt to further increase the powers of regional entities, they could be given the right to choose the electoral system they prefer for regional elections, which today is regulated by national legislation. In particular, that could be the case on the timing of regional elections, which is currently set at a national level, with the exception of in Cataluña and other regions already granted greater autonomy.

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