Spanish Local Election Results Threaten the Historic Dominance of Two Parties (6/1)     Print Email

ryan barnes photo 2By Ryan Barnes, Senior International Trade Specialist, U.S. Department of Commerce

While the famous quip, “all politics is local,” may be a slight exaggeration, local elections often provide a good indication of larger political trends. The May 24th local and regional elections in Spain are a case in point; in fact, the recent results may signal a tectonic shift in the current political structure.

The incumbent center-right Popular Party (PP) garnered just 27 percent of the vote – an eleven point drop from 2011 –losing 2.4 million votes and 128 seats in regional parliaments. It now maintains majority control of just one region, Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in North Africa.  The main opposition party, the center-left Socialists (PSOE), also failed to capitalize, seeing its tally decrease by over half a million votes.

Meanwhile, populist outsiders such as the far-left Podemos Party, made big gains, including in the two biggest battlegrounds, Madrid and Barcelona. Manuela Camena of Ahora Madrid, a small Podemos-backed faction, is likely to form a coalition to take the political reins of the capital. Anti-poverty crusader, Ada Colau, of Barcelona en Comú will govern Barcelona, calling the result “a victory for David over Goliath.” Upstart center-right Ciudadanos did not fare as well as many expected, but with 61 regional MPs, it has emerged as a political force. Taken as a whole, the polls have produced a messy outcome, with various parties jockeying to cobble together coalitions across many town halls and regional parliaments.

This fractured vote is largely a historical aberration in Spain. Since the end of the Franco regime and the onset of democracy in the late seventies, the political pendulum has largely swung between two parties, the center-left PSOE and the center-right PP. Spain’s unique federalist system, which grants a large degree of autonomy to seventeen regions, has certainly produced regional nationalist heavyweights such as the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and its Catalan counterpart, Convergence and Union (CiU). However, the national political scene has been marked by bipolarity.  In the 2007 regional elections, PP and PSOE together won over 82 percent of the vote.  The 2011 vote witnessed a similar level of supremacy by the two juggernauts as they secured roughly 75 percent of the public’s backing. Rivals such as Podemos and Ciudadanos did not exist.  

The global financial crisis and the bursting of the Spanish housing and construction bubble in the late 2000s changed things, unleashing a collective disdain for the political status quo. Both parties have been blamed – the economic downturn occurred under the Socialist rule of Prime Minister Zapatero, while many are bitter about the austerity program implemented by the PP and current Prime Minister Rajoy. In addition, major corruption scandals, which have touched the upper echelons of the PP and Socialists, as well as regional political stalwarts and even the royal family, have only intensified the public’s disdain for the political establishment.

The subsequent rise of the “indignado” (outraged) movement and the numerous anti-austerity, anti-corruption protests has spread across Spain over the last few years. This public anger has seemingly been harnessed and converted into support for new, populist parties at the ballot box, as demonstrated in the local elections. But can it last, providing a deadly blow to the two-party system?

Upcoming parliamentary elections, which must be held before the end of the year, will serve as the ultimate litmus test. Despite the glaring setbacks, all is not lost for Rajoy and the PP. The Popular Party still won the most votes in the local elections and can point to some positive economic news – unemployment, while still extremely high, is on the decline and Spanish GDP is expected to grow by nearly three percent this year.

The rise in anti-elitist movements is certainly not confined to Spain; if Rajoy looks around Europe for possible glimpses into his political future, he could find both solace and anxiety. British voters, in somewhat similar circumstances – a center-right incumbent presiding over a solid economic recovery that has not fully been felt by the masses – contradicted most polls and gave Prime Minister David Cameron a renewed mandate. On the other hand, populist parties have brought down governments in nearby Greece and elsewhere.

PP was always going to experience a dip in support from its historic high point in the 2011 elections when it earned nearly 45 percent of the vote on the back of widespread anger at the ruling Socialists for the economic meltdown. A recent poll gives PP a slim lead heading into parliamentary elections, with the center-right party at 25.4 percent, PSOE at 22 percent, Podemos at 21.9 percent, and Ciudadanos at 15.2 percent.[1]   Judging by these figures, Rajoy is likely going to have a difficult time generating enough support to continue as prime minister. But as seen in Britain, polls are often wrong and voters can be less tempted to lodge a protest vote in an important national election. Either way, Spanish politics will never be the same again.

Views expressed here are those of Ryan Barnes and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government.