20th December: A turning point in Spanish modern democracy?

Posted on 15. December 2015

by Germán Jiménez Montes

german-jimenez-montesThe constitutional monarchy, which was built after Franco’s death in 1975, was consolidated thanks to the alternation in governments led by the social democratic Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) or the conservative Partido Popular (PP). However, the sudden rise of two non-parliamentary parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, is threatening this incontestable dominance of the two major Spanish parties. The breakdown of this political status-quo will be one of the main consequences of the never-ending 2007 crisis; and the next parliamentary elections on 20 December will mark the beginning of a new era in Spanish democracy. A Second Transition?

Although still leading in the polls, PP’s likely victory will not be enough for re-electing Mariano Rajoy as Prime Minister, and negotiations with PSOE or Ciudadanos will be needed. The positive macro-economic results of PP’s austerity policies have not had any effect on the population; recent Spanish economic growth has only brought increasing inequality, while the decrease of unemployment rates have masked the emergence of a dramatic situation: the growing precariat, temporary workers whose incomes do not allow to maintain themselves. A nation-wide corruption scandal (trama Gürtel), which has directly affected PP’s national executive and Rajoy himself, hasn’t helped to improve the conservatives’ popularity either.

Meanwhile, PSOE’s prospects do not look any better. The social democrats started the 2011-2015 legislature from the bottom, after their worst election results in recent history. Nonetheless, the incapacity of their new candidate, Pedro Sanchez, to solve the internal crisis of PSOE will likely end up in another defeat on 20 December, according to the last surveys. Furthermore, the emergence of another large-scale corruption case involving their biggest federation, PSOE Andalusia, has not made things easier.

Rajoy and Sánchez’ lack of popularity heavily contrasts with the leadership skills and freshness of Albert Rivera (Ciudadanos) and Pablo Iglesias (Podemos). The unexpected ascent of Ciudadanos and Podemos is intimately related to Rivera and Iglesias’ reputation with the public. Rather than political candidates, the young candidates have become the new stars of Spanish TV, which allowed them to conduct a very effective extra-parliamentary opposition strategy, participating in a wide variety of Spanish TV-programmes.

Rivera and Iglesias have shared the diagnosis of the Spanish crisis, giving two principal causes: bipartisan corruption, and the ineffectiveness of the Spanish economy and the rigidity of the labour market. Nevertheless, their proposals diverge greatly, from the liberal ideology of Rivera to the social democratic standpoints of Iglesias. The proximity of elections and their positive prospects, however, have pushed them to moderate their discourses in order to convince undecided voters. The last great success of Ciudadanos and Podemos was obtained in the past two presidential debates, in which they have managed to present themselves not as something completely new but as the renovation of the traditional Spanish bipartisan system.

But the elections aren’t decided yet. The expected high participation and the considerable share of undecided voters make polls volatile. Only one thing seems to be certain: there will not be a clear winner and the four parties are condemned to negotiate. Although the resilience of PSOE and PP and the actual strength of Podemos and Ciudadanos are still to be tested, next 20 December is likely to become a turning point for modern democracy in Spain.