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The Spanish Two-Party System After the New Election: Challenged but Still Going Strong

Six months after the previous parliamentary election, Spanish citizens went to the ballot box again. The election on 20 December last year had ended up with the most diverse Congress of Deputies of all times. However, Spain’s political parties proved unable and unwilling to negotiate effectively and form a government. So, in a week overshadowed by Brexit, Spanish citizens went to the poles again trying to elect a new government for the next four years.

So, what happened?
The results were expected and unexpected at the same time. In line with the previous election, Spain has a hung parliament.  However, the mainstream political parties, Partido Popular (PP) and Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) gained more seats than predicted in the pre-electoral polls. The PP was the clear winner and the PSOE maintained the second position. The two ‘newcomers’ that had played such an important role on 20 December, did not achieve the expected results.

The results for the ‘new’ parties can be explained by the low participation: the participation rate was with 69.84 per cent significantly lower than in the previous election (73.20). The centre-right PP won the election with 33.03 per cent of the votes and 137 seats out of 350. Gaining 14 seats, it is the only party that improved its previous results. Even Mariano Rajoy, PP candidate for Prime Minister and acting Prime Minster of Spain, was surprised by his party’s good results. But in spite of this improvement, the PP needs to get support from other political parties to be able to govern.

Although most pre-electoral polls predicted a debacle for the PSOE, which was expected to drop to third place, this did not happen. The PSOE scored 22.66 per cent of the votes – good for 85 seats –  and remained the second most popular party with Spanish citizens, even though this was its worst result ever. The competition between PSOE and Podemos (in this election Unidos Podemos) together with the general crisis of European social democracy seems to explain part of the disappointing result. But even though the result is disappointing, having avoided being overtaken by Unidos Podemos is a relief for Pedro Sánchez and his party.

Running for election as a coalition with Izquierda Unida (IU) and different leftist groups, Unidos Podemos got 21.1 per cent of the popular votes and 71 seats. In spite of this alliance, their results were worse than expected:  no increase in seats and one million votes less than on 20 December. This is a severe blow to Unidos Podemos that had expected much more. Most of the polls had given them, at least, 15 seats more and the second position. However, it seems that they did not succeed in mobilising the leftist electorate and they paid the price for its abstention.

Ciudadanos suffered the worst damage in this election with a result of 13.05 per cent of the votes and 32 seats, eight less than in December.  Following the idea of tactical voting, part of their voters decided to shift to the PP. The Spanish electoral system that favours bigger parties by conceding them more seats also played a role in Ciudadanos’ disappointing performance: even though they scored only 0.8 per cent less than in the previous election they lost 8 (sic!) seats.


Source: The Guardian

And now what?
Just as in the December election, no party reached the absolute majority. The newly-elected, fragmented Parliament makes government alliances necessary. But today’s scenario is different from last year’s. Its election result (137 seats) has brought the PP closer to the possibility to govern. Mariano Rajoy has already demanded the PP’s right to govern in order to maintain the stability in the country. In a time in which Europe has been hit by another big crisis, BREXIT, Rajoy considers himself the best option for the future of Spain.

Since 176 seats are needed to govern, there are several options. A grand coalition with PP and PSOE is very unlikely. After the results were known, Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the socialists, stated his intention not to support the election of Mariano Rajoy as Prime Minister. However, the PSOE is divided about this and another option is to abstain rather than vote against Rajoy’s investiture. With the support of Ciudadanos this could be a realistic option. If the PSOE decides to vote against Rajoy in the investiture procedure, there is still another possibility for Rajoy to win: Ciudadanos together with the small parties from the autonomous communities could hand the government to Rajoy.

A left-wing alliance is very unlikely. PSOE and Unidos Podemos need the support of Ciudadanos which does not seem viable because of the many disagreements between the latter two. We should not forget after all that the socialist Pedro Sánchez did not become President after the December election because Podemos refused to sign an agreement with the PSOE and Ciudadanos

The end of the new era?
With the previous Spanish election on 20 December last year, the political scene changed in a way that better corresponded to the demands of Spanish society. It ended the political monopoly of the two mainstream parties. The emergence of ‘new parties’ with considerable parliamentary power was something new in Spanish politics. However, the results of the recent election have shown how difficult it is for Podemos and Ciudadanos to gain a foothold in the political system and grow. The loyalty of PP voters in spite of the fact that the party has been involved in several corruption cases is perplexing. The PP’s campaign of fear aimed at Podemos underlining the necessity of stability in turbulent times has been a success. Here, the pre-electoral polls helped to mobilise the electorate from the right spectrum of society against the possibility of a government including Unidos Podemos. Also Ciudadanos have suffered from this situation, and they became the victim of tactical voting against Podemos.  Unidos Podemos on the other hand have obviously failed to inspire Spanish citizens enough and the abstention of many of its potential voters has had consequences for its results.

The recent election has once more shown that Spain is no longer a two-party system but also that the mainstream political parties still have a great impact on Spanish politics. The ‘newcomers’  will have to remain in the waiting room for a while as it is most likely that Mariano Rajoy will lead the country another four years.

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