Populism or authentic “bottom-up” democracy? Is it the expression of inconclusive anti-system forces, or is it the result of a public verdict against cast-in-stone politics, unable to anticipate citizens’ expectations? After Spain’s vote of Sunday December 20 the question raised endless times over the past years, reiterated in Europe throughout 2015 after election results in France, the UK, Poland, Greece, Portugal, Denmark… gained major relevance.
A fragmented political landscape. The political ranking in Spain’s elections speaks for itself, although it fell short of the required number of seats to form a government majority.
The People’s Party (PP) led by outgoing president Mariano Rajoy, that could rely on the first signs of economic recovery, was attacked by its opponents and won 123 seats and 28.7% of the vote, signalling a sharp decline compared to the previous election, well below the 176 mark of the absolute majority.
The Socialist Party (PSOE) led by young politician Pedro Sanchez won 90 seats and 22.0% of the vote. The emerging Podemos, led by Pablo Iglesias, won 69 seats and 20.7% of the vote. The centrist party Ciudadanos unexpectedly came forth with 40 seats and 13.9% of the vote. They are followed by a large spectrum of regional parties, all of which were “drained” by Podemos, which is now the first party in the Basque and Catalan regions, clearly in favour of renewed, stronger autonomy to the two restless areas of the Country.
From Madrid to Brussels. Thus, put together the traditional political parties won 50% of the vote, but they both lost appeal as well as parliament seats. Those political groups that came into being in the years of the economic crisis, amidst street protesters voicing their “indignation” against the crisis, unemployment, and over the lack of appropriate political action, are supported by young people – and not only them. However, these same parties are presently unable to create unprecedented government scenarios.
Voter turnout and substantial regional differences in the vote, however, show that public opinion is more divided than ever, and that the Spanish political system is suffering from “a depressive crisis” for the first time since the fall of the Franco regime and the return to democracy.
The fact remains that “Spain needs stability, security, certainties and confidence” said Mariano Rajoy, “Spanish people have made many sacrifices, now we have to persevere, while many people are in deep waters and more jobs must be created.” The watchword is: coalition. So far there had been no need of a coalition in Spain’s two-party system. But now, whoever intends to govern the Country will have to negotiate to find allies. In the meantime the European Union follows the developments with concern since the fourth power in the Continent needs stable guidance, while Brussels needs a reliable interlocutor in this long transition period.
Squaring the circle. In general terms, Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville and Bilbao have reiterated the message conveyed through ballot boxes across Europe: traditional parties and political groups no longer correspond to the multifarious, ever-changing political expectations of European citizens; slogans and harsh confrontations often prevail over debates focused on projects and values. Shouting, angry, indignant, – and in some cases nationalist, or conversely, secessionist – leaders are more appealing. Voters are attracted by new faces with new arguments and fuzzy directions. They prefer bombastic “all and now” proposals to the cumbersome – yet realistic – “tortuous” paths of politics, that considers the whole picture rather than a part of it, giving priority to complex problems and not to short-lived shortcuts.
Moreover, there is another lesson to be learned from Spain’s vote: in a political era dominated by Facebook and Twitter, public squares and streets packed with people motivated by new hopes retain a potentially innovative function.
Now that Spanish citizens have cast their vote, the various political leaders are faced with the challenge of squaring the circle, namely, they must respect people’s vote whilst giving the Country a lasting government. Spain restarts from here.