Elections in Spain: Populism Loses Momentum
The outcome of the new elections in Spain (elections that are the direct consequence of the inability of the four main parties to form a government after the December 2015 elections) has come as a surprise to virtually everyone. A black swan made its appearance while the votes were still being counted. The Popular Party won the election with 33% of the votes and 137 seats (out of 350), 14 more than in the December elections (although 49 fewer than those obtained in 2011). Despite being cornered by numerous cases of corruption, the conservatives did not only surpass their own expectations, but they also beat most polls, which forecasted the same seats and percentage in votes that they had achieved in the previous elections.
However, the most significant surprise of the election night was, no doubt, the fiasco of Unidos Podemos, the coalition of Podemos, the radical party disguised as social democrat and led by Pablo Iglesias (former advisor to the Venezuelan government), and Izquierda Unida, the former Communist Party. By standing together for the elections, the coalition expected to take advantage of the electoral law, which favors the concentration of votes, and thereby to increase the number of seats in Congress. Yet the coalition lost more than one million votes, which roughly coincides with the number of people that abstained from going to the ballots in comparison with the December election.
The weeks prior to the elections, most polls were pointing at the most distressing scenario: Unidos Podemos would surpass the Socialist Party in both votes and seats, which would have most likely ended up with Pablo Iglesias as President with the reluctant support of the socialists. However, the socialists managed to halt the inevitable due mainly to the 4% increase in abstention. The reasons behind the relative debacle of Unidos Podemos (let us not forget that Podemos is a recently-created party that had no representation in Congress one year ago) might be found in the strategic shift carried out by the leadership of Podemos in the last two months in order to (prematurely) become the hegemonic force on the left side of the political spectrum.
Since its creation in 2013, Podemos followed a well-defined and consistent strategy aimed at gaining the vote of a transversal, social majority by trying to move away from the classic leftist, Marxist discourse (in fact, they have always avoided presenting themselves as a leftist party.) Yet this strategy, which had shown to be effective in the past, was abandoned in the moment they decided to agree to go in coalition to the new elections with the former Communist Party. This was seen as an explicit shift to the left, bringing about the loss of part of its most moderate electorate that chose to stay home during the election day.
Against all odds, the Socialist Party, which has lost half of its electorate over the last decade, saved the day and maintained the second position despite a further loss of votes and seats. For their part, the liberal-democrats of Ciudadanos were heavily punished by both the electoral system and the outflow of votes towards the Popular Party, leaving them as fourth political force with eight fewer seats in the House.
Even though the Popular Party has increased its representation in Congress, they are still far from the qualified majority. What is the most plausible scenario at this point? The possibility of new elections has been completely ruled out by all parties. Similarly, it seems pretty unlikely that a left-wing coalition will be able to form a new government for two main reasons. First, the Socialist Party and Unidos Podemos would need the support of all minor regional nationalist parties, which would be a very unnatural agreement due to the conservative ideology of some of them. Second, and more importantly, the substantial improvement of the Popular Party as well as the disappointing results of the left seem to have demoralized them and temporarily removed their ambitions to create an alliance that would allow them to govern the country over the next four years.
Therefore, the most likely scenario seems to be a government led by the Popular Party, parliamentary supported by Ciudadanos. Still, the sum of both parties would not reach the necessary majority. The Popular Party would also need the abstention of socialists (there is no possibility that Unidos Podemos will do so) for Rajoy to get elected President. Another problem that the conservatives will be facing is the refusal of the liberal-democrats to give their support to the Popular Party unless Rajoy step down and give way to a new candidate free from the burden of corruption.
The comfortable victory of the Popular Party and the failure of Unidos Podemos to gain the leadership of the left were not foreseen by anyone. Nonetheless, the surprising outcome will be soon rationalized ad-hoc and seen as foreseeable by the same political commentators and survey research companies that failed to see it coming (the well-known hindsight bias). Be that as it may, the positive note that these elections have unexpectedly brought is the (temporary) setback to the populism of Unidos Podemos, whose profoundly-mistaken and unrealistic economic policies pose a potential threat to the Spanish economy.
Picture: Creative Commons Presidencia de la República Mexicana
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