by Adria Rivera
For forty years of dictatorship, inside a building that was once a democratic parliament–one of the first in Europe to recognise women’s suffrage–there was only space for the most conservative elements of Spanish society: the Church, the military and the members of the regime party. In 1977, two years after the death of the dictator, the members of the assembly were democratically elected again. The left (Communist Party and PSOE) and the Catalan and Basque nationalists, all of them political outsiders, had to be integrated into the political game. At the same time, part of the bureaucratic apparatus of the old regime joined the ranks of Alianza Popular (far-right) and the Unión de Centro Democrático (centre-right), whose leader, Adolfo Suárez (a former minister of Franco), was the first elected President.
The (unelected) Chamber had been the backbone of Spanish society for decades. Military suits and clergy clothes were the norm inside the house. In sharp contrast, in 1977, the corduroy jackets of the leftist leader Felipe González (PSOE, centre-left) worked as a symbol of the new politics which aimed to restore the link between the people and institutionalised politics.
Last December’s general elections created a Parliament very different from those we have known. The “outsiders” of the political system have again succeeded in getting into the Parliament. The eleventh term of the Spanish Parliament has also started with much noise that targets the new MPs of Podemos.
The image of the President-in-office Mariano Rajoy showing his expression of surprise when he spots a Podemos MP with dreadlocks passing in front of him has become a symbol of change. Podemos entered the Spanish Parliament with 69 seats and almost the same number of votes as the PSOE (300,000 fewer than the socialists). Before that, the party had already succeeded in taking the city councils of Madrid and Barcelona. Political activists who worked on the fringe have joined parliamentary politics and, more broadly speaking, the institutional life of the country.
This is completely new in the Spanish political panorama. From 1982 to 2011, the PP (formerly, the Alianza Popular) and the PSOE have invariably accounted for 85-90% of the MPs. Their power was only contested by the Catalan and Basque nationalist parties, and the Izquierda Unida (the left leaning coalition led by the Communist Party). However, after last December’s elections, both parties only account for 60% of the seats of the Parliament and half of the votes. The difference in votes and seats can be explained by an electoral system that benefits the rural regions, which are traditionally more conservative in their voting preferences.
The PP has lost the absolute majority that it gained in 2011 but has succeeded in remaining the first party in the Parliament retaining 122 seats out of a total 350. Four years of conservative reforms such as the new education law, the labour law and the revision of the Penal Code (which has reduced the right to demonstrate), as well as the severe cases of corruption that have disproportionately affected the party, have not been enough to discourage a conservative electorate that remains very loyal to the PP. Yet, part of its youngest electorate has voted for Ciudadanos (40 seats), the new centre-right party that tries to present itself as the moderate alternative to the PSOE and the PP, both involved in big corruption scandals. On the other hand, the PSOE has achieved its worst results ever, with only 90 seats. Part of its electorate has endorsed Podemos, now seen as a real alternative to the socialist party. Indeed, since the beginning of the crisis, much criticism has emerged from the left targeting the PSOE for too closely resembling the PP. The formula PPSOE (PP+PSOE) and the motto “Nos nos representán!” (They don’t represent us!) were popularised in 2011 by the indignados. Justified or not, this idea has been taken up by Podemos. According to them, during the second mandate of Rodríguez Zapatero (2008-2011), the socialists implemented the same anti-social policies as the PP, and long before, the socialists have been turning their back to corruption in the context of the two-party system.
In the new scenario, coalitions are complicated. The Spanish economic establishment, the European Institutions, and the American Embassy are lobbying to create a grand coalition in Spain with the PP and the PSOE governing together. This option has taken more force after the constitution of a pro-secession government in Catalonia while the Spanish government is still in-office in Madrid. However, the PSOE grassroots members and sympathisers, who share many of their left–oriented values with Podemos, would not allow this to happen. PSOE and PP have constructed their identity in opposition to each other. This image of opposing identities is something that is rooted in the Spanish political panorama dating back to the Spanish Civil War. Hence, contrary to the German tradition of grand coalitions, in Spain it is generally accepted among the socialist ranks that such a movement, even if it would please many, would bring the PSOE to a situation of marginality in the next elections. This would mirror what happened to the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) in Greece after the arrangement with the conservatives of Néa Dimokratía, which may allow Podemos to surpass the socialists, exactly as Syriza did one year ago. However, a left wing government with Podemos and the PSOE is not an easy option because it would need the abstention of either the Catalan and Basque nationalists or Ciudadanos in the Parliament, who are ideologically very different from Podemos.
As former President Felipe Gonzalez pointed out in El País, Spain has an Italian parliament in terms of its diversity, but without Italians. Spanish politicians are not used to establishing post-electoral accords with former rivals. The Parliament elected in 1977 is the exception. It was responsible for drafting the Spanish Constitution, which gave collective and sustainable answers to many of the country’s problems. In 2016, it is probably time to reform the Constitution to start a new transition for Spain. The emergence of the new politics (Podemos and Ciudadanos) and the situation in Catalonia are the signs that show that the political system which emerged in 1977 is dead. The 1978 Constitution no longer meets society’s needs. However, until the moment, the idea of a Constitutional change seems distant. After December elections, old and new political parties seem more interested in campaigning instead of negotiating, possibly in the event that no one is able to form a government, requiring new elections soon.
Credit for featured image: Jordi Boixareu.,CC Flickr. License can be found here.