Last week I wrote about the terrible results suffered in the European elections by Spain’s mainstream duopoly of political power: the governing People’s Party and the Socialist Worker’s Party contrived to lose 5 million votes between them. Many of these votes went to the insurgent party “Podemos;” an extreme left-wing group which traces its origins to the “indignados” and “occupy” movements of 15-March rather than any formal political party.
In conjunction, this electoral disaster cost the jobs of two of Spain’s top leaders: Alfredo Rubalcaba, the Socialist leader; and Juan Carlos I, the King of Spain. Mr. Rubalcaba bowed to pressure within his party to call for a general congress: it was felt that Mr. Rubalcaba was too old guard, to mainstream and too tainted by scandals and the mishandling of the economy to provide effective leadership. His demission paves the way for the Socialist Party to move to the “republican left” in an attempt to recapture the more radical faithful who have gone to Podemos and the United Left. Meanwhile, the Spanish monarch also bowed to pressure to abdicate: there was no better time than the present to secure the necessary Succession Law as well as a life-time immunity provision for himself and the Queen. A year or two from now would see the pro-monarchy Mr. Rubalcaba replaced by a possibly pro-Republic leader in the PSOE and without today’s parliamentary majority enjoyed by People’s Party. It might even see a coalition government of the republican Left, as happened in 1931, which would be a disaster from the Bourbon point of view.
Mariano Rajoy, leader of the PP and the Spanish government, attempted to shrug off the Podemos phenomenon as a result of the “protest vote” that is often exhibited during European elections. The argument goes that European elections are a safe forum to register a protest vote; whereas national elections are taken more seriously, as evidenced by the higher turnout and better performance of the mainstream parties. There is something to this, of course; but the ability of Podemos to tap into the fear and anger of the Spanish underclass and economically victimized has scared the establishment and ruling elites. This is evidenced by the almost hysterical smear campaign underway against the left-wing party and its controversial leader, Pablo Iglesias; a propaganda campaign that is all out of proportion to the 8% of the vote it captured.
The establishment is right to be worried: a new survey commissioned by the digital paper ElDiario.es shows that voter intentions for the next elections reflect a continuing surge from Podemos. All the media attention, including the negative attack ads, only seems to be benefiting Mr. Iglesias in the polls. If the vote were held this month, Podemos would be the third most voted party in the Parliament, taking 14% of the vote and winning around 30 seats. This is a tectonic shift in Spain’s political geography:
Not only would Podemos suddenly constitute a highly relevant and highly divisive new factor in the legislature, the poll shows that support for the PP and PSOE continues to erode. The two parties together would have barely more than 50% of the vote, when the traditional percentage has been above 80%. Other beneficiaries would be the Rosa Díez’s center left UPyD and “others” which includes a “Cuidadanos” (i.e. “Citizens”), a center-left party which has recently expanded out of its origins in Catalonia, and the regional parties.
What would be the implications?
- First and foremost, the People’s Party would lose its parliamentary majority; an advantage it has been abusing in order to ride roughshod over the opposition’s protests and even requests for information, which are often enough ignored;
- Secondly, even though the PP would win the election, they would be hard-pressed to bring together a coalition that would allow them to form a government. Conceivably, they could ally with UPyD to reach 38%; and then depending on how large a vote Ciudadanos gained, they might be amenable to joining a national coalition – but the probability of Ciudadanos reaching 12% of vote is vanishingly small. The PP would then have to deal with the regional parties: but the largest of these are CiU and ERC, neither of which would join a coalition government (unless it were on the promise that the PP would legally approve an independence referendum in Catalonia, which would never happen), or else the rest of the regional parties are too small to matter.The only real alternative and the most plausible scenario, is for the PP to propose a “grand bargain” to the PSOE. They would offer a number of ministries and a share of power that the PSOE is unlikely to recapture on their own any time soon. The difficulty is that this would represent a Faustian bargain for the Socialists. Accept it, and show that they are indeed the pro-establishment, pro-monarchist, pro-capitalist party that Podemos and United Left accuse them to be. Reject it, and they might still find themselves eclipsed by their more “hard left” opponents. Mr. Rubalcaba would almost certainly have accepted such a bargain, and positioned it to his supporters as an act of statesmanship. The position of the next Socialist leader is uncertain, but if the party moves towards the republican left as expected, then a deal becomes very difficult to achieve;
- If the PP fails to form a government, then the PSOE would get its chance to create a Republican Left coalition. Between them, the Socialists, the United Left and Podemos would have 41.8% of the votes, which would still far short of the requirement. However the Left, especially the Republican Left, is far more likely to be able to come to terms with the regional parties (CiU, ERC, and PNV) on the basis of either allowing a legal referendum with the central government helping to draft the language of the consultation; or else on the promise of national constitutional convention on the subjects of eliminating the monarchy and establishing a federal relationship between the central government and the autonomous regions. This would be acceptable to both the PNV and CiU, while ERC might possibly be brought on board as well with the promise to establish a Third Republic.
The recent survey exposed some other worrisome signs for the establishment. As is to be expected from a new political party, Podemos is gathering supporters mostly from the existing affiliations, mostly from the PSOE and United Left. That being said, there is a surprisingly large number of People’s Party supporters (10%) and UPyD supporters (7.4%) who indicated their support for Mr. Iglesias. Contrast this with the People’s Party and Socialist Party: both of these mainstream parties are resonating only within their hard core of established voters. Even the 10% of votes from outside the PSOE are mainly old Socialists that were lost in the last election and now returning to their “natural affiliation”.
Looked at another way, Podemos is capturing more new voters (7.4%) as a percentage of total voters, than either of the mainstream parties (1.2% for the PP and 1.8% for the PSOE). The trend is the same with voters who abstained in the previous elections, though less pronounced (5.3%, 0.9% and 1.3% respectively). In the 2011 general elections, there were 11 million abstentions representing 31% of the electorate. If Podemos succeeds in mobilizing even a fraction of the angry and disillusioned voters in this group, the electoral impact could be sweeping.
Additionally, both the People’s Party and the Socialists face a demographic challenge which bodes ill for the long-term future of the dual party system.
The Populares are strongest in the 45 and older cohorts, which represent 57% of the electorate; but voter preference for the PP declines sharply in the younger demographics. The Socialists enjoy more evenly distributed support across all ages; but they need to worry about a similar strength for Podemos in all but the oldest age group.
Once again, the high percentage of voters who intend to abstain must be a major source of worry. Either they are politically apathetic, which benefits no one; or else they are angry and disillusioned with the establishment; prime candidates for an insurgent Podemos with a radicalized message. A higher than expected turnout in 2015 could prove highly beneficial to Mr. Iglesias’ party and indeed might prove decisive.
There is another important fact to stress: the poll results might very well underestimate the amount of support that Podemos has in the electorate. The survey was conducted by telephone on a national audience of 1,100 enfranchised citizens. This sample size gives a margin of error of +/- 3% with a 95% level of confidence; it might even be considered somewhat small. Nevertheless, the fact that this is a phone survey which most likely includes both mobile phones and landlines could favor an older and more economically established demographic. Younger and economically disadvantaged groups would tend to only have a mobile phone, rather than a landline; and some might not have a phone at all; or use a prepaid phone. Just as the polling methods used in the 2012 US election consistently under-estimated the voting intentions for President Obama, and for similar reasons, it is entirely possible that Podemos would perform better than the 14% attributed to it.
In any event, with Spanish GDP still in the doldrums, most macro indicators pointing to stagnation, and with unemployment only shrinking because people are leaving the workforce faster than employment is being destroyed, the economic situation will continue to favor Podemos in 2015. Mariano Rajoy and Felipe VI have plenty of cause to be worried.