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Spain’s Municipal Elections: And the Winner Is Democracy



Spain went to the polls yesterday in municipal and regional elections that are not only important in their own right, but which will heavily influence the general elections later this year. With 99% of the votes counted, the Spanish people have sent a very clear message: against the traditional parties, against the “business as usual” attitude of the political bosses, against government by majority decree, against austerity and the growing marginalization of the poor. It was a good day for democracy overall.

  • Between them, the traditional mainstream parties managed to lose 3 million votes out of 14 million cast;
  • The main loser was the governing Partido Popular, losing 2.3 million votes from their previous performance in 2011. While still the most voted party over all, the Populares have lost their majorities in every community and are positioned to lose a number of key cities and regions, including Madrid metro[1] and Valencia. The Galician PP also suffered defeats to leftist and regionalist parties in what is a personal blow to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who is a Galician from Santiago de Compostela;
  • The Socialist Party (PSOE) continues to shed votes, but has perhaps halted its slide to irrelevance, losing 700,000 votes from 2011, which was already a low point, but maintaining itself as the second most voted party in Spain. They Socialists also made important gains in Andalucia (Seville), Asturias and Extremadura. The PSOE is not in any position to be king, but they could be kingmakers in a number of potential leftist coalitions;


  • Podemos continued consolidate itself as a viable political alternative on the left. Podemos has not been able to maintain its meteoric performance from last year’s European elections, but their performance in Madrid, Barcelona and Zaragoza, where Podemos acted as an umbrella organization supporting independent leftists Manuela Carmena and Ada Colau to victory[2]. The party of Pablo Iglesias performed less well at the regional level;
  • The right’s answer to Podemos is Cuidadanos (Citizens’ Party), led by Albert Rivera. From being a purely Catalan party, Cuidadanos has successfully leveraged the dismay of the average conservative voter, who can’t stand the corruption and arrogance of the Populares, but can’t bring themselves to vote for the PSOE or Podemos. Cuidadanos secured a very respectable 1.4 million votes, holds the key to a continuation of Popular rule in a number of cities and regions;
  • The previous generation of “alternative parties” was crushed by the good performance of their newer competitors. Izquierda Unida (United Left) lost one-third of its support and falls to fourth place overall with no options to govern anywhere. Rosa Diez’s UPyD (Union, Progress and Democracy) essentially ceased to exist, which as the logical outcome of Ms. Diez’s intransigence in the face of her party’s poor performance in the recent elections in Andalusia.


  • In Catalonia, the pro-independence parties CiU, ERC and CUP consolidated their position in the provinces, but lost the critical fight for Barcelona to a Podemos-backed Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common). This will have important implications for the “path to independence” and the proposed early regional elections set for 27 September of this year. On the other hand, the PPC and PSC – the Catalan branches of the Populares and Socialists respectively, practically ceased to exist.


Analysts and pundits will have a full schedule over the coming weeks in what promises to be a very busy summer for Spanish politics.


The May elections included votes for 13 regional parliaments and for cities across every province of Spain. Turnout was somewhat low, higher only than the 2007 elections.


The Partido Popular is sure to make mention of this turnout and claim all 4% of the stay-at-homes as conservative voters, but there is no basis for making this claim and even if true, it would be an indication of disgruntlement with the current leadership that wouldn’t bode well for the upcoming general elections. The 6 million ballots cast for the Populares is a loss of 2.5 million votes and the worst performance for the conservatives in more than two decades.


The Populares remained the most voted party in most of the Spanish communities, remaining the most voted party in 10 of the 13 autonomous regions that held elections. In fact, they only lost their plurality in Extremadura and the Canary Islands. Yet Spain’s proportional system means that the Populares might actual go into opposition in three more regions due to possible coalitions of left-wing parties:


More importantly, the conservatives have lost their absolute majority in over 500 localities in Spain during this election – though still retaining 2,700[3]. Yet among the 500 lost are all of the provincial and regional capitals, including some cities where they have dominated for decades, like Madrid and Valencia:


The Spanish Socialist party appeared pleased with the result; leader Pedro Sánchez crowed that the socialists had managed to greatly narrow the lead enjoyed by their conservative rivals. That is true: but it is due more to the fact of their collapse than any great merit on the side of the PSOE, which lost an additional 700,000 votes. The best that could be said of Mr. Sánchez’s efforts is that they have stopped the most obvious hemorrhaging, but the patient remains in critical condition.

Neither the conservatives and the socialists are able to decide their own fates, the both depend on coalitions in order to form governments across most regions and cities:

  • The Populares now depend on Ciudadanos to retain control of the autonomous communities of Madrid, Cantabria, La Rioja, Murcia and Castilla y León;
  • The Socialists similarly need to make deals with Podemos to govern in Extremadura, Castilla-La Mancha, and Asturias; while in Valencia and Aragón the Socialists would also have to deal with Compromís and the Partido Aragones, respectively.

The Socialists may have the easier time of it. “There are no enemies on the left,” it was once said; and while that is no longer true given the cutting attacks launched by the left-wing parties against each other, it remains certain that they all want to cut the conservatives down to size. They might find it easier to make compromises as well since most of the most visible leaders of the PSOE from the Zapatero days have long ago been sacked; there is much less baggage to carry.

The conservatives, in contrast, are not only carrying all the weight of the corruption charges hanging over them, it is positively strangling them. Although Ciudadanos appears to be ideologically a center-right party, their fundamental plank is transparency in government and the fight against corruption. That will make it very hard for party leader Albert Rivera to cut a deal with the Populares; he has already put a flag in the ground in Andalusia, where he refused to enter into a bargain with the victorious Socialists until they expelled certain members of the local party that were on trial for corruption. Mr. Rivera has said as much already to the Populares: “I’m happy to reach an agreement; but first you must agree to implement our anti-corruption plan.” [4] There isn’t much chance of that: among the key points of the plan are:

  • The resignation of anyone accused of corruption until their innocence is demonstrated;
  • Financial responsibility of the party should its officials be convicted of corruption charges;
  • Reform of the campaign finance laws to prohibit corporate donations, reduce private donations, and prohibit bank loans to the parties;
  • Require all political parties to make their accounts completely public; and,
  • Election of party delegates through an open primary system.

Mr. Rivera might as well ask the Populares to vote a monument to Karl Marx.

“Catalonia is Different”

Catalonia is indeed different, and often out of sync with the rest of Spain, but last night the ruling CiU party suffered many of the same ills as the Partido Popular. CiU Artur Mas had made retaining control of Barcelona the centerpiece of this party’s electoral efforts, but notwithstanding this, the incumbent Xavier Trias lost to the Podemos-backed candidate, Ada Colau of Barcelona en Comú. Barcelona will have a female mayor for the first time in the city’s history, but more importantly, Podemos has demonstrated that it can make major inroads into the “nationalist” territory of Catalonia. Ciudadanos, which was born in Catalonia as a “third way” between nationalism and the existing two-party monopoly in Spain, also did well going from 1.2% of the vote in 2011 to 7.1% yesterday. Thus the “new insurgent” parties have proven that Catalonia is not so out of sync as many might have thought and that Catalan nationalism is not the only way to win votes in that region.


The bad news for Artur Mas continued: although his party did well in the smaller and rural municipalities, it was a very tough night for CiU. They only managed to retain control of one provincial capital (Girona) while their steady erosion of votes continued with the loss of another 110,000 supporters.

CiU finds itself in an uncomfortable position: right in the middle. And it’s electoral room for maneuver is shrinking alarmingly. It is not pro-independence enough, so the most ardent supporters of Catalan independence vote for ERC or CUP, who won to 16.4% and 7.1% of the vote respectively. In fact, ERC + CUP polled 110,000 more votes than CiU, versus just half as many as CiU 4 years ago.

Yet CiU is also too centrist and moderate to gain votes on the left, which explains the debacle in Barcelona with Ada Colau and the shocking growth of CUP[5]. Even the Catalan Socialists managed to win in the capitals of Lleida and Tarragona, though still losing 200,000 votes.

The overwhelming reaction to the electoral results in Catalonia has been to assert that “independence has been dealt a body blow”. It is true that the path to independence looks impossible without Barcelona, and Ada Colau is not pro-independence[6]. Yet the electoral results show that the pro-independence parties (ERC, CUP, ICV-EUIA) gained half a million votes, while the pro-union parties (PSC, PPC, C’s) lost 128,000 votes, despite the strong showing of Ciutadens[7]. Even placing CiU in the pro-independence column, the net gain for the independence parties was 423,000 votes. That hardly sounds like a crisis.

I would venture to draw the following out of the results in Catalonia:

  1. There is a crisis, but it is a crisis of CiU, not of the pro-independence parties, which continue to gain supporters in each election. CiU is running out of electoral runway and there is a risk of Mr. Duran i Lleida taking his Unió followers out of the federation. That would probably destroy both Convergència and Unió, to the delight and benefit of ERC, CUP and Ciutadens. That is not a scenario that the Partido Popular ought to relish, as much as they dislike Mr. Mas;
  2. The continued desire for independence further shown by the continued slide into irrelevance of the PPC and the PSC. The latter has lost 50% of its supporters since 2003 and finds itself in a similar situation to Mr. Mas’ CiU;
  3. “Independence” is not enough: Catalan parties must also govern, and deal with social injustice, unemployment, the housing crisis and other aspects of civil society. Otherwise, Barcelona en Comú will continue to expand its influence;

Although the independence process has not been dealt a death blow – that is merely wishful thinking on the part of Spain’s newspapers – it is nevertheless legitimate to question whether the de facto Catalan referendum in the guise of regional elections should not be delayed until after the general elections. The loss of an absolute majority is almost guaranteed; and a PSOE-Podemos coalition of the left might become a reality if they are able to cooperate and govern at the municipal and provincial levels. That would change the calculus for CiU radically: Mr. Mas might be able to negotiate and deliver on a degree of decentralization that would satisfy a majority of Catalans and preserve both the unity of the country as well as the CiU’s leadership of the autonomous region.  And in the event of a Partido Popular victory or a coalition with Ciudadanos, what has been lost be a few more months? The disappointment of another conservative legislature might be the boost that independence has needed since its apogee on 9N2014.

Like Tales from Cassandra

Cassandra was a Greek girl who was cursed by the gods; she was condemned to have the gift of prophecy and to always speak the truth, but to never be believed.

Like Cassandra, the Partido Popular has been told the truth by the Spanish people: enough is enough. No more corruption, no more business as usual, no more governing for the rich and the Germans. Whether they hear that message, or prefer to remain complacently as the “most voted party”, will largely determine the outcome of the upcoming general election this year.  The conservatives still have a large base of supporters, plenty of people who simply will not vote for a party on the left; but they are squandering their loyalty through arrogance and obstinacy.

Given the initial response given by the party’s spokesman this morning, and the press conference this afternoon by Prime Minister Rajoy, it seems that the initial reaction is more of the “head in the sand” politics that has always characterized the Galician’s leadership style. He has declared victory, announced that there will be no reshuffling of his government, and vowed to continue on course – a course the Spanish people have just repudiated. This bodes ill for the PP’s electoral fortunes.

Germany: take notice. You might soon lose Spain as well as Greece.


Sources and Notes

[1] As opposed to the Province of Madrid, where they may retain the government if they are able to make a pact with Ciudadanos (Citizens).

[2] Judge Manuela Carmena will need support from the Socialist Party to become Mayor of Madrid. The Populares Esperanza Aguirre has one more seat, but her path to a majority coalition is far more difficult than Ms. Carmena’s.

[3] Javier Casquiero, “El PP pierde 500 mayorías absolutas en toda España,” El País, 25 Mayo 2015

[4] Juan José Mateo, “Ciudadanos insiste en que el PP debe de hacer primarias si quiere acuerdos,” El País, 25 Mayo 2015

[5] Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, or Popular Unity Candidates, is a left-wing pro-independence party in Catalonia, very similar ideologically to the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya.

[6] Ms. Colau appears to support the right of the Catalans to decide their own system of government, but is not in favor of secession.

[7] Ciutadens went from 35,000 votes to 230,000 votes.

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4 Responses to “Spain’s Municipal Elections: And the Winner Is Democracy”

  1. Hi Fernando,

    I left this URL in twitter, but it seems the url shortener did something to it.
    It is a link to Ada Colau’s post on facebook about her vote on 9N


    Posted by Daniel | May 25, 2015, 23:25
    • Hi Mr. Daniel. Regards. Hi Mr. Betancour. Regards and thanks for your analysis. I use to read and enjoy them. Sorry for my poor english.
      Ada Colau has gone to this polls with the support of Podemos, but not as Podemos. Podemos, in this elections, has only gone as itself on the regionals. Not on the locals anywhere.
      Colau has won on barcelona with a narrow margin (11 seats, for 10 of ciu, 5 c’s, 5 erc, 4 psc, 3 cup, 3 pp), going coalligated with ic-eu-verds and with “procés constituent”. this group, ic, is a former branch of iu from who separated some years ago since a problem that iu had with the galician branch. After separation, Iu had its own list on catalonia and did nothing. Now they go togehter, coalligated, but ic is the party and iu (eu) just a surname.
      PSOE as itself has not been neither on catalonia since the 70’s. PSC is a party (formerly with “2 souls”) that is federated with PSOE. And Podemos, ruled by doctors on politic sciencies, knows that. Podemos as itself, alone, in Catalonia, would have likely not done a great result, mainly because parties like the cup or ic itself are already there already on its space and with good roots. Is not like on other regions of Spain where the number of parties were minor and the possibility to find a place higher.
      The position about the independence question was asked several times during the campaign. Colau, the 9N, as has pointed Mr. Daniel, voted yes/yes. Her explanation was strange because fitted more on the yes/no , so the question has been on the air.
      If we look who has gone with her, the co-leader of ic, coalligated with colau now, Dolors Camats, is independentist ( http://www.cronicaglobal.com/es/notices/2014/04/camats-siempre-he-sido-independentista-7128.php ), but ic itself still has the “2 souls” also; meanwhile, the “spiritual” leaders of Procés constituent (nun Teresa Forcades and economist Arcadi Oliveres) are also fierly independentists. Colau herself says that catalonia is a nation and has the right to vote about the issue ( http://www.vilaweb.cat/noticia/4331971/20150525/colau-catalunya-nacio-poder-decidir-lliurement-relacio-lestat.html ). Not easy to know then if her victory is really a loss for “the process”.
      ANC has remainded basically on silence this time.
      For ruling Barcelona, Ms. Colau will also need allies, and those would likely be ERC and CUP, both independentists. So, instead Podemos is not independentist (they are more likely on “the 3rd way”), things could not be so easy to be read as spanish press do.
      Mr. Betancour, about your point of delaying the 27-s elections, theres a fear in some analists in catalonia that if Podemos/PSOE could win, the 3rd way could be on the table again. That is seen for some as a way of coming back to 2006 and rewalk all the path done until the spanish ideocracy would put the situation as it is now, but 5 or more years later. Thats why, for some, is important to make the move before the general elections.
      Sorry for my extention. I could have tried to make it shorter (since some things that ive said are already known).

      Posted by jordi L | May 26, 2015, 03:29
      • Dear Jordi,

        Thanks very much for your comments and your continued interest in the blog.

        You are correct to point out that Ada Colau is an independent candidate; so is Manuela Carmena in Madrid. But both were supported by the Podemos national organization, so I thought it appropriate to use the term “Podemos-backed” rather than strictly Barcelona en Comú or Ahora Madrid. For the vast majority of readers, that would be too fine a distinction. In any event, it is a very good strategy on the part of Podemos to use local franchises rather than insist on strict orthodoxy: it is far more democratic than Podemos is given credit for in the Spanish press, but in any case, it has proven to be a successful tactic. They have won important plazas where Ciudadanos has not; that might be worthy of a separate analysis all its own.

        As to Ms. Colau’s position on independence, it was my understanding that she is not openly against it, but that it is nowhere near the top of her list of priorities. Independence as an afterthought, if it can be fit into the agenda of social justice, housing reform, quality of life improvements, etc.. otherwise not. Yet the two are not incompatible: we shall soon see what her position is in any case, she won’t be able to get away from taking sides now.

        In any case, my analysis is more about the crisis in CiU than the possible attitude of Ms. Colau. I know plenty of ICV people and most of them are pro-independence along with being ecosocialists (I use the term in the strictest sense, not disparagingly).

        Regarding the delay to the 27-S elections…well, it’s just my opinion. I adhere to Jefferson: that governments long established should not be overthrown for light and transient reasons. I think, at the very least, a new Spanish government should be given the opportunity to participate. Just because the Populares refused all discussions, doesn’t mean a PSOE-Podemos govnerment would (or some other combination of leftist governments). The next Spanish government – assuming it is not the PP or Ciudadanos – might very well agree to a formal referendum process a la Scotland. That would surely be better than the de facto election cum referendum, wouldn’t it? They might propose a thorough reform of the ’78 Constitution with more devolved powers to the historic communities. The Catalans ought to at least hear what they have to say, don’t you agree? If the elections are held and the conservatives win, or if the a leftist government refuses to deal with the Generalitat, then what has been lost? A year? After waiting for 400? And then the case for independence is even stronger, for if Catalonia cannot negotiate in good faith with either the left or the right, what hope is there? I think, if explained in that manner, the people of Catalonia would agree to wait and vote even more strongly for sí-sí for having waited.


        Fernando Betancor

        Posted by fdbetancor | May 26, 2015, 10:33
        • Mr. Betancourt, indeed you are right. i didnt pretend to correct your analisys as far as you already knew what i pointed. Sorry if seemed something different.

          As far as i know, the problem on delaying 27-S to happen after the generals is on 2 factors, given a victory of psoe/podemos on spain. 1st of all is that, while P. Iglesias said that would be in favour of a referendum on Catalonia,(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZRbasBtz0s , 49:25) this only could happen with a previous reform of the Spanish Constitution. In Catalonia some keep thinking that is not needed to change the constitution for allowing some kind of consultation (the 5 ways of the “Consell assessor per la transició nacional” )and that the constitutional change would not be necessary because of the constitution itself (as said some fathers of the constitution like miquel roca: http://www.ccma.cat/324/Miquel-Roca-diu-que-ni-un-sol-article-de-la-Constitucio-impedeix-convocar-la-consulta/noticia/2191573/ ) but because of how the interpretations that have been done on the Constitutional Court and creating limits where they were not.
          So, the 1st fear is the “no” to any kind of consultation until the constitution is changed.
          The 2nd fear is about the change itself: can’t be done without 2/3ds of the spanish parliament, and this is seen as something nearly impossible.
          So, at the end, this means “no way” to have a referendum. But are just fears, not facts.
          I agree that, given the changes that slowly are happening on spain (as example, Compromis in the city of valencia) are making room to let new voices to talk in the name of spain and maybe to make new deals. and would be unfair to not let the new voices say their point.
          Fears again: podemos is quite similar to psoe in the early years of democracy (when they were federalists, in favour of the right to decide..) back in the late 70’s and until 1981, before the 23-f and the Loapa.
          And some say that the role that could play podemos is similar to the one that had alejando lerroux (the previous video, 47:53) in the 1st decades of xxth century, whith his “partido radical”, triying to put the focus “against the rich” (back then, the church also), diverging from the “nationality” question. That was also said by some at the begining about the role of rivera and c’s.
          My feeling is that, for iglesias, this has been one of the most offensive things that have been said to him. But his answer, saying that ” the rulers are thiefs” (47:25; 48:25 ) (puting trias on the same bag as friend of pujol and mas) doesn’t help either. Mainly because, despite political decisions, is not known any corruption scandal around Trias and Mas. Hopely, this will be just campaign words. Would not be helpful that attitude for making deals.
          So yes, a 3rd way could be wide open and yes, this could be the most reasonable solution, by far the most near to the scottish way, but the new actors are still very new, and the old ones are carrying also bad memories and experiences, so then fears and misstrusts. on a landscape of spanish rigid institutions.
          The absence of “absolut majorities” and the needing of pacts will likely soft the language and push the pactism; the new forms seems to be more attached to open the political decisions to more participation of people, and those are always good news. Maybe the evolution of things will disperse some rudeness from ones and fears from others. Then that scottish way could be more viable. Time is short.

          Posted by jordi L | May 26, 2015, 13:29

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