The old new policy

José Piquer. Executive Director. Undergraduate Studies International Relations. IE University

1 August 2016

After a historic second general election, Spain still has no party with a clear majority that would permit it to form a government, and the result is two scenarios that test the old new policy.

In the wake of the June 26 elections, Spain faces a very similar political scenario to that which followed the December 20, 2015 election - no party has a clear majority and everything is open to negotiation.

However, the results did clear up some doubts, allowing us to define some of the dynamics that will define talks that have already begun to form a government.

The old new policy. The old parties survive, and the newcomers are not fully consolidated as an alternative. The conservative Popular Party (PP) and the Socialists (PSOE) have again received more than half of the vote (55%), a historical trend that was only interrupted in the December elections, while Unidos Podemos (UP) — the coalition between the communist-led United Left and anti-austerity party Podemos— and center-right grouping Ciudadanos, have obtained more than a third of the votes. The immediate effect is that the negotiating position of the new parties has been undermined and their expectations deflated.

Fragmentation on the left. The PSOE obtained the worst result in its history, but avoided being overtaken on the left by Podemos. The UP coalition was not a success, and obtained fewer votes than the sum total of Podemos and the United Left in December 2015. The old and new left still does not add up to enough to topple the right.

Strategic voting. The effect of so-called strategic voting was more noticeable in the case of Ciudadanos. Aware that it had little chance of being asked to form a new government and encouraged by the campaign of the Popular Party against a left bloc, a critical mass of voters has given the PP sufficient majority to avoid a leftist coalition. The effect of this transfer of votes from Ciudadanos to the PP has been amplified by the effects of Spain’s electoral system: About 23% of Ciudadanos voters have been left without parliamentary representation.

Pacts. Among the possible scenarios, two stand out:

A coalition between the Popular Party and Ciudadanos, facilitated by the abstention of the PSOE. This fragile agreement could count on the support of the PSOE on important matters of state. If recent statements by leaders of the PSOE and Ciudadanos are to be believed, we can expect lengthy negotiations. We know that agreement is not possible without concessions without the parties involved in a potential deal being accused of hypocrisy, but one of the two, or both, must give some ground if they want to avoid the embarrassment of a third election in less than a year.

If interim Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy were able to garner enough support to attend an investiture session, the PSOE would have to decide whether to abstain and allow him to form a government. Ciudadanos meanwhile, should give up its demand that Rajoy stand down if it wants to play a role in negotiations, because Rajoy has already made clear he will not resign. Any of these decisions will have costs for all the parties, but it would be better than repeating elections. 

Another alternative would be a coalition between the PSOE and UP, with the support of the regional parties. Right now that is very unlikely.

Were it to happen, it would probably end up being the shortest government in Spain’s recent history.

There are two factors that could end up deciding everything: the management of internal divisions on the left and the decline of the regional parties: there are elections in the Basque Country scheduled for autumn, while Carles Puigdemont faces a motion of no-confidence in the Catalan regional parliament in September.

The PSOE seems doomed to be the arbiter of these negotiations, assuming the most committed of all positions at a time when it is particularly vulnerable. For the second time, its leader, Pedro Sanchez, has produced his party’s worst election result.

Meanwhile, in the coming weeks we need to answer two questions: how to hold the fragile ideological balance of ideas and movements within Podemos, and which of its many currents will win out. 

In short, the PSOE and Podemos could implode in the coming months, or they might be able to channel their internal tensions effectively and unseat the PP, something that today seems even less likely than in December. At the end of the day, there is nothing new in this struggle for power. The only difference is that until now one election was enough to produce a winner.

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