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Spain on the Threshold of a New Transition

With legislative elections on 20th December, the end of 2015 was a turbulent period for Spain, and the same will surely apply in 2016. Thirty years on from its transition to democracy after Franco, Spain faces a new transition to another system of government, which has yet to be defined.

 

The End of the Two-Party System, the Victory of Plurality

Initially, the Spanish elections of 20th December brought more questions than answers. They were expected to complete the cultural cycle opened by the Indignados Movement in 2011 and transposed into politics by Podemos at the start of 2014. One thing is certain – apart from just the electoral results, the ideological framework of first the Indignados movement (then Podemos) is now setting the Spanish media agenda: democracy[1] and corruption are now the focus of political and social debate, more than ever before. At the same time, the results of the elections – in which the emerging parties (Podemos and Ciudadanos) achieved a considerable share of the vote without actually overtaking the traditional parties (PP and PSOE) – do not seem to allow for a stable government for the time being: the two-party system has been dealt a severe blow, but we still do not know what will follow it.

Thus, even if the People’s Party (Partido Popular – PP) has lost millions of votes, it is still the largest political force in the country, with 123 seats (and it maintains an absolute majority in the Senate). The Socialist Party (PSOE) had its worst results since democracy returned to Spain but it is still the second largest party, with 90 seats. Podemos (along with its allies in Catalonia, Galicia and Valencia) has made a strong entrance to the Spanish Congress with 69 seats, but it did not manage to overtake the PSOE. Ciudadanos, with 40 seats, takes a significant slice of the cake, but ultimately less than it had expected. We should add that Izquierda Unida (IU), a Spanish left-wing electoral federation, has virtually disappeared (2 seats) and regionalist and/or nationalist parties will continue to be an inescapable part of the political landscape[2].

These figures show that the big winner on 20th December was, above all, plurality. The ballot box has certainly spoken, but it has not given any clear instructions for organising this diversity. There is a confused mix of a desire for change (principally among the young) and a fear of change (among older voters); calls to accept different national identities within Spain and opposing calls for national unity; discontent with the traditional political class and corruption; demands for more social policies alongside a strong right-wing block (in the old and new style); and very varied results depending on the region etc. There is also a high dose of the extreme and the surreal: the new Spanish transition tips its hat to Dali and Buñuel (or Kafka and Magritte)!

And Where Does Political Ecology Fit In?

The Spanish Green Party stood with Podemos and the results were particularly good. Three Green MPs were elected: their two spokespersons, Rosa Martínez (2nd in Vizcaya, Baxque Country) and Juan López de Uralde (head of the list in Álava, Basque Country), and Jorge Luis (head of the list in Huesca, Aragon). In the Basque country, where the role of EQUO has been most tangible, Podemos came first!

However, make no mistake: although EQUO may have made a positive contribution to the Podemos manifesto (for example, the introduction of the new sustainable energy model), ecology was a marginal issue in the electoral campaign (even though it coincided with COP 21) and it is still not one of its political or communications priorities. It is clear that for the time being, political ecology has managed to ride the wave of change, but the wave of change has not yet made political ecology its banner[3].

Forming a Government: Red Lines and Green Lines

The following coalition governments are possible:

  • A grand coalition as in Germany: PP-PSOE-Ciudadanos. In theory, this would be impossible (at the time of writing) because PSOE would veto it. This option is favoured by the European Commission, the Eurogroup and the markets, who above all want a stable government that will rebel as little as possible against their key economic policies of structural adjustment.
  • A variant: a minority PP coalition with Ciudadanos and PSOE abstaining. In theory, this would be impossible for the same reason.
  • A progressive coalition as in Portugal: PSOE-Podemos-IU. This is the option preferred by the PSOE’s leader and the Podemos ones (who made a concrete proposal in that sense), but it runs into internal problems in the PSOE, part practical conditions between both parties and on the question of a referendum Catalonia question (at the time of writing). PSOE is demanding that Podemos abandon calls for a referendum in Catalonia and conversely Podemos – under the influence of its Catalan allies – puts a Scotland-style referendum as a non-negotiable condition for the PSOE.  Each side knows that their conditions are unacceptable for the other. In addition this coalition, unlike in Portugal, would need the votes of the Basque and/or Catalan nationalist parties in order to be a possibility. And they also insist on the referendum question…

 

For the time being, the red lines are dominant. Unless things change, this will mean we are heading straight for new elections in spring. This is in fact what Podemos would perhaps like to see, in the hope of overtaking the PSOE this time and relegating it to an insignificant position, like PASOK in Greece, and the opinion polls show this would not be impossible[4]. However, even if some positions might change, the overall balance would probably remain the same in new elections. The political landscape will certainly still be as complex and diverse as at present, but with a major difference: the fight for hegemony among social democrats.

Given that the overall balance of power will not change, sooner or later Spanish politicians will have to get used to accepting and managing plurality in Spanish society and the interdependence among different groups (and Europe). Switching from a two-party system to a truly parliamentary system means that dialogue, pacts and “green lines” should now be the rule for creating stable political majorities, with plenty of give and take.

Catalonia – A Vital Piece of the Spanish Puzzle

Of course, the picture becomes increasingly complicated if one takes into account the inseparable political situation in Catalonia. Finally, after weeks of uncertainty and a string of sometimes surreal developments, supporters of independence made a last ditch deal to form a government in early January 2016. The neo-separatist centre-right and the anti-capitalist separatist-left signed an alliance that was unnatural (in terms of the contradiction between labour and capital) to try to complete the process of independence in Catalonia (putting the national question before social and environmental issues).

However, a great amount of uncertainty surrounds the roadmap to fast-track independence within 18 months, which is not especially realistic. The separatists lost the plebiscite on 27th September 2015 and over 50% of the population of Catalonia voted against the break with Spain. There are serious doubts about the legality of the process, and it is opposed in the corridors of power across Europe (and the world). Also, the Catalan bourgeoisie has made cuts to health and education as stringent as those of the Spanish PP, it is pro-TAFTA, and mired in corruption scandals etc., so its social agenda is diametrically opposed to that of the anti-capitalist municipalists with anarchist tendencies (anti-euro, anti-Europe, anti-TAFTA etc.). Like the rest of Spain, Catalonia is faced with the challenge of accepting and managing its own diversity (and interdependence), on pain of further damage to coexistence and the socio-economic fabric of Catalonia (and Spain).

Paradoxically, this new situation could possibly strengthen the chances of a grand coalition for Spanish unity including the PP, PSOE and Ciudadanos, although it does not guarantee it. As is often the case, all types of nationalism strengthen each other.

A New Transition, but Which One?

Spain has extended the cultural and political cycle initiated in 2011. Despite all the wisdom of the pundits, the new transition in Spain is above all characterised by uncertainty: we are at a turning point, where the chaotic system could shift towards one transition or another.

The course that Spain takes will, in turn, clearly have significant consequences for the rest of Europe. While a great coalition along German lines would strengthen the European structural adjustment policies implemented over recent years, a Portuguese-style coalition would add grist to the mill of the anti-austerity current.

So a new transition is on its way. However, we still do not know which one it will be: superficial reform to the Spanish Constitution or a constituent process? Re-centralisation of power or territorial reform based on a referendum or referendums? Structural changes or simply changing the elites? A face-lift for the system of government created in 1978 or a new system of government? In any case, it remains to be seen how much political ecology can influence this transition, as in view of the crisis of civilisation that we are currently experiencing, the new transition will be ecological and fair or it will not happen.

 

Notes

[1] Symbolised in the narrative of Podemos by the struggle of the people against the elite and of those at the top against those at the bottom.

[2] All the election results can be seen here.

[3] In the article “The new transition will be just and ecological or it will not be“, I analyse Equo’s results more in depth.

[4] See here, for instance. It remains a risky wager for Podemos, especially in light of its multiple territorial alliances.