Six months after an historic election that fractured Spain’s traditional two-party system but failed to produce a government, Spanish voters returned to the polls Sunday and, in an unexpected move, turned away from the two upstart parties that had burst onto the national scene in the December polls.
Just days after the seismic shock of Brexit, Spain turned back to the safety of the known.
The big beneficiary of the return to tradition was acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose center-right Partido Popular (PP) won 33% of the vote for 147 seats in the 350 deputy parliament, recovering 14 of the 63 seats it had lost in December and making it the only party that gained both seats and votes (almost 700,000) in the election.
Just after midnight, Rajoy stepped onto the balcony of PP headquarters in Madrid as a crowd of supporters mockingly chanted the “Sí se puede” (roughly, “Yes we can”) slogan of Unidos Podemos, the left wing coalition that had claimed it would dethrone Rajoy.
“We have won the elections. But now we have to be useful to 100% of the Spanish people. We demand the right to govern Spain,” he said in a speech that, while short, still managed to sound rambling. “Starting tomorrow we have to begin to speak with everyone. And we will. Viva España!”
In the weeks before the election, a string of inaccurate polls had predicted that Rajoy’s party, battered by a string of corruption scandals, would at best hold steady in the election, while the Unidos Podemos (United We Can, or UP) coalition would gain some 15 seats, leapfrogging Spain’s traditional center-left PSOE socialist party and making possible a left wing coalition government that the UP would lead.
It did not turn out that way.
The groups that together form Unidos Podemos, led by ponytailed university professor Pablo Iglesias, only won 71 seats—the same as in December—despite predictions for a huge jump at the expense of the PSOE. The socialists saw their vote percentage rise from 22.0% to 22.7% and held on to 85 of their 90 seats. Much of UP’s failure can be explained by a turnout drop of over 1 million voters, which hit the upstart parties especially hard; UP lost over 1 million votes nationwide while the PSOE dropped only 100,000.
“These are not the results we hoped for. They are not good results for Unidos Podemos and not good results for Spain,” UP number two Íñigo Errejón said after the elections. “Sometimes political change doesn’t happen in a linear form or at the speed we would hope.”
At the PSOE’s post-election rally, party leader Pedro Sánchez devoted most of his energy to noting that Unidos Podemos had not overtaken PSOE. He also laid into UP’s Iglesias for not voting for a PSOE-led center-left coalition when he had a chance after the December elections.
“Despite predictions of our loss of relevance, we have proven our role as the leading party of the left in Spain,” he said. “I hope that Pablo Iglesias reflects on his decision not to vote for a progressive government.”
It’s still not clear why Spanish voters returned to the safety of the PP and fled newcomers UP and Ciudadanos (a pro-business centrist party that lost lost 8 of its 40 seats, along with almost 400,000 votes).
Pablo Simón, a visiting professor of political science at Madrid’s Carlos III University suggests that Brexit-inspired fear and Rajoy’s call for voters to make their votes “useful” by voting PP in order to head off the supposedly dangerous Unidos Podemos could in part explain why undecided voters ultimately chose the safety of the political establishment.
After the Brexit results, Rajoy suggested that Britain’s surprising step in the unknown showed the need for Spanish voters to chose stability.
“This is the moment to bank on responsible and sensible policies and avoid risks,” he said. “Easy times are not on the horizon, but those we’ve been though were more difficult.”
No matter how voters came to their choice, Spain will now have to form a government, which will demand coalition-building, a skill not broadly practiced in Spain.
Before the election, the charisma-challenged Rajoy was considered by many to be too out of touch with young voters and too tied to a generation of corrupt PP leaders to be re-elected even if his party won the election. The PSOE’s Pedro Sánchez has said he won’t facilitate a PP government, and the head of Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera, has said he wouldn’t support one with Rajoy heading it.
But Rajoy is a famous political survivor and Spanish voters are angry at the parliament’s six-month failure at forming a government, so after the PP’s addition of 14 seats Sánchez and Rivera may have to relent to a Rajoy-led PP government in exchange for political concessions.
“Mariano Rajoy has been buried many times,” notes Simón.
There will be intense voter pressure on Spain’s political parties to form some kind of coalition and avoid the ridiculous spectacle of third elections, especially in light of the Brexit vote and Europe’s economic slowdown. The most probable outcome now is a coalition of the PP with Ciudadanos and two smaller parties—which will get to 175 seats, one short of a majority—along with PSOE pointing to Spain’s need for stability to justify an abstention that would allow its arch-enemy back into power.
“They have to form a government, there’s no other option. Even if it’s in extremis,” Daniel Borras, a 38-year-old engineer from Barcelona, said after voting Sunday.
Both Rajoy and the PSOE’s Sánchez would do well to listen to voters like Borras if they hope to regain the parliamentary majorities that their parties regularly enjoyed during Spain’s era of two-party governance. In the last election, Borras voted for Podemos, and this time around he voted for Ciudadanos.
“I have it very clear in my head that I don’t want to vote again either for the PP or the PSOE,” he says. “For me, what we have now is the new right and the new left.”
It’s worth noting that in the last two elections, Borras did not choose right or left both times. But he did choose new. If the PP and PSOE fail to form a coalition on either the center right or left and force Spain into third elections—very much a possibility—it’s quite possible the big parties will lose even young more voters for life.