The Spanish False Promise
Cover Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, The Free Media Repository, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Congreso_de_los_Diputados_gala.JPG.
When a general election takes place, there is always a sense of a special occasion. They are unique in their ability to stimulate political discussion across the entire population and engage citizens in political participation. Elections have the potential to leave a clear mark on the country’s future, as an outcome could indicate considerable long-term change, but also just continuity. Regardless of the result, they are a fundamental and influential political event. In Spain, however, the situation for voters has changed.
The fourth general election in four years is due to take place in Spain on the 10th of November. This reflects profound issues within the political system, leading to uncertainty and a feeling of national crisis. Ever since Spain transitioned from a dictatorship into a democracy in November 1975, its political system has consistently been at the focal point of debate. With the Franco years in the past, Spain’s two leading political parties engaged in two decades of heated rivalry, political confrontation and corruption scandals. The country suffered significantly at the start of the 21st century, with its youth unemployment rate rising above 20% following the 2008 economic crisis. Like in any democratic community, Spanish people urged for and acted towards change, labelling themselves as ‘Los Indignados’. People marched and gathered in the streets of Madrid to show their discontent and desire for change. For a country so used to political confrontation and tension, this seemed like another step into conflict and uncertainty. Considering the then bipolar nature of Spanish party politics, very few could have foreseen just how transformative this urge for change was going to be.
In May 2011, an unprecedented and fundamental change in the Spanish political system took place: one with considerable consequences for the future. During the first decade of the 21st century, Spanish politics was dominated exclusively by ‘The People’s Party’ (PP) and ‘The Spanish Socialist Workers Party’ (PSOE). However, the ‘Indignados’ Movement promoted by youth unemployment and unrest restructured the bipartisan parliamentary system and new parties, most notably ‘Ciudadanos’ (C’s) and ‘Podemos’, entered the scene. The difference in approach of these ‘new players’ was clear from the start, as ‘Podemos’ emphasized the youth demographic as Spain’s strongest asset and criticized existing parties for their old-fashioned and out-dated approach to political governance. The Spanish youth was concerned with the lack of opportunities being presented to them. In combination with a growing budget deficit exceeding 8% in 2012 and recurring corruption scandals, change was inevitable. Given the longevity of the bipartisan system, this seemed an extremely promising development.
The events of June 2016 are an important starting point in understanding the current situation. Spain was without an official government for more than a year as a political crisis unfolded. Months of unstable negotiations and corruption allegations against the central party followed. An election was called, which resulted in one of the most fragmented parliaments in Spanish political history. Undoubtedly, the major issue with leading Spanish politicians today is the fundamental political and ideological divisions that exist between them and their leading parties. This translated into a severe political deadlock, as the divided parliament was unable to consistently pass legislation. Disagreements on the yearly budget and the management of the Catalan issue are some of the examples the Parliament has been unable to cooperate on. Spanish politicians, including newly established leaders of Cs and Podemos, are known for their willingness to engage in ‘party politics’ disputes. Over the years, this has resulted in numerous votes of no confidence of differing success. In fact, it was a no confidence motion that defeated the Mariano Rajoy minority government formed in 2016, making way for Pedro Sanchez to replace him. Once again, a ‘snap’ election followed, and a minority Socialist government was formed.
Eight years on, the Spanish political system remains as inefficient as before. Political uncertainty, discontent with key politicians and continuous corruption allegations are in full flow. Strong divisions between parties have contributed to a very fragmented parliament, with few agreements reached on major issues such as Catalan Independence. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has been forced to call another election, after his attempts at coalitions with various parties from both sides of the political spectrum failed. The end of bipartisanship hasn’t led to the desired outcome as traditional parties are once again predicted to beat the ‘newly established parties’, with the vote of ‘Ciudadanos’ predicted to fall as low as 10.7%. Both C’s and Podemos have been unable to sustain the momentum they developed in the aftermath of the ‘Indignados’ movement. Leaders Albert Rivera and Pablo Iglesias have both suffered from internal issues within their parties, a factor in the view of many is reflective of their inexperience to lead the country forward. Smaller parties have simply failed to consolidate the faith that was initially shown in them.
In some ways, the aims of the ‘Indignados’ movement have been fulfilled. On paper, the Spanish Parliament is more democratic in the sense that more parties are involved and are contributing their share in the running of parliamentary politics. Spain has recovered from its crisis and has been a leading European country in terms of economic growth. Nevertheless, it is certain that supporters were expecting far more. For the upcoming elections, it is once again expected for ‘PSOE’ and ‘PP’ to earn most of the votes, although both would still fall short of a majority. This suggests that little change should be expected, as Pedro Sanchez continues his desperate search for a coalition. In the meantime, the Prime Minister must not loose sight of maintaining the economic situation. Recently the Central Bank predicted for economic growth to slow down from 2.4% to 2% due to political uncertainty. This is an issue that affects Europe as a whole, as political uncertainty is contributing to widespread instability and speculation around the continent. Ever since the 2011 demonstrations, Spain has been a perfect example of this.
Change was urged and delivered, but it is only fair to label the ‘Indignados’ movement as a false promise. New parties have failed to fulfil their potential, with old parties still firmly in the front seats. Politically, the country is arguably as divided as ever and it seems very unlikely for a unifying force to emerge any time soon. Clear ideological divisions, party politics and regions like Catalonia seeking independence have all contributed to a political blockade that continues to be a major area for concern. Worst of all, there are few, if any positive indicators with regards to the future. Most recently, for example, Albert Rivera, the leader of ‘Cs’, claimed that he would consider negotiating with Prime Minister Sanchez for a potential deal. This, however, does not encourage any optimism. A deal between the two is as unlikely as between any of the other party leaders. Negotiations are likely to remain complex and motivated by party, rather than national interests. Effectively, it depends on the politicians in charge of Spain to finally settle on a stable government and avoid repetitive elections. It is up to the leaders to adapt to the negotiation requests of their rivals and compromise with one another and lead the country forward. Alternatively, all other political options should rightly be labelled as only false promises.