Mark Nayler

Was Spain’s ‘new political era’ just a mirage?

Was Spain's 'new political era' just a mirage?
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More than four months on from Spain’s December general election, optimism has given way to fatigue and cynicism among the electorate. Coalition negotiations between leading parties have failed, and a repeat election will now be held in Spain on 26 June, a few days after Britain's EU referendum. But there is little enthusiasm for this second-take. Many Spaniards are now saying they will register disappointment with their politicians by abstaining.

And what of the supposed new breed of Spanish politician represented by Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’) and Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos (‘We Can’)? They were meant to have ushered in a 'new political era' but the farcical, self-centred nature of the post-election negotiations have shown these two young men to be not so different, in some respects, from the old guard they vilify.

Among many Spaniards, particularly those in their 20s and early 30s, there was a sense of excitement surrounding last December’s general election. The two new leaders claimed that the state of Spain was their primary concern: Ciudadanos (centre-right) and Podemos (radical left), though ideologically

opposed, both promised change and vowed to clean up the corruption and cronyism so rife among the two traditional parties, the ruling Conservative Popular Party and their rivals, Socialist PSOE. The emergence of these new politicians (both with much less experience than their shared adversaries) seemed to show that, in Spain, things were changing and not before time.

The UK election did a lot to damage the reputation of opinion polls, but in Spain they proved to be accurate. As predicted, Spaniards asked for change in huge numbers. Podemos and Ciudadanos voters dismantled the two-party system that has dominated Spain since Franco’s death, claiming 20.7 per cent and 14 per cent of the vote respectively. At least one of these two new parties, it seemed, would help form a brand-new coalition government in which the vested interests of the worn-out old guard could no longer dominate.

Yet Spain is still without a government and will be for at least another couple of months. The end of June will mark the beginning of the country’s seventh month with no elected administration. A refusal to compromise has resulted in paralysis. In particular, Iglesias - who rejected a possible left-wing alliance with PSOE - has shown himself more concerned with dominating the Spanish left than he is with what the electorate wants.

Iglesias's latest stunt shows that he has no intention of compromising. He recently proposed a partnership with Izquierda Unida (IU: United Left), the other popular leftist party, in order to secure a bigger joint portion of the vote in June’s election and thereby challenge PSOE’s long-established dominance of the Spanish left. It’s a realistic ambition: in December, PSOE got 5.5 million votes, but Podemos and IU got 6.1 million between them. However, this new alliance would still need the support of PSOE and/or other regional left-wing parties to secure a parliamentary majority after the June vote. So the prospect of yet more infighting among the left - of the kind that so exasperated George Orwell during his time with POUM in the Spanish Civil War - looms large.

On the other side, Rivera’s Ciudadanos has emerged as the most flexible of the four main parties, yet it’s got nowhere as a result. Like the Liberal Democrats, Ciudadanos's flexibility with regard to policy has a flipside: during these negotiations it has often played the role of the ideological

chameleon. Early on in the talks, Rivera naturally showed himself ready to team up with PP (the left like to disparage Ciudadanos by calling it a ‘mini PP’); but in the final attempt at forming a coalition before the King dissolved parliament last week, Ciudadanos also offered to join forces with the Socialists. Was a share of power being sought at any cost to policy?

This bizarre possibility was only prevented from materialising because Podemos, whose parliamentary support for the coalition was required in a vote, vetoed it. Meanwhile for the more right-wing Ciudadanos voters - who might have voted PP before December - this was an unpardonable attempt to compromise with the left. Recent polls suggest support for Rivera’s party will drop slightly in the June vote.

There is something very familiar about all this bickering and fighting over power. Deep divisions between the left and the right are resurfacing - and the old politics seem to have resurfaced, despite the injection of new, young blood. Covering it for the English-language newspaper I write for in southern Spain, I have often had to step back and remind myself that this crew are supposed to have the interests of the Spanish electorate at heart.

It is small wonder, if a little sad, that when the next election is held in June, many Spaniards will simply stay at home and let the politicians carry on with their games.

Spanish voters are losing faith in their new breed of radical politicians