Mark Nayler

Will Spain’s election finally end the country’s power vacuum?

Will Spain's election finally end the country's power vacuum?
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The only surprise result in Spain’s repeat general election on Sunday – rendered necessary by the impasse produced by December’s – was the failure of the new Spanish left to nudge the Socialists out of second place. The radical-left coalition Unidos Podemos (‘United We can’), a combination of Podemos (We Can) and Izquierda Unida (United Left), was expected to increase its joint share of the votes and take second-place behind the Conservative Popular Party (PP), replacing Pedro Sanchez’s PSOE as the dominant force of the Spanish left. Instead it came in third place, taking 21.11 per cent of the vote and 71 seats. Everything else was almost an exact re-run of December’s inconclusive vote, prompting renewed fears of yet more self-centred and futile negotiations between the four main parties. The PP once again came out on top, marginally increasing its share of the vote to 33 per cent, up from 28.7 per cent in December, and its number of seats to 137 in the 350-seat parliament, up from 123. Its potential centre-right coalition partner, the new Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’) party, remained in fourth place, claiming 32 seats. PSOE is still second place, retaining dominance of the Spanish left-of-centre, and took 22.7 per cent of the vote.

But hopefully the similarities to December’s vote will end there. A repeat of the farcical post-election talks that have occupied Spain’s politicians for the last few months would likely discredit them for good. As I wrote here in May, the last round of negotiations did little to endear Spain’s leading politicians to their voters; Unidos Podemos, in particular, suffered from an overall abstention rate of around 30 per cent on Sunday, losing about a million votes as a result.

The new Spanish Left has failed to capitalise on the swell of anti-establishment feeling that caused such a splintered vote last December. Iglesias rejected the chance of forming a government with PSOE earlier this year, claiming his party’s radical stance would be thereby diluted. Yet his attempts to dominate the Spanish Left from outside the establishment have got him nowhere, and he is unlikely to have another chance at forming the next Spanish government. The new left in Spain has shown itself to be just as hampered by individual egos and political infighting as the old left represented by PSOE.

As in December, the PP will be given the first opportunity to form the new Spanish government. Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera has already signalled that he is open to talks with the PP - although he is likely to oppose Mariano Rajoy continuing as prime minister, as he did in December. If these two parties teamed up, they would be just seven seats short of the required 176 parliamentary majority. But for a PP-Ciudadanos led coalition to take power, PSOE would need to abstain from opposing it in a vote of parliamentary confidence. In modern Spanish politics, those are two giant ‘ifs’; yet this time around there is considerably more pressure on parties to put aside differences and end Spain’s governmental vacuum, which is now entering its seventh month.

Voters’ motivations in Spain on Sunday, in particular the extent to which Brexit figured in their decisions, have not yet been scrutinised. But as the Spanish election was held just two days after the UK referendum result became known, it is not inconceivable that the PP hoovered up some anti-populist, anti-radical votes as a result of Britain’s decision to leave the EU. It is a party synonymous, in many voters’ minds, with political stability and one that can claim at least some responsibility for Spain’s steady economic recovery of the last two years.

As people watched markets reel from Brexit over the weekend, the latter fact took on more significance for Spaniards than it perhaps did in December’s vote. In such a febrile post-Brexit environment, Iglesias and Garzon’s Marxist-Communist, anti-capitalist coalition is, for many, too much of an unknown quantity.

Yet if the PP represents stability, it is synonymous in just as many voters’ minds with corruption. Current party leader and acting prime minister Rajoy has presided over a stream of scandals, most of which he claimed, at the time, to be ignorant. Admitting to having no idea of what activities some of your most senior politicians are engaged in is not a particularly robust defence. His resignation is likely to be the condition on which Ciudadanos - centre-right, market-friendly, anti-Catalonian secession – would enter into a pact with the PP. If so, Rajoy should step aside to make this coalition possible.

The Spanish newspaper El Pais said in an editorial after Sunday’s repeat election that ‘now is not the time for messing about or egotism. The only priority should be the urgent need to form a government with the ability to govern’. In a Europe shaken by Brexit, and in a Spain whose nascent economic recovery is now vulnerable, it is to be hoped that the country’s politicians can put aside self-interest to form the new government as quickly as possible. Anything else is just ‘messing about’ – and Spaniards have already had quite enough of that.