Change of Paradigm? or what is at stake in Spain´s local elections

 

 

This Sunday Spain goes to the polls. Municipal councils and the governments of most of Spain´s autonomous regions    (not Catalonia and the Basque Country, though, which hold their regional elections on different dates) are up for grabs. Beyond the local impact, what everybody is watching for in these elections is the likely redistribution of Spain´s nationwide political preferences, in anticipation of the general election due before the end of 2015. A political earthquake may be in the making with long-lasting consequences for Spain, and for Spain´s input into the European integration process.

Beyond the local impact, what everybody is watching for in these elections is the likely redistribution of Spain´s nationwide political preferences, in anticipation of the general election due before the end of 2015. A political earthquake may be in the making.

Since the 1980s, the country´s political landscape has been dominated by two political forces: the Socialist Party (PSOE) on the left, and the Popular Party on (PP) the right. A number of smaller parties completed the spectrum with the heir to the communists, Izquierda Unida (IU) on the extreme left, and Basque and Catalan nationalist parties in their respective autonomous regions. These smaller parties have played an important role in the formation of governmental majorities in the national parliament and, in the case of the nationalists, have always been in government in their respective regions. But the system has basically been a two-party system.

PSOE and PP have alternated in the national government at regular intervals with stable majorities. Though the tone of their discourses has traditionally been highly confrontational, their policies have not been radically different -always moving between moderate centre right and moderate centre left- and the country has enjoyed a high level of political stability and predictability. This may now change.

Accumulated anger among the electorate at the endless stream of corruption cases among politicians and high officials of both parties, compounded with despair with the economic and social situation resulting from the economic crisis, has lead to the swift emergence of two new political forces that have erupted in the political scene like a storm.

Podemos (We Can), an atypical political formation built on a popular movement of protest, emerged in the early days of the crisis and austerity measures. It came first in nationwide opinion polls just a few weeks ago. Their programme is still somewhat blurred but combines radical left thinking with popular participation philosophies and more moderate, inclusive propositions. They have taken most of the former political space of IU, seriously eroded the base of the Socialist Party, seduced some right-wing supporters infuriated with the PP, and mobilised new and young voters attracted by a completely new style of politics. Though their support seems to be going down, as they transition from an unknown group of new faces and original proposals and attitudes to a standard political actor with real chances of governing the country, they seem to be here to stay. These municipal and regional elections will constitute the first true test of their chances of becoming a credible contender for the national government.

Ciudadanos (Citizens), a self-defined centre-left force (though some classify it as centre-right), traditionally operating only in Catalonia, has jumped onto the national stage too. Also benefiting from the disenchantment with the two main parties, Ciudadanos has quickly climbed up in opinion polls to become the third or forth political force nationwide, taking from both PP and PSOE.

In this context, these elections will first and foremost answer the question of whether the two-party system has come to an end.

In this context, these elections will first and foremost answer the question of whether the two-party system has come to an end. Many commentators, in Spain and among European leaders, have expressed concern at the possibility of Spain entering a phase of political instability, Italian style, with weak majorities, frequent changes in government, and major swings in policies. Yet, the situation could be framed differently: will Spain move into a more mature democratic phase? Governmental coalitions are likely to become a must, but this fact should not necessarily lead to instability, if collective responsibility prevails. On the positive side, the new political forces may bring renewal in a political scene characterised by the complete loss of trust in the traditional parties. The newcomers will bring more thorough debate, a sense of true alternatives in policies and, hopefully, the feeling that politics matter and are responsive to the citizens’ concerns -a feeling long lost amongst most Spaniards.

Governmental coalitions are likely to become a must, but this fact should not necessarily lead to instability, if collective responsibility prevails. On the positive side, the new political forces may bring renewal in a political scene characterised by the complete loss of trust in the traditional parties.

Whatever new paradigm emerges, it will also have an impact at the European level. First, if the ascendance of Podemos is confirmed, it will reinforce the camp of those asking for alternatives to the austerity measures as the only possible response to the economic and financial crisis Europe-wide. It will give new impetus to the large group of Europeans who are begging their decision makers to find a way out of the crisis with less social pain, without destroying the middle classes and the welfare state, without further increasing income distribution inequality, and without further consolidating a system in which financial rationality is the only guide to action.

Spain´s disenchantment with its traditional parties has run parallel with its disenchantment with the European Union, as the former use the latter to justify their most unpopular decisions. Something should change also in the Union.

Second, it will give a serious warning call to political and economic elites that social discontent is reaching new highs and that the European construction cannot become the justification for policies that national electorates do not want. Spain´s disenchantment with its traditional parties has run parallel with its disenchantment with the European Union, as the former use the latter to justify their most unpopular decisions. Something should change also in the Union to show that the European institutions can react to changes in the public opinion of its member countries. For the most part, the European Council, the Commission, the European Central Bank and even the more representative European Parliament have so far failed to do so. As citizens distance themselves from their national institutions, they become even more distanced from the European ones. This process should not necessarily go this way but, as of now, this is what is happening.

 

 

Katoikos

The editorial team of Katoikos


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