Why Spain is heading for a Groundhog day election

Barring a last minute miracle in pact making, Spain is set for a new round of elections in June. But how did the nation fall into such a state of political limbo and will a new vote help end it?

Why Spain is heading for a Groundhog day election
Bill Murray in the 1993 film Groundhog Day relived the same scenario over and over. Screenshot from film.

The end of the two party system

When Spain last went to the polls on December 20th the vote was widely hailed as a new dawn bringing an end to the bi-partisan system that had dominated politics since Spain’s transition to democracy after the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

Millions turned away from Spain’s traditional two parties and instead threw their support behind newcomers who promised to put a stop to the corruption and cronyism that had been seen to represent the political class.

Add to that a country crippled by unemployment and sick of austerity and the people were ready to choose change.

So both the PP and the PSOE suffered their worst results in history thanks to the rise of Podemos and Ciudadanos and yet no party was left in a strong enough position to form a government.

The December election results demonstrated the end of the two party system for Spain. Source: Interior Ministry

Coalition failure

Conservative leader Mariano Rajoy, as head of the party with the single largest share of the votes (122 seats out of a 350), was given first crack at forming a coalition but turned it down, acutely aware that he would not find sufficient support in parliament.

So Pedro Sánchez, leader of the Socialists (PSOE) stepped up, and it seemed possible that he might have been able to negotiate a pact of the left – following in the footsteps of neighbouring Portugal – by forging an alliance with Podemos and the communist United Left together with smaller regional leftist parties.

But Podemos, led by pony-tailed firebrand Pablo Iglesias, refused to do a deal with the socialists unless certain conditions were met meaning no coalition could be formed and with Sánchez ruling out a German style grand coalition with the PP, the parties were deadlocked.

In the end it was the centrist anti-corruption Ciudadanos party, led by Albert Rivera, that showed any real interest in pact making and teamed up with the PSOE, but as they only had 40 seats it wasn’t enough to form a government.

Four months of offers and counter-offers couldn’t break the deadlock and on Tuesday King Felipe finally acknowledged the failure of talks.

He will likely dissolve parliament if an 11th hour deal is not brokered by midnight next Tuesday and call a new general election for June 26th.

Groundhog day

The four party leaders from left to right: Pablo Iglesias, Mariano Rajoy, Pedro Sanchez and Albert Rivera. Photos: AFP

It will be the first time in Spain’s 40 years of democratic history that a general election has to be called anew. If the date is set for June 26th then the campaign will officially kick off on June 10th.

So far the main parties have not shown any indication of a shake-up ahead of the campaign and it looks increasingly likely the same candidates will be fielded along with the same campaign messages.

A poll published in early April in El Pais showed that the four parties PP, PSOE, Podemos and Ciudadanos would win roughly the same share of the vote seen in December.

With around 80 percent of voters indicating that they wanted a coalition government and not a repeat election, participation is likely to plummet.

Sánchez has called on parties “to look forward and not back”  and to avoid a campaign based on a blame game over the failure on all sides to form a government, but the finger pointing has already started.

Stumbling blocks

If the polls are to be believed, then the PP is likely to win again, although again not with enough votes to secure a majority. But if acting Prime Minister Rajoy continues as leader of the party, as he has vowed to do, then the deadlock may continue.

All other parties have stated that Rajoy himself is the stumbling block and have so far refused to countenance a deal while he is the candidate for prime minister. So unless he steps aside, the deadlock could continue.

Negotiations with regional parties will continue to be fraught with all but Podemos ruling out the demands from Catalonia to hold a referendum on independence.

Photo: AFP

Meanwhile, what happens to Spain?

With no one in government to rein in spending, Brussels is getting anxious. Spain missed its budget deficit target set by the European Commission for 2015, coming in at 5 percent instead of the demanded 4.2 percent. And Brussels wants that to fall to 2.8 percent by year end.

The next parliament won’t be opened until July 20th, but it could still be months before a new government is formed. If at all.

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What the PP’s landslide win in Andalusia means for Spain’s ruling Socialists

A resounding win by Spain's conservative Popular Party in a weekend regional election in Andalusia appears to have boosted its chances in national elections next year and weakened Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

What the PP's landslide win in Andalusia means for Spain's ruling Socialists

The Popular Party (PP) secured 58 seats in Sunday’s election in Spain’s most populous region — three more than the 55 needed for an absolute majority. That constitutes its best-ever result in the longstanding Socialist stronghold.

The Socialists won 30 seats, their worst-ever result in Andalusia. It governed there without interruption between 1982 and 2018, when it was ousted from power by a coalition between the PP and centre-right Ciudadanos.

This was the Socialists’ third consecutive regional election loss to the PP after votes in Madrid in May 2021 and Castilla y Leon in February.

Sanchez’s government has been struggling to deal with the economic fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has fuelled inflation worldwide, especially through increasing energy prices.

Socialist party officials argued the results of a regional election “can’t be extrapolated” nationally.

But in an editorial, centre-left daily El Pais said no one can deny the gulf in the election scores obtained between the two parties in two of Spain’s most populated regions — Andalusia and Madrid.

This was “more than just a stumble”, it argued.

“This may be a symptom of a change in the political cycle” at the national level, it added. The conservative daily ABC took a similar line.

‘Worn down’

Pablo Simon, political science professor at the Carlos III University, said this “new cycle” in which “the right is stronger” began when the PP won a landslide in a regional election in Madrid in May 2021.

It could culminate with the PP coming out on top in the next national election expected at the end of 2023, he added.

But Cristina Monge, a political scientist at the University of Zaragoza, took a more cautious line.

“The government is worn down after four difficult years due to the pandemic” and the war in Ukraine, which has fuelled inflation, she said.

She refused to “draw a parallel” between Andalusia and Spain, arguing “there is still a lot of time” before the next national election.

Sanchez come to power in June 2018 after former PP prime minister Mariano Rajoy was voted out of office in a no-confidence motion triggered by a long-running corruption scandal.

The PP then suffered its worst-ever results in the next general election in 2019, which the Socialists won.

Sunday’s election was the first since veteran politician Alberto Núñez Feijóo, a moderate, took over as leader of the PP from Pablo Casado following a period of internal party turbulence.

Partido Popular (PP) candidate for the Andalusian regional election Juanma Moreno greets supporters during a meeting following the Andalusian regional elections, in Seville on June 19, 2022. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

‘Packing his bags’

“People are fed up with Sanchez,” the PP’s popular regional leader of Madrid, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, said Monday.

“If national elections had been held yesterday, the result would have been the same and today he would be packing his bags,” she added.

Up until now, the far-right Vox party had supported the PP in Andalusia but from outside government.

This time around however, it had said its support would be conditional on getting a share of the government of the southern region.

But the PP’s commanding victory in Andalusia means that is now moot: it no longer has to rely on far-right party Vox to govern.

At the national level, it could be a different story however, said Pablo Simon.

A PP government nationally that did not rely on Vox would be “impossible” due to the fragmentation of parliament, which has several regional and separatist parties.