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The gamblers of Spanish politics

With its 4th parliamentary election in as many years, Spain becomes even more divided and ungovernable
  • November 13, 2019 11:30
  • Author Anton Stoyanov
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Source: Pool Moncloa/ Fernando Calvo

The post-crisis years have been a real political circus in Spanish politics. The fracturing of the political establishment following the country’s descent into recession, the subsequent grappling with economic consequences and a furthering regional divide have only served to further the polarization of its citizens.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty and the consequences of last week’s vote and how we got there if you need a refresher on the main political actors in Spain, don’t forget to check out our previous rundown

The last 7 months proved that anyone can be a gambler – yet not everyone is particularly good at it. In the aftermath of the April 2019 general elections, every political leader – from Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, to Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos and Pablo Iglesias from Unidas Podemos was hoping that the others would blink and offer a compromise. At the same time, every one of them was absolutely certain that they had the winning hand, and that is was just a matter of time before their opponents were forced to fold. The first opportunity to act, however, would present itself just one short month later.

It was May 2019 and things looked promising for some of the country’s leading politicians – or at least that’s how things appeared. The far-right was in a slump, the far-left was busy waging a civil war, the traditional centrist parties were regaining ground and the liberals had no idea what they were doing or where they were going.

Spanish citizens were heading to the polls to vote for MEPs and for representatives in their local governments and when the results for City Councilors started pouring in, the liberals were the first to smell an opportunity – ready to gamble the spectacular result they achieved in April.

The man who lost everything (almost)

Albert Rivera’s gamble was twofold. On the one hand, he was refusing to enter a coalition with the centre-left PSOE and incumbent Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez – despite significant pressure from his liberal allies in Europe, including Emmanuel Macron’s own party. Rivera thought, mistakenly, that should he withhold his support for the socialists, new elections would allow him to govern with the centre-right Partido Popular – maybe even putting him at the helm of such a government.

His second gamble became apparent in the weeks following the local elections - leaks of agreements and backroom deals shone the spotlight on Ciudadanos’ cooperation with the far-right VOX in local administrations across the country. Rivera failed to explain himself not only to his liberal allies across the continent but to the Spanish people as well, preferring to defer the blame to Pedro Sanchez and his Socialists. He was hoping that by depriving the PSOE of key posts across the country, his own party would be able to secure its future.

Both his assumptions proved false. Rivera proved that centrist liberal parties who go down the path of the far-right are doomed to failure – no matter how they choose to explain themselves. Not only that, but the fact that Ciudadanos sympathizers and voters were polling overwhelmingly in favour of a coalition with the centre-left in order to prevent a deepening destabilization of the country further made them question the party’s leader’s senses and motivations.

Albert Rivera’s gambles failed – his gains in local administrations earlier this year came at an astonishingly high cost, while his refusal to compromise on the national level deprived his party of the image of a centrist balancing force. Now – the seats that Ciudadanos controls in the national parliament have been reduced from 57 to 10, severely dimming their future prospects.

The Pyrrhic victory

While Pedro Sanchez might have won the elections yet again, the country remains as ungovernable as ever. It might have actually become even worse than before – the only possible coalition partners remain the far-left and the separatists – just like last time, but instead of centrists at third place, they will be forced to reckon with an emboldened far right.

Sanchez’s political career as a whole can be described as a series of gambles that have paid off. He gambled when he accidentally toppled Rajoy’s government last year, he gambled when he called the snap elections in April, he gambled again when he refused to make concessions to the far-left Podemos and he gambled once more during the last election campaign.

The PSOE’s approach to these elections was simple – bunch up everyone who is not Podemos in the same pile and call them fascists. Unsurprisingly, for the most part, this helped no one, except the real far-right party. The exhumation of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s remains rather than serving the purpose of solidifying Pedro Sanchez’s image as an agent of change who people should support, only led to the galvanization of far-right sympathizers and gave them the perfect opportunity to demonstrate their disdain for the establishment.

Both of these approaches led to no significant wins for the socialists, while simultaneously sapping the strength of their potential coalition partners (in the case of Ciudadanos). Instead, Pedro Sanchez was forced to unite with Podemos – but unlike last month, they no longer control a majority, forcing them to seek even more help from the outside.  

The victors

The only ones who can claim to have significantly come out ahead from this latest electoral debacle are the far-right. VOX managed to successfully increase its vote share, becoming the third largest political party in the country. The failed gambles taken by the liberals and the PSOE resulted in a significant exodus of voters to the far-right. Not only that, but thanks to the pacts it had previously made with Ciudadanos and the PP in the aftermath of the local elections, VOX already established a significant presence in local administrations throughout the country and is ready to make its voice heard.

The gridlock that has taken place in Spain has been months in the making. The refusal of party leaders to compromise and their self-assuredness that their gambles would pay off have paved the way to the rise of the far-right. No longer can the Spanish political establishment pride itself in the fact that the country is one of the exceptions in Europe.

The myriad of options that were available to Pedro Sanchez just last month has been reduced to a mere handful – and we should not be surprised if Spain heads to yet another general election in just a few months’ time when and if the coalition which is presently being formed collapses.

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