Why 2015 Will Create a More Fragmented Spain

6 MINS READMar 21, 2015 | 13:16 GMT
Why 2015 Will Create a More Fragmented Spain
People hold Spanish flags as they demonstrate for unity of the Spanish state in Madrid in November 2014.

2015 will be a key year for Spain, which will be holding municipal, regional and national elections that will bring about a substantial change in the country's political landscape. Spain will likely evolve from a two-party system to a multiparty one, where the center-right and center-left establishment forces will have to share power with new challengers. This change is part of an EU-wide trend. Across the Continent, the economic crisis has fueled the rise of new political players that question the traditional elites.

Municipal and regional elections held between March and September will preview the battle for the national government that will happen in November or December. After the national elections, Spain will probably be ruled by a coalition — a rare thing in a country that has historically had strong central governments. Beset with a fragmented parliament, the new government in Madrid will have to deal with political and social pressures to slow down, or even reverse, some of the economic reforms implemented since the beginning of the European crisis. It will also be under pressure to break away from some of the measures sponsored by the European Union and applied by the conservative government. Such moves could lead to clashes between Madrid and Brussels next year.

Spain's electoral calendar begins March 22, when the autonomous region of Andalusia will hold regional elections. Municipal elections will then be held May 24 across the country, as well as regional elections in 13 of the country's 17 autonomous regions. On Sept. 27, Catalonia will hold its regional vote. Finally, Spain will hold general elections at some point between late November and late December. (Madrid has yet to schedule a date.)

The political situation is different in each municipality and region. In many cases, the traditional center-right Popular Party and the center-left Socialist Party will be able to stay in power. But an important trend will define the electoral process: the growth of anti-establishment parties. The emergence of two new players — left-wing Podemos, which was created little over a year ago, and centrist Ciudadanos, which has been active since 2006 but saw a surge in popularity over the past six months — has already shaken the Spanish political system. These parties have different ideologies and appeal to different voters, but they share a common theme: Both are the result of a country affected by high unemployment and pervasive corruption scandals.

Combative Regions

The regional elections in Andalusia will present the first test for traditional parties. While the ruling Socialist Party is expected to win, popular support will probably drop. Opinion polls show the Socialists receiving around 34 percent of the vote, from 39.5 percent in the 2012 elections. In the case of the Popular Party, opinion polls show support for the party at around 26 percent, down from 40.7 percent in 2012. The elections in Andalusia will probably lead to a coalition government; the key question is what the alliances will look like. Podemos and Ciudadanos will probably have good performances in the regional elections, and whatever power-sharing agreement is reached could serve as a model for future negotiations across the country.

Polls show that there will also be coalition governments in many of the municipalities and regions that elect their governments in May. Alliances are common in Spanish regions and municipalities, but they tend to be led by one of the large parties with support from smaller players. The 2015 electoral cycle will probably be the first with a political landscape so fragmented that the large players will have to make concessions to the newcomers to stay in power.

The elections could lead to more combative regions as well. Since the beginning of the economic crisis, Madrid has pushed regional governments to reduce their deficits and debts. With new forces entering these governments, the next four years could see renewed clashes between Madrid and the regions.

So far, the four most popular parties are still ambiguous regarding their willingness to form alliances. Podemos, which relies on strong left-wing and anti-system rhetoric, is unlikely to form an alliance with the ruling Popular Party, but it could be open to a pact with the Socialists. The Socialists, in turn, will have to decide whether to ally with Podemos, thus moving significantly to the left, or to seek agreements with the center and the center-right, which would alienate some of their voters. Ciudadanos has been particularly ambiguous when it comes to alliances because its centrist profile makes it a potential partner for parties on both the right and the left.

Catalonia's Push for Independence

The elections in Catalonia will be somewhat different because they will be directly linked to the issue of independence. After the Catalan government failed to organize a binding independence referendum in 2014 — Madrid blocked the idea, forcing Catalonia to hold a nonbinding consultation — the ruling Convergence and Union party decided to call for early elections. Catalonia's goal is to receive a popular mandate to start the process of creating an independent state.

However, the pro-independence parties are as divided as ever. Convergence and Union is pushing for a negotiated independence from Madrid, while the Republican Left is demanding a unilateral declaration of independence. Opinion polls show support for Podemos and Ciudadanos growing in Catalonia, where both receive roughly the third-most popular support. Ciudadanos, which hails from Catalonia, rejects a push for regional independence, while Podemos defends the territorial integrity of Spain but is open to a referendum on independence. A recent opinion poll shows that the Catalans are still split on the issue, with 48 percent rejecting independence and 44 percent supporting it. In this context, Catalonia is unlikely to become independent anytime soon.

Awkward Alliances

Most polls show that a fragmented political landscape will be likely at the national level, with the four largest parties separated by only four percentage points. According to a poll by Metroscopia, if the vote were held today Podemos would receive 22.5 percent, followed by the Socialist Party (20.2 percent), the Popular Party (18.6 percent) and Ciudadanos (18.4 percent). If this scenario plays out in the general elections, then no party will be able to form a government by itself.

This marks a key moment in modern Spanish history. For the first time since the end of the country's dictatorship in the late 1970s, combined support for the two largest parties is below 50 percent. Written in 1978, the Spanish Constitution created a parliamentary monarchy and a unitary system with devolved powers for regional governments. An electoral law was also passed to ensure that the two large center-left and center-right parties would alternate in power. The agreement was the result of a compromise between the country's conservative and socialist forces, which had clashed during the civil war of the 1930s.

This system is now in crisis. Unemployment and recession are a big part of the explanation, since they have led to a significant drop in support for the mainstream parties and, in Catalonia's case, to a re-awakening of separatist sentiment. Pervasive corruption scandals involving the main parties are also part of the explanation, since both Podemos and Ciudadanos are basing their campaigns on the fact that they are new forces that will not repeat the opaque practices of the mainstream parties (though a high-ranking member of Podemos was recently accused of failing to pay taxes).

The next Spanish government will thus probably be a coalition, forcing Spanish leaders to reach agreements in a country that is used to having national governments centered on a strong party. Depending on the degree of fragmentation in the Spanish parliament after the elections, coalition talks could be long or even lead to a new election, similar to what happened in Greece in 2012. (The rise of left-wing, anti-establishment Syriza necessitated two additional elections before the mainstream center-right and center-left formed a grand coalition.)

Starting in 2016, the new government in Madrid will have to deal with a timid economic recovery and high unemployment. But it will also have to deal with calls to slow down or even reverse some of the economic reforms that were introduced since the beginning of the European crisis. Regional governments could also demand a relaxation of Madrid's push for balanced budgets. The next government will have to face these pressures in a fragmented parliament where alliances will be fragile and decision-making difficult.

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