People in Spain have had something to take their minds off Christmas shopping recently. On Sunday they have the chance to vote in what is the most interesting parliamentary election in western Europe for some time. Not that you’ll have read too much about it in the mainstream media here. With no credible eurosceptic or far right party in sight, journalists have barely raised a flicker of interest.
They should. For, instead of just one insurgent party, Spain has two. In England/Wales/Cornwall and France right wing populist parties have hoovered up growing numbers of votes since the economic crisis of 2008; in Greece Syriza came from nowhere to become the governing party, while in Portugal the radical left has also increased its support. In Italy meanwhile, Beppe Grillo, a comedian, has led the Five Star Movement to become the second party of the land. This is less easily pigeonholed – environmentalist, anti-globalist and eurosceptic.
These diverse cases all have one thing in common. They’re fiercely anti-establishment. In Spain Podemos was born in 2014 out of the indignados protest movement against austerity politics. Led by Pablo Iglesias, it’s close to Syriza, with more than a whiff to it of the Corbynista surge in and around the Labour Party.
In 2013-14 a series of corruption scandals hit the Spanish ruling class. Business leaders, bureaucrats and top members of both the ruling Popular Party (PP) and the opposition Socialist Party (PSOE) were charged with money-laundering, embezzling and misuse of credit cards. All this while, as in the UK, the poorest were paying the biggest price for heartless austerity politics.
Spain’s own version of the Italian Tangentopoli scandal of the 1990s, which ripped apart the Italian political system, has not been as far reaching. But it give a huge boost to a second insurgent party – the Cuidadanos (Citizens or C’s) – which shot up in the polls in late 2014. This is a centre-right party specifically opposing corruption.
The origin of the C’s lay in Catalonia, where the party describes itself as ‘postnationalist’, which means anti-Catalan nationalism. The wider corruption scandals, which swept up some leading members of Catalonia’s ruling regionalist party, Convergencia (CiU), allowed the C’s to become the biggest anti-Catalan nationalist formation in the Catalan parliamentary elections earlier this year.
Opinion polls indicate that the combined vote for the PP and PSOE may fall below 50%. The PSOE has been unable to benefit from ‘pendulum voting’ first because some of its leading members have also been implicated in the corruption scandals and secondly, because of its record when in government from 2008 to 2011. Then, like the British Labour Party, it offered little resistance to austerity politics and no alternative vision. Meanwhile, the PP has avoided complete meltdown. This is mainly due to the fact that, unlike Greece, the Spanish economy is currently growing by 3% a year after the severe recession of 2008-12. The PP can therefore claim its austerity politics work, at least for the moment.
When the media here do mention the Spanish election it’s in terms of this four-way battle between the two established and the two insurgent parties. But actually, in many regions it’s a five-way battle. At the last election in 2011, assorted regionalist parties won 38 of the 348 seats in the Spanish parliament, their best result for some time. Opinion polls are now suggesting this might fall to between 24 and 31 seats, but polls in 2011 underestimated the regionalist/nationalist vote and it may be similar this time.
Let’s look at the regions with regionalist/nationalist party representation. Catalonia is the key region. Here, pro-independence parties narrowly won the Catalan parliamentary elections earlier this year. However, they tend to do worse at the Spanish level. Moreover, the governing centre-right CiU, with 16 seats in the Spanish parliament, is tainted by corruption. This time, it’s fighting under the umbrella label Democracy and Liberty, together with a couple of smaller Catalan parties. The Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) is set to benefit and may see an improvement on its current three seats if CiU lose votes to the left. Meanwhile, the Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC), a Christian Democratic and nationalist party, has broken away from Convergencia and is presenting its own list.
In the Basque Country, the nationalist vote seems to be holding up, with the C’s making little impact. In the 2011 election the centre-right Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) found itself for the first time with fewer seats (5) than the nationalist and radical Basque left (6), which had gathered under the banner of Amaiur. Amaiur has now become EH Bildu and is again challenging the PNV to become the main Basque party. In Navarre, each party has a single seat, although here the PNV resides within the slightly broader coalition Geroa Bai.
The third region with regionalist party representation is Galicia. The Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG) has had a couple of seats for some years. But in 2012, the BNG coalition suffered a split, accused by some of drifting too far towards the centre. It lost supporters and a third of its vote mainly to the anti-capitalist Anova. In this election Anova joins with Podemos and Spanish United Left (IU) in a left coalition.
The final regions where regionalist parties won seats in 2011 are the Canaries, Valencia and Aragon. The Canarian Coalition, a conservative regionalist party, has for long been represented in the Spanish parliament, although its support has steadily slipped since 2000. It’s standing again.
In Valencia, the regionalists of the Valencian Nationalist Bloc, now part of the Commitment Coalition, won their first seat for some time in 2011 as part of a wider coalition with Greens and the IU. This time, it’s joined an even wider coalition with Podemos. As well as joining with leftist nationalists in Valencia and Galicia, Podemos favours a referendum on Catalan independence and overlaps with the regionalist parties. However, competition from a separate Podemos list in Aragon means that the Aragonese Union (CHA), an eco-socialist and federalist party that won a seat in 2011 in an alliance with IU, may well lose that seat this time.
With a large proportion of the electorate in Spain and its regions declaring they are don’t knows, this election is difficult to predict. Will Spain’s relatively healthy economic growth prove more critical than its chronically high unemployment rate? Will Catalonia’s quest for independence reinvigorate nationalist/regionalist formations elsewhere or will it trigger an anti-regionalist backlash? Will those sickened by the endemic high-level corruption turn to the C’s or the more radical Podemos? Will Podemos’ surge in the polls during the campaign translate into votes?