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Spain’s June 26 elections: ‘Life remains the same’

- June 28, 2016
A visitor watches the performance of the Ibex 35 stock index on electronic screens at the Madrid stock exchange on June 27. (Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg)

As discussed here in The Monkey Cage, on June 26, Spain held its second elections in less than six months. And  as predicted, this election didn’t change much in the Spanish political picture.

Here’s what happened, despite the forecasts of some polls: 1) The governing People’s Party (PP) performed better than expected; 2) the new electoral coalition (Unidos Podemos, or UP) between the populist Podemos and the communist United Left (IU) did not manage to improve its December results, and 3) the traditional center-left socialist party (PSOE) consolidated as the main party on the left.

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Although the current distribution of parliamentary seats makes it difficult to imagine how a stable government could emerge, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is considered the sole victor of the electoral contest. So, while the other three relevant contestants lost votes (UP), seats (PSOE), or both (Ciudadanos), the PP managed to boost both its electoral margin (by 4 points) and parliamentary support (adding 14 seats).

The turnout was very low by Spanish standards (69.8 percent), the fourth lowest in the history of Spain’s democracy. The U.K.’s “Brexit” vote, which brought down the Spanish stock market along with markets across the globe, might have left a number of voters undecided on the best option. The low turnout likely harmed the left’s electoral results — this is generally the case in Spain when there are higher levels of voter abstention.

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Here are the three important lessons from Spain’s latest election:

1) ‘Not much’ changed

History can teach us a lot about how both voters and elites behave given a certain similarity in the political context. My previous analysis here in The Monkey Cage showed how voters in repeat elections tend to remain faithful to their previous partisan choices, especially in the absence of major changes in party messages or promises. As a result, electoral volatility — that is, the percentage of change in voters’ preference between two elections — was expected to decrease significantly. For the same reasons, and because parties tried to maximize their electoral support by forging alliances, the number of relevant parties was also expected to decrease and no proper new parties were likely to appear. Finally, because of the lack of enough time for any behavioral change of both voters and elites, the same party was expected to win.

These predictions were quite close to what actually happened, as shown in the figure below. Much like Spain’s 1919 snap elections, the governing party won, gaining both votes and seats.

BERTOA - new, post-election Spain graph 6-27-16

Party System Dynamics in Spain (2015-2016) Data: whogoverns.eu; Figure: Fernando Casal Bértoa

In Sunday’s election, electoral volatility not only decreased roughly 30 points, but at 5.5 percent was the lowest in any Spanish election! Other than the changes noted earlier, the other political forces (the pro-Catalan and pro-Basque independence forces, and the Canarian regionalists) got exactly the same amount of both votes and seats as in the previous election.

Electoral fragmentation also decreased — this means there were fewer political players after the election. On the one hand, no newly created parties presented candidacies in Spain’s June election. On the other, Pablo Iglesias’s Podemos and Alberto Garzón’s IU converged into one big electoral coalition (UP). UP lost 3.2 percent of the combined votes and obtained the same number of seats as Podemos and IU in December, showing how the psychological effects of electoral systems are sometimes more important than their mechanical effects. It shouldn’t be disregarded that while an important number of Podemos young voters didn’t want to go hand-in-hand with the communists, some of these voters consider Podemos’s leader Pablo Iglesias a carpetbagger. UP’s electoral disaster actually was even worse — had they decided to form the electoral coalition for the December elections they would have won 85, not the actual 71, seats.

Last but not least, the decrease observed in the degree of electoral fragmentation was also due to an increase (5 points) in the levels of support for the two main political parties (PP and PSOE), which managed to capture a combined 56 percent of the votes.

2) Not bipartidism … but multi-pactism

Has Spain now returned to bipartidism — with two main parties contending for power? No, bipartidism is certainly off the table. What we will have from now on is multi-pactism, with more than one player per government.

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Because the PP/PSOE “grand coalition” was almost immediately ruled out once again by PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez, Rajoy’s reelection would require the support of at least three more parties (probably Ciudadanos as well as the Basque and Canarian regionalists: PNV and CC) that together have 175 seats, plus the abstention of at least one more deputy (a majority is 176).

Interestingly, the socialist PSOE leader continues to hold the key to Spain’s governability. Any cabinet without PSOE’s (either actively or passively) would be very unstable. However, in clear contrast to what happened after the December election, he has virtually almost no chance of forming a government. That would require not only the support of three more parties plus the abstention of the Basque moderate nationalist (PNV), but an agreement with the extreme-left (UP) and the pro-Catalan independence forces (ERC and CDC). This could be very costly in the next elections.

However, it is extremely unlikely that the PNV will risk taking sides in this political stalemate — either to support PP or to facilitate the appointment of PSOE’s leader. Instead, PNV is likely to focus on the Basque regional elections in October, which, given the June 26 electoral results, promise to be extremely competitive.

3) There is only one way forward

For all these reasons, there seems to be only one solution: namely, a PP-Ciudadanos coalition government with PSOE’s abstention. This coalition would keep Spaniards from heading to the polls again in December. In Spanish history this only has happened once. In modern European history this has happened only six times.

This coalition would enable the formation of a more or less stable minority government (only 7 seats short of a majority) that could draw on the ad hoc support of other political forces, including the PSOE, but also PNV, CC or CDC, for specific governmental projects and/or legislative reforms. And, more importantly, it would give PSOE the possibility not only to exert effective control over government policies, but also to continue exercising its current status as the leader of the opposition. To be clear, it did not have this role guaranteed on Sunday at 8 p.m. when polls closed down as the first exit polls put Unidos Podemos second. Only after the first votes started to be counted the phantom of the sorpasso — UP becoming Spain’s second party — began to fade away.

A PP-Ciudadanos + PSOE coalition constitutes the most plausible option also for the socialists. On the one hand, it would enable the socialists to allow the governability of the country without expressively supporting it. Moreover, it would give PSOE the chance to ask Mariano Rajoy, the current premier, to step down and leave room for a new (PP or not PP) candidate. On the other hand, it would avoid any type of government (i.e., “grand coalition” PP-PSOE, or “great grand coalition” PP-PSOE-Ciudadanos) that would pour more oil upon the flames of the anti-casta (i.e., “anti-establishment”) arguments of the extreme left (UP). Were Spain to opt for any of these last two “cartelization” options, we should expect — like the situation in Greece in January 2015 — a victory of Unidos Podemos in the next elections.

And so, 190 days after the December 2015 elections, “life remains the same” in Spain. These are the famous words of another Iglesias — not Pablo, the politician, but Julio, the singer.