Insurgents vs stabilisers: Spanish politics post-Brexit

The Spanish have spoken and dealt a blow to Podemos. The stabilising forces in government now have a last chance to take a stronger leadership role in the EU.

In an age of fear and frustration, insurgent parties threaten to turn politics in Europe upside down – some of them hoping to undermine the EU project along the way. Ironically, Spain is one of the countries that since 2011 has served as a prime example of insurgent politics, especially for the left. Even so, the recent elections show that Spain has decided to give one more, though highly conditional, opportunity to mainstream parties. The country, hobbled by political crisis and high unemployment, remains a stubborn outlier among EU countries in the absence (so far) of any strong Europhobic and xenophobic parties.

The traditional pro-European attitude of Spaniards has been dented in recent years by the eurozone and the EU’s perceived unethical reaction to the refugee crisis, among other things. Nonetheless, the future government in Madrid that will emerge from last week’s polls does have an opportunity to use the Brexit debacle in the UK and the chaotic domestic politics engulfing key member states such as Poland and France, to reclaim a leadership position in protecting (and reforming) the European project.

Stabilisers vs insurgents

The outcome of the nation-wide elections held in Spain last Sunday 26 June defied most predictions. The elections, which were held to break the six month period of deadlock that has come with Spain’s hung Parliament after the last elections in December. These elections might just have achieved that objective – albeit barely. The wins by the Partido Popular (PP), led by Mariano Rajoy, and the losses incurred by Podemos have left pollsters scratching their heads.

Pre-election polls had foretold two things: another victory of the ruling but battered conservative PP, together with a wide sorpasso of the equally battered PSOE (social-democrats) by the leftist coalition led by Podemos, encompassing left-wing and regional parties. They were correct on the former prediction, though they underestimated the scale of mobilisation of PP voters, and the magnitude of the loss Podemos faced. In a context of lower turnout (nearing 70 percent, which is low for Spanish standards) and a favourable electoral system, PP won by a larger margin than in December (33 percent, 137 seats) – even if they lost some 3 million votes since elections in 2011. The elections give a boost of legitimacy to the resilient PP, in spite of their huge corruption scandals. The result also provides a life raft for Rajoy, whose political future had been hanging in the balance.

Podemos is the loser this time, throwing the party into its first real crisis since their emergence onto the Spanish political scene in the 2014 European Parliament elections. The factors behind Podemos’ loss of support are probably manifold, ranging from public disaffection with insurgent politics, the dizzying amount of spin that their political campaign involved, low mobilisation of their voters in the cities under their control, such as Madrid or Barcelona, and of social-democratic voters that are concerned with the growth of leftist populism.

PSOE reaped a last minute victory in defeat, defying polls that had predicted a historical relegation of the erstwhile dominant PSOE. In the end the Socialists largely stood their ground, finishing second and garnering around 23 percent of the vote and 85 seats. A moral, but bittersweet victory for the party and its leader, Pedro Sánchez, who saw his chances of becoming prime minister more or less evaporate, while the challenges to his leadership have barely subsided. Nonetheless, PSOE has been afforded a last, but precious chance to revive the project of a pro-European, social democratic option in Spain.

Back to deadlock?

While the PP won, the jury is still out on whether Spain will be able to form a government. The numbers mean that a centre-right bloc might be more likely, with perhaps a minority PP government. The spotlight is again on the PSOE, caught between a rock and a hard place. The party is still rejecting the possibility of any grosskoalition with PP and Ciudadanos. But the Socialists can ill afford to be perceived as the hurdle to Spain’s governance, nor can they easily join forces with a Podemos whose leadership has done everything possible to undermine the PSOE and its leadership.

The country is defined by competing political cleavages, be they generational – with younger voters overwhelmingly rallying behind new parties – territorial, or based on the level of desire for democratic regeneration. The emergence of new parties largely springs from a sense of malaise with the regular constitutional and institutional cycle –a malaise that has deepened due to rampant corruption. Spain, nonetheless, is failing to manage this plurality, and instead further polarising society.

Unless the political poles can overcome their differences and mutual distaste of each other, Spain will remain hobbled domestically – unable to agree on much needed reforms – and internationally. The debate about “the losers from globalisation” that has been used to explain the majority English and Welsh votes for Brexit is also present in Spain, where there is a struggling lower-middle class and rising inequality. Similar social segments easily flock nowadays to Podemos (or remain out of institutional politics altogether). The social urgency that galvanised Podemos voters is still there in Spain and the elites are failing to tackle it. Just like in the EU, maintaining the status quo and continuing on the same path simply will not do.

The bickering leaders that make up Spain’s elite, whether in Madrid or in Barcelona, now have a significant responsibility ahead of them to breathe new life into Spain’s politics, build social and political cohesion, and tackle the challenges facing these struggling generations – young and old alike.

A precious chance for Spanish euro-leadership after Brexit

The challenges Spain faces are similar to those besetting Brexit Europe. Spanish elites must take a hard look at both Spain’s role in the EU and what Spain can contribute to lift the Union from its worst ever existential crisis and reform it to deal with the challenges of today.

Spain remains committed to EU integration, though not as enthusiastically as in the past. The EU emerging from Brexit, the eurozone crisis and enlargement is a very different, less protective creature than the one Spanish signed up to 30 years ago. Tough negotiations with the EU in the near future on Spain’s economy will testify to this and could negatively impact Spanish pro-EU sentiment. Merely repeating the phrases of old about integration, deepening and common positions (which Spanish parties are so fond of), will not be enough.

However, this less EU friendly context is an opportunity as well as a challenge, and provides the impetus for Spain to engage more in issues of foreign and security policy, in spite of its coalition brinkmanship and continuing domestic challenges. Spain has invested in targeted areas of European integration, such as eurozone governance and the Energy Union – these should be part of a priority road map in the EU for any Spanish government. While tragically slashing development cooperation, Madrid has also engaged sensibly in security and defence initiatives and missions in the east and the Sahel, and has provided sustained support to the recently unveiled EU Global Strategy.

The previous government set in motion a new Security Strategy that re-structured security bodies and dotted Spain with a National Security Department. It also invested in a new Foreign Policy Strategy, though the political vision underpinning it still seems flimsy. In military terms, Spain looks increasingly to Sahel as a strategic territory, investing in CSDP missions there, in the alliance with France against jihadism and in power projection tools in Mali and Senegal. Madrid has also regained credibility as a NATO ally, beefing up the eastern Flank in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, meddling in Ukraine, and its aggressive posture emerging from these events.

Rebuilding the EU and its foreign policy ambitions go hand in hand with the objective of Spanish domestic political regeneration. Old and new democratic forces, in or out of government, have an opportunity – but also the responsibility – to kick-start Spanish initiative in the EU – especially when European statesmanship is most needed.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow

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