There was little to fundamentally change the game in Spain between the last legislative elections and the elections of June 26. The elections of December 2015 produced institutional deadlock, as they ushered in a uniquely fragmented parliament with four major parties. Yesterday’s vote was provoked by the inability of these political actors to form a coalition government.
Not that Spanish politics had quieted down once it became clear that no government would be formed and that a new election would be called: while new scandals swept the local leadership of the Partido Popular (PP, center-right) and the Socialist PSOE (center-left), Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias managed to coalesce around him all the forces of the extreme left (politically fragmented since the Spanish Civil War).
For a while it seemed that this new Unidos Podemos (United We Can) coalition might break the deadlock, but the result in the polls were disappointing. While the extreme-left consolidated its position, its score remained stable, and together the new coalition was not able to gain more than 2 MPs, despite what seemed to be a positive dynamic in the campaign. The collected vote of the left is therefore too little for Iglesias’ movement to overtake the center-left PSOE (still in disarray, as it hit yet another historic low by losing another 5 MPs) and claim leadership of the left.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the new, liberal Ciudadanos party of Albert Rivera lost votes and MPs, as center-right voters, encouraged by both the institutional deadlock of the past six month and the Brexit results a few days before, put their frustration with the government aside and opted for a “utilitarian” vote, leaving Prime Minister Rajoy’s Partido Popular as the sole winner of the night.
The PP victory, though it should not be overstated, is real: Partido Popular is the only party able to claim significant growth in the popular vote. While the three other parties went through marginal changes (the differential between their scores in December and June is less than one percentage point in each case), PP grew from 28.72 percent to 33.03 percent, thereby gaining 14 seats.
The result is not enough to change the face of Spanish politics, but it gives a decisive advantage to PP, and to Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, whose political survival strategy is based on standing still whatever the weather. Rajoy saw his tactics triumph, as his immobility condemned other players to either useless gesticulation or mimicry, thereby confirming his image as the only sensible choice of prime minister for Spain. By leaving all other political forces at least 10 points behind and opening up options for coalitions, these elections have reinforced Rajoy, just as much as they have weakened his opponents.
Rajoy’s victory may not (yet) be a triumph, although it was never to supposed to be one: the Spanish political landscape is still highly fragmented, the populists are still flying very high, and the mutual distrust among all political leaders will make coalition talks very difficult. This time, however, Rajoy has a dynamic that allows him to claim leadership, and PP’s first place in almost all provinces of Spain, including in half of Andalucia, a PSOE stronghold, reinforces his image as victor capable of bringing Spain together. Whether he is capable of translating this inertial strength into a return to the Moncloa Palace and the prime ministership will depend on his negotiation skills, as coalition talk will now begin. Although the PP leader has usually proven to be much weaker at this type of exercise than in implementing his “standing still strategy,” his relative position of strength may allow him to break the mold and end an institutional crisis that has hurt Spain’s recovery for the past six months.