international analysis and commentary

Local elections in Andalusia: a political transition continues


An era of political change, characterized by rising party fragmentation and coalitional uncertainty, has begun in Spain. This is the picture drawn by the March 22nd snap elections in Andalusia, where the incumbent Socialist Party, which has run the region uninterruptedly since 1982, came out in the most voted party list, but failed to achieve an absolute majority of seats. The Andalusian President, Susana Diaz, must now deal with a more composite and fluid political scenario in which a minority government seems the most likely option since all parties have refused to form a coalition.

A widespread view is that 2015 could give rise to a Southern European “political rebellion” against the Northern European-led economic policies of the EU; a rebellion conducted by new, anti-austerity populist movements aimed at the reconfiguration of political competition through the marginalization, and possibly the replacement, of traditional parties.

Kicked off in January with the victory of SYRIZA in Greece, the earthquake’s shockwaves are expected to hit Spain, the country with the second largest unemployment rate in the EU after, of course, Greece. And the 2014 European elections already proved that the “contagion” has actually reached Spain with the remarkable success of Podemos, a far-left upstart party which won 1.2 million votes (7.1%) and five seats.

Yet the Andalusian elections have revealed that the external cleavage is not the only force now twisting the Spanish political system. And although this was a local contest, run by local candidates and conducted on local issues, its outcome has inevitable countrywide reverberations – at least for two reasons. First: Andalusia is the most populated Spanish region and the third in terms of overall contribution to national GDP (after Catalonia and Madrid), but it also has the third lowest GDP per capita (before Melilla and Extremadura) and the highest unemployment rate (34.2%). All this, coupled with a number of corruption scandals, creates the perfect conditions for the rise of new forces challenging the long-established two-party system.

Second: the electoral calendar makes the Andalusian results become a real turning point for the whole of Spanish politics; the first of a three-stage local electoral process (all other Spanish regions vote in May, and Catalonia in September) that will end before the country’s general elections scheduled between November 2015 and January 2016.

The election’s most important outcome is that although Spain’s two biggest parties, the Socialists (PSOE) and the Popular Party (PP), continue to lose consensus, they have resisted the apparently unstoppable tide of the rampant newcomers, especially Podemos (“We can”) and the brand new party Ciudadanos (“Citizens”). In an assembly of 109 seats, PSOE and PP together have gone from controlling 97 to 80 seats, though still with a quite safe margin vis-à-vis the other lists.

Asymmetries however are evident. PSOE has maintained the 47 seats it got in the previous election, a positive upshot that nobody predicted: it lost over 160,000 votes, yet received a far better result than the PP and the 2014 European elections. On the other hand, the PP has gone back to second position through a painful bleeding: almost half-a-million fewer votes, from 50 to 33 seats. Two reasons explain this diversion. On one hand there is the vast disillusionment with the national government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (PP), his largely contested policies of austerity, and lack of charisma. On the other, all the vast amount of scandals notwithstanding, Diaz has succeeded in capitalizing on the still strong party machinery and mobilizing the bedrock of Andalusia’s socialist voters, located mainly in the region’s rural areas. In other words: the least affluent segment of the population, most of whom work in the agricultural sector and were hit by the economic crisis, and are largely dependent upon the region’s unemployment safety nets.

The electoral fallout is certainly going to affect both parties, though in different ways. As for the PSOE, the vote is like a breath of fresh air: it is reanimated and reinvigorated after years of setbacks. But Diaz’s success can turn into a pyrrhic victory: her leadership is stronger, but the lack of an absolute majority, and the need to find partners in a volatile context, can hamper her aspiration to play a major role at the national level, at least temporarily. As for the Popular Party, the leadership of Rajoy has suffered a huge blow: in spite of official declarations, some party and government officials have recognized that the party’s performance was “much worse than expected”. Should the PP suffer other defeats in the next upcoming May local elections, especially in its strongholds of Madrid and Valencia, Mr. Rajoy’s political future could become very dismal.

The two upstart parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, are the other big winners of the Andalusian elections as they legitimately claim they are the game changers of the whole of Spanish politics. Still with an embryonic party structure, Podemos has almost tripled the votes it took in the 2014 European elections, and with 15 seats is the third largest force in the Andalusian parliament. Its backbone is mainly represented by two groups: young and urban people, generally with a high level of scholarly education but unemployed and disgusted by the widespread corruption; and dissatisfied left-wing voters who believe that more “radical” policies are needed, from both the PSOE and Izquierda Unida (United Left, IU).

IU, the older far-left coalition, is by far the greatest loser of this election. Once a pillar of Andalusian politics, it has lost more than half of its seats (from 12 to 5): implicated in regional corruption scandals, overburdened by a generalized crisis of representation of the trade unions, and especially overwhelmed by the more dynamic and appealing Podemos, IU is now relegated to the gloomy and depressive role of a marginal and irrelevant force, facing the risk of disappearance or absorption.

But some post-electoral disappointment of Podemos was also palpable: some of the surveys expected a turnout of more than 20 seats, and this non-landslide victory has been viewed as a sudden stop. In Andalusia Podemos still has the chance to play the role of hinge party, while at the national level it is certainly bound to grow. Yet, this unexpected bitter-sweet outcome is a further sign of the uncertainty and unpredictability of today’s Spanish politics.

The case of Ciudadanos is even more interesting. Founded a decade ago as a non-nationalist Catalan organization, describing itself as a pragmatic liberal party, in the last year it has gone from being a minor regional player to a credible political alternative. This is mostly due to his young and handsome leader, Albert Rivera, who has turned into a media phenomenon, presented as the centrist, trustworthy and reassuring counterpart of Pablo Iglesias. With an even less developed party structure than Podemos, Ciudadanos has passed from the 46,400 votes (1.74%) of the European elections to almost 370,000 (9.3%), with nine seats in the assembly of Seville. Podemos alike, the support for Ciudadanos comes from the urban areas and from disillusioned voters – in this case, mostly PP’s.

It is quite hard to say what the future holds as few would have predicted such a blurred scenario. The established two-party system is in deep crisis, but still sufficiently resilient to maintain some pattern of left-right competition as well as of institutionalized interaction between “old” and “new” forces. One aspect is very clear: coalition-making strategies in Andalusia will surely be the harbinger of what is going to happen in Spanish politics before, as well as after, the next general elections.

A Greek-like scenario, with Podemos relegating not only IU but also the PSOE to a secondary level and competing with the PP for the national government, seems today a bit more far away. But what the Andalusian elections have showed is that, like in any transitional process, whoever is better equipped to shape overall uncertainty is going to be the one with the greatest chances to rule in the years to come.