international analysis and commentary

Why this Spanish electoral campaign is different

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The ongoing electoral campaign in Spain is different in many ways from the previous ones in almost forty years of Spanish democracy. It is the first time in over thirty years that the two-party-system is seriously challenged by contenders from outside the duopoly of the center-left PSOE and the conservative Partido Popular.

After recent electoral successes at the European and regional levels, Ciudadanos and Podemos are breaking into the two-party-dominance. The newly formed parties with their leaders Pablo Iglesias and Albert Rivera can be broadly located on the left (Podemos) and the center (Ciudadanos) of the political spectrum depending on the policy area.

Apart from challenging the Constitution, electoral law, political processes and other pivotal fields of the political framework, they also stand for a generational renewal. Both leaders were born after the Franco-dictatorship and therefore symbolize a generation of young non-conformist Europeans. The 60-year-old conservative leader Mariano Rajoy is more than 20 years older than his emerging challengers. This gap is reflected in the voting intentions of young voters. According to the latest polls by Metroscopia, Ciudadanos, led by the 36-year-old Rivera is favored by Spaniards between 18 and 24 with a voting intention of over 14%, followed by PSOE and Podemos. On the other end, the PP only comes fourth with the same age group. As the electoral analyst Francisco Camas points out, Podemos is the highest rated party by students and job seekers whereas Ciudadanos comes first for young professionals.

As of May this year, Podemos was still rated as the second political force at the national level, but since then their approval ratings have fallen, reducing the movement to the forth force in the polls, yet still with comfortable double digits. This may explain to some extent why at the challengers’ debate on November 30 its leader appeared as a confident moderate with nothing to lose. After significant victories at the regional level before the summer, the magic of the democratic grassroots movement has partly vanished. Thus, Pablo Iglesias appeared less passionate and heated than in previous debates and more calm and at times even more “presidential” than previously. It seems as though given his party’s approval ratings he has nothing to lose, yet is determined to get his message across in a more moderate way.

After his success at the regional elections in Catalonia two months ago, the Catalan Albert Rivera has gained momentum and political weight in the electoral campaign. By dismissing the Podemos claims as unrealistic and attacking the continuous alternation of PP and PSOE and their outdated style of politics, he presents himself as a competent pragmatist who is determined to question the status quo whilst making sure to balance the books. As a former member of the Partido Popular, he is determined to wipe out corruption, which has become structural in the intertwined network of the Spanish economy and politics. With this strategy he wants to appeal to both disillusioned former PP voters (like himself) and centrists.

The newly elected leader of the Spanish Socialists Pedro Sánchez is in a difficult position on several fronts. He is attacked by Ciudadanos and Podemos for standing for “old” politics where PP and PSOE leaders have equally been involved in corruption scandals and enjoy close ties with large corporations. Whilst he has to defend socialist achievements when his party was in government, he also needs to cautiously challenge the status quo and present himself as an immaculate new leader with no links to past governments involved in corruptions scandals.

With the emergence of these three challengers, the incumbent Mariano Rajoy has chosen to focus his campaign on his experience and the country’s economic recovery. He will finish his first mandate as Prime Minister with less unemployment than when his predecessor, the socialist Zapatero, left office in 2011. Furthermore, he can be proud of continuous economic growth after imposing severe austerity measures following the economic crisis. Therefore, Rajoy’s strategy is to dismiss the other top candidates as inexperienced and to present himself as the only serious one with the slogan España en serio.

All three challengers recognize the importance of territorial policy given the rising Catalan question. In the new Catalan parliament there is a majority who favor independence from Spain although these parties did not earn a majority in the popular vote in September. Yet, the pro-independence parties are pushing the issue by placing it at the top of the agenda. Sánchez, Iglesias and Rivera are all willing to look at the issue by revising existing laws. All of them want Catalonia to remain part of Spain. Both PSOE and Ciudadanos are against a referendum on independence as it would mean “giving in to those who want to break up Spain”, as they affirm. On the other hand, Iglesias is the only one favoring a popular vote that would let the Catalan people decide their natural affiliation despite the fact that there are no such legal provisions in the Spanish Constitution. However, as the Vice-President of the current government assured on Monday’s TV debate, the PP will not renegotiate any transfer of powers to regional governments. The challengers argue that this attitude is what has inflamed Catalan nationalist sentiments and animosity towards the central government. Thus, unlike the current government, the three challenging parties see a need for dialogue and intend to listen to the new Catalan government once it is officially formed.

A policy area that is largely neglected in this campaign is foreign policy, both by the media as well as by the candidates themselves. On the latest TV debate with the main candidates, the only question related to foreign policy was whether they would send troops to fight ISIS in Syria. PP, PSOE and Ciudadanos made clear that they would only engage in military action with a multilateral mandate and under the condition that it is approved by the Spanish parliament. Iglesias however positioned himself against military involvement referring to the ineffectiveness of previous “wars on terror” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. After the respective positions were clarified, no one saw grounds for further debate.

Thus, the labor market, education, public health, economic growth and territorial policy remain the most important factors in this campaign. Although figures show decreasing unemployment and a slow economic recovery, the “crisis in the minds” has not vanished, as people are still victims of evictions, highly reduced medical care and volatile job security. These factors paired with several corruption scandals of the PP in the past years make the ruling party lose credibility with undecided voters. Election Day will show to what extent this will be a crucial factor at decision time at the ballot box on December 20.