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The 2015 Spanish General Election: How a Sea Change May Not Yet Have Reached the Shore of Spanish Politics

Written by Nathan Jones.

The 2015 Spanish general election could mark a critical juncture in Spanish politics.  Spain’s two main political parties, the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Party) and the PP (People’s Party) are, for the first time since the transition to democracy, facing the prospect of attracting less than fifty percent of the vote between them.  This is unprecedented in recent Spanish history, and has led to talk of radical change in the political landscape of Spain.

Since 1977, Spanish elections have been dominated by two parties: the UCD (Democratic Centre Union) and the PSOE up until the 1982 election, and subsequently the PSOE and the PP (known as AP from 1977-1989).  These parties accounted for more than two thirds of the vote between them at every general election, and more than eighty percent of the seats in the Spanish Congress, with the sole exception of 1977.  Even during this election, the percentages were just one point below these figures.  (See http://www.electionresources.org/es/index_en.html for full details of Spanish general election results).

In the wake of the 2011 general election, however, the PSOE and PP have come under increasing pressure from Podemos and Ciudadanos, both of which have criticised the corruption and economic management of the two main parties.  The rise in popularity of Podemos and Ciudadanos has been reflected first by the results of the 2014 European elections, and second by the worst local election results for the governing PP in more than two decades.  Despite the poor results for both the PP and PSOE in both of these elections, they still maintained their positions of first and second respectively.  This calls into question just how much of a breakthrough Podemos and Ciudadanos can expect at the general election.

Podemos initially looked as though it would threaten the hemogeny of the PSOE and PP in Spanish politics.  The two main parties gained just under fifty percent of the vote between them in the 2014 European elections, representing a drop of thirty percent compared to 2009; while Podemos, in its inaugural European election, obtained eight percent of the vote, which gained it five seats in the European Parliament.  The success of Podemos in capturing votes was attributed to the fact that it does ‘not overly define [itself], so as to bring together left, right and centre to address the real issues that concern people, such as the cuts, corruption, unemployment, housing’A poll published in March 2015, which placed the party first in the event of a general election being held at that time, highlighted the unprecedented rise of Podemos, thus strengthening claims that the party would be able to play a very significant role in the formation of the next government.

Following the local elections in May, however, support for Podemos has declined.  This can be attributed partly to the allegations of corruption levelled at members of Podemos, who had placed an anti-corruption agenda at the heart of party policy.  More notably, it can be explained by the fact that Podemos did not manage to come second in any of Spain’s regions during the local elections.  This forced the party into local coalitions with the PSOE to counter the PP, thus associating it with one of the very parties that it has so heavily criticised.  Even more significantly, the PP and PSOE have sought to portray Podemos as an extreme left party, which, combined with concerns among Spanish voters about the party’s similarities to Syriza, has reduced support from more moderate voters.

Moderate voters who are disinclined to vote for the status quo have shifted their support from Podemos to Ciudadanos.  Like Podemos, Ciudadanos wants to change Spanish politics, but without adopting the anti-austerity message promoted by its rival.  Instead, Ciudadanos seeks to follow economic policies of the centre right, while tackling the corruption which has left many voters disenchanted with the governing PP.  The appeal of Ciudadanos to many of Spain’s more centrist voters provides an alternative choice at the ballot box, and it seems that this party is more likely to challenge the PP and PSOE for outright victory in the general election on 20 December.

It will be difficult for either Podemos or Ciudadanos to win the election.  The PP and PSOE were still the top two parties at the local elections in May, albeit attracting only twenty-seven and twenty-five percent of the vote share respectively.  Podemos, despite finishing a strong third, has yet to achieve its objective of overtaking the PSOE to be a clear alternative party of government, while Ciudadanos attracted only six percent of the vote nationally.  The latest predictions for the general election suggest that both could play an important role in determining the composition of the next government.  It is, however, Ciudadanos which seems better placed to have the greatest influence, since it is currently forecast to finish in second place, just 0.1 percentage point behind the PP and the same margin ahead of the PSOE.

If this turns out to be the scenario after the election, Spanish politics will have reached a critical juncture, albeit without the radical change that some might have anticipated.  The old parties would retain substantial influence and power, but would be forced to form a coalition or pact with either Ciudadanos or Podemos.  Should the most recent poll turn out to be accurate, Ciudadanos would hold the balance of power, which would make a seismic shift in Spanish politics less likely.  Ciudadanos has yet to present policies which differ markedly from those of the PP, yet many voters now seem more comfortable voting for this party, rather than for the radical movement represented by Podemos.  A sea change in Spanish politics may, therefore, remain beyond the horizon.

Nathan Jones is a former PhD student with the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: CC by Gilad Rom/Flickr.

Published inEuropean Politics

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