Can Spain leave the two-party system behind?

It has, so far, taken Spain two elections to come up with a new government and a third election is not being ruled out as Rajoy continues to face opposition to the PP forming a government. The elections in December were hailed as a landmark moment when the two-party system that dominated Spain since the return of democracy was finally shattered. Podemos and Ciudadanos both saw success across the country and robbed the PP of its majority in parliament. But after over half a year and another round of elections, the country is yet to see a new government and may end up with the PP, and Rajoy, in charge again anyway. Many voters clearly wanted a change to the political system, but will they get it?

The December 2015 election was the moment when the two-party system, in which the PP and PSOE exchanged power for several decades, crumbled and made way for Podemos and Ciudadanos. However, the excitement quickly turned into frustration as the parties wrangled over who would form a new government. Rajoy and the PP quickly passed the baton over to PSOE to form a government but the socialists were not able to work out a deal with Podemos. After several months, new elections were held in June, in which the PP’s share actually rose to 33% and Podemos scored only slightly better than December at 21%, despite a sharp rise seen in the polls after forming an alliance with another leftist party. Meanwhile, the socialists continued to score poorly, coming in at just 22%.

In the month that has followed this second election, the parties have continued their bickering over who will be the next Prime Minister and how. The King has asked Rajoy to try and form a government but PSOE and their leader Pedro Sanchez stated they do not want Rajoy as Prime Minister and refuse to back him. Podemos will also not back the PP. Ciudadanos could back Rajoy but even with the new party, the PP would not have a majority in parliament. Rajoy has tried to reach out to PSOE but to no avail so far. Spain is again stuck in political limbo as no immediate solution is likely.

Suddenly Spanish politicians are faced with an entirely new political system to which they are not accustomed. Some links can be drawn to the UK in 2010 when the Tories did not manage to get a majority and entered into a coalition with the Lib Dems, breaking down a similar two-party system there (albeit in a very different electoral system). The coalition was disastrous for the Lib Dems who have since seen their support from voters vanish. The party arguably got very little from the government and it appeared to be a Tory government rather than a coalition government.

It makes sense that parties in traditionally two-party systems like the UK and Spain would be very reluctant to enter into a coalition and to give up some of their policies and influence. Parties, and their leaders, need to learn to compromise enough to form a strong government consisting of more than one party that is the norm in many other European countries. The question becomes, are the parties ready for the change that the electorate has delivered?

Other parties have resisted Rajoy’s proposal for a governing program as they said it resembled the PP’s manifesto and thus not taking into account other parties whose votes the PP would require to pass legislation. Rajoy has since tried to find points of agreement and work from there, but if Spain is to have a stable government, then the PP needs to compromise and come to terms with a coalition government.

The problem is not just with the PP. After the December elections PSOE was also not able to form a coalition due to disagreement with Podemos. The two parties openly criticized each other and could not reach an agreement on any kind of coalition government. It’s difficult to see anything different happening this time around if Rajoy cedes to Sanchez the responsibility of forming a government. The situation is thus one in which the Socialists are refusing to back Rajoy but do not currently have any option for governing themselves.

Some are hoping that other parties, namely PSOE, will abstain from a vote on the next Prime Minister in parliament, essentially ushering in a minority PP government. Such a scenario may avoid the current deadlock in the short-term but seems unlikely to solve any problem in the long-term. The parties continue to lack the willpower to work with each other and it’s unlikely they will in parliament. Early elections would be a distinct possibility even though such elections would unlikely change anything. Voters proved in June that they will not run back en masse to the PP and the socialists.

The Spanish voters, many of whom voted for an end to the two-party system, may well end up with the same old two parties calling the shots. Voters can take solace in the fact that at least the change has begun and that the old system where the PP and PSOE win a large portion of the votes is potentially over. As the parties come to terms with the need to work together, hopefully a more stable and coalition-friendly system will develop in the coming years that will see the Spanish government and parliament align more closely to other continental models rather than the UK model.


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