Spanish Political Scene: A New Mould After 40 Years Of Democracy

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William Chislett | Between 1982 and 2015, when two upstart parties, the at-the-time centrist Ciudadanos (Citizens) and the populist-left Podemos (We Can), won a significant number of seats in parliament, political life was dominated by two parties, the conservative Popular Party (PP) and the Socialists. They alternated in power and all but two of their governments lasted their full four-year term.

UCD, that oversaw the transition, had collapsed in the 1982 election when the Socialists were swept to power with 202 seats and the neo-Francoist Popular Alliance (the PP as of 1989) won 97 seats, pushing it into third place with just 11 (down from 165 in 1977 and 168 in 1979).

The combined votes of the Socialists and AP/PP in general elections between 1982 and 2015 varied between a high of 84% in 2008 and a low of 51% in the December 2015 election when the mould of Spanish politics was broken. In that election, the PP under Mariano Rajoy won 123 of the 350 seats, its lowest number since 1989, the Socialists 90, their worst performance, Podemos 42 and Cs 40. This produced a deadlocked parliament as parties failed to agree the formation of a new government of any persuasion and a fresh election was held in June 2016. The PP won again but its 137 seats were still far from an absolute majority (176). The Socialists were in second place (84), with an even worse result than in 2015, and Unidos Podemos (71) was not far behind.

The PP remained in power, but as a minority government, thanks to parliamentary support from Ciudadanos. It only lasted, however, until June 2018 (the next election was not due until July 2020) when it lost a no-confidence motion in parliament triggered by the Socialists, backed by an unholy alliance of Podemos and Catalan and Basque nationalists, after a court found the PP had benefited from kickbacks in a long-running corruption case known as Gürtel. The court also cast doubt on the evidence given to it by Rajoy in 2017.

The censure motion was brought by Pedro Sánchez, the Socialists’ leader, who took over from Rajoy after claiming that more than 900 PP politicians had been under investigation in a slew of corruption cases. For a Prime Minister to fall, the constitution requires that a majority of the parliament backs an alternative candidate. The transfer of power as a result of the unprecedented censure motion was carried out in an exemplary fashion, underscoring the maturity of Spain’s democracy.

The 63-year-old Rajoy bowed out of politics and was replaced, after a primary election, as party leader by the 37-year-old Pablo Casado who moved the PP to the right. All four leaders of the main parties are now ‘post-Franco’, as they were either not born when the dictator died in 1975 (the case of Casado, Podemos’s leader Pablo Iglesias and C’s Albert Rivera) or were just three years old in the case of Sánchez…..

At the heart of the erosion of the two-party system was anger at a long succession of corruption scandals in the political class (mainly the PP and the Socialists and chiefly during the 1997-2007 boom period) and the impact of a long recession with an unequal effect on the population. Even the Royal Family was not free of corruption: King Juan Carlos’s son- in-law, Iñaki Urdangarín, was jailed in June 2018 for almost six years after he was convicted of graft.

The long-running scandal, which took seven years to come to court, contributed to the decision of Juan Carlos to abdicate in 2014 in favour of his son Felipe, a move that probably saved the monarchy. Since then King Felipe VI has greatly improved the monarchy’s popularity: his approval rating of 75.3% four years after his father’s abdication was slightly above the high point of Juan Carlos’s rating in 1995.

Until the recession Spain had been a socially mobile society: today’s younger generation is the first one in a very long time that is poorer than its parents. Trust in the political class, viewed as an extractive elite, particularly in the interface between local politicians and construction companies seeking public contracts, and in state institutions plummeted. Spain experienced one of the steepest declines in confidence in national governments between 2007 and 2014, according to the OECD. Confidence fell 27 percentage points to 21% compared with a decline in the average for OECD countries from 45.2% to 41.8%. Evidence shows that trust in government is negatively correlated with the perceived levels of corruption in government. Spain’s score in the corruption perception index drawn up by the Berlin-based Transparency International dropped from 65 out of 100 in 2012 (the nearer to 100 the cleaner the country) to 57 in 2017, the largest drop after Hungary, and its position in the ranking of countries fell from 30th to 42nd, albeit still well above Italy

Corruption is not in our cultural DNA nor in that of the political parties’, said a report published in 2018 by the Círculo de Empresarios, a business lobby. ‘It is in our institutional DNA: public organisations strongly controlled by the governing political parties, which lack the weights and counterweights of power that oversee the integrity and impartiality of public action’. The report draws a distinction between the lack of confidence in public institutions and the notably high degree of confidence in the public administrations that provide services, such as health. Spain is also ranked relatively low in the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, which comprises eight categories including constraints on government powers and absence of corruption

The high degree of disaffection shown in opinion polls with public institutions –parliament, the body overseeing the judiciary, regulatory bodies, the Court of Auditors– that were colonised by the two main political parties and consequently failed to fulfil their accountability role, does not mean that the majority of Spaniards want a break with what Podemos calls the ‘regime of 1978’ in reference to the democratic constitution of that year, but they would like an overhaul.

Spaniards might find it hard to believe, given their discontent with their political elite, but the country is among the world’s 19 ‘full democracies’ in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, though only just, and is ahead of the US and France.

About the Author

The Corner
The Corner has a team of on-the-ground reporters in capital cities ranging from New York to Beijing. Their stories are edited by the teams at the Spanish magazine Consejeros (for members of companies’ boards of directors) and at the stock market news site Consenso Del Mercado (market consensus). They have worked in economics and communication for over 25 years.