Spanish liberals have everything to play for

The morning after the Spanish General election,  those of us who follow Spanish politics suffered from a sore head. The electorate gave no clear direction when the votes were counted last week, with the previous governing party winning first place, but with far fewer seats and votes and no viable combination of parties able to group together to form a stable government.

Those of us who  two weeks ago  had dreamed that Spain’s new centrist party, Ciudadanos, were about to break the mould and become, if not a governing party, at least the kingmakers, can be forgiven for being disappointed with the result. But put into perspective, a party that four years ago did not exist on a national level, with no infrastructure and a single issue policy platform, has burst onto the scene with 40 deputies in Congress, gaining 14 per cent of the vote.

There will now follow weeks of horse trading to try to build a government out of such a fractured parliament. Rajoy, as ever a poor imitation of Angela Merkel, initially seemed to open the door to a grand coalition with the Socialists, with his call for a stable government with a majority. A pact between the two largest parties is the only combination that could provide a majority government without an unwieldy coalition of small parties. But such a coalition would surely undermine the raison d’etre of the Socialist Party as an anti-Conservative force.

The Socialists and the hard-left Podemos may try to govern, but an agreement will not be easy to achieve and would govern without a majority in Congress. Ciudadanos will almost certainly not now play a role in any government as a pact with Podemos is unthinkable and they have consistently said they will not deal with the two old parties unless fundamental reforms can be delivered to the constitution and against corruption. Besides which, C’s do not have the seats to provide any partner with a majority.

All parties must now be looking at further elections in a few months to try to break the stalemate in Congress. New elections would be a chance for Ciudadanos to build on their progress of 20 December.

The temptation in the party might be for a rightward shift to try to appeal to those voters who a few weeks ago told the opinion polls they were voting C’s, only to return to the PP. We can expect some in the party to talk openly about strategies to ensure the party becomes a conservative coalition partner to keep Podemos out of power. The party’s leader, Albert Rivera, must resist these calls and continue the policy of equidistance between the PP and Socialists.

My sense is that C’s didn’t achieve a higher vote share because they are seen by many as an establishment party in a country crying out for change. Albert Rivera signalled last night that his priorities would be to try to reach a consensus with other parties to achieve electoral reform and improvements to the education system. This must be the right strategy, to focus on achievable, concrete steps that can achieve lasting reforms.

Looming over everything is Catalonia. The region also still has no government after the elections of September gave no grouping a majority. If current premier, Artur Mas, cannot be sworn in by January then new elections will be called there too. C’s are currently second place in Catalonia, but saw their position fall back in the general election, with Podemos winning in the region. If new elections are called then C’s may once again become a magnet for anti-nationalist voters.

It’s tempting to be seduced by the idea of Big Bang politics, where the old order is swept away on a tide of hope, New Labour 1997 style. In truth political change is rarely like that. The Spanish Congress now has 40 liberal voices when previously it had precious few. The old duopoly is proving resistant to change, but change is inevitable and C’s will be at the forefront of bringing that about. Congratulations to Albert Rivera and C’s for entering Congress for the first time. We’re all looking forward to seeing what happens next.

[Did you know that there is a Lib Dem in Spain group? If you support the party and live in Spain then do join them.]

* Martin Petts is a Liberal Democrat member living in Barcelona, Spain

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4 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 29th Dec '15 - 12:56pm

    I would have struggled to vote for a party that didn’t support a referendum on Catalonia independence. They’ve even gone to the extent of organising their own unofficial referendum in the past. It’s time for a referendum.

    I wouldn’t have voted for Podemos either, but who knows how many votes support for a referendum won them?

  • Tony Greaves 29th Dec '15 - 2:56pm

    Ciudadanos are certainly centrists, if a bit to the right of centre, and they are certainly one of the agents for the desirable trend for the break-up of the recently traditional and increasingly arid left-right duopoly in Spanish politics. Whether they are Liberals is rather more debatable. (I should say that if I’d had a vote I would probably voted for Podemos, at least in much of Spain, though not with any bright-eyed enthusiasm).

    Tony Greaves

  • The continued uncritical praise for C’s is beginning to get irritating. How, exactly, is refusing to allow Catalans the same right to vote on their future that the Scots enjoyed “liberal”. How, exactly, is agreeing to abstain to allow continued rule by Rajoy and his gang of thieves “liberal”?

    I would agree that SOME of the C’s policies are positive, but, at base, they are a conservative party which supports the sort of austerity policies followed by Osbourne and co. during our ill-fated coalition.

    Again, the dismissal of Podemos as “extremists” is far too simplistic. This is a party that managed to get over 20% of the vote, despite funding their campaign exclusively with small contributions from individuals and with “micro-loans” from supporters. ALL the other parties — including C’s — relied on large contributions from corporations and from large loans from friendly banks. I wonder if the people writing these pro-C’s articles have even READ the Podemos program. There’s certainly no sign of it in their articles — just a trite condemnation of the party (and, thus, of the 1/5th of the Spanish population who voted for them!) as “extreme-left”…

    In fact, Podemos is a very broad coalition of left-of-centre forces including democratic socialists, environmentalists, local anti-corruption activists, and, yes, good, old-fashioned liberals. There’s no doubt that there are also some former members of the IU (Communists) and even a few anarchists. It’s such a broad coalition that, in many ways, attending meetings reminded me a lot of the Young Liberals of the 1970s!

    I really would like to see a little more objectivity in the treatment of Spanish politics here…

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