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Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos. Source: Wikimedia

Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos. Source: Wikimedia

The result of the Spanish election is a major breakthrough for the left in Spain and beyond

As the exit polls flashed up on the screen the crowd at the Podemos election night gathering broke out in shouts of "remontada" "the come back". Surely Podemos supporters were thinking or shouting the same thing. The polls had not looked good for them at the start of the campaign. The final result was a stunning surge which, brought Podemos in third, only 1.5 points behind the Socialist Party (PSOE)

It is the Socialists worst result since the restoration of democracy in 1977. They have paid a heavy price for their acceptance of the politics of austerity.

Surge by the left

The left wing surge has swept the country.

Podemos topped the polls in Catalonia and the Basque Country. They came second in the economically developed Madrid and Valencia regions. The PSOE came first in Andalusia (the country's most populous region) where their administration has been rocked by corruption scandals and managed to hold onto its top place across the underdeveloped south.

In Catalonia Podemos romped home 10 points ahead of the 2nd place party, the Republican Left. The Esquerra or ERC as it is known, is a nationalist party dating back to the Civil War era. For a long time following the restoration of democracy it played second fiddle to the CiU party of Arturo Mas which dominated politics in the region. They slid back into fourth place on Sunday. Arturo Mas suddenly looks a lot less likely to regain his position as President of the region, blocked since the election there in September by the the anti-capitalist CUP party.

In the Basque Country Podemos beat the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) which has dominated the region's politics for decades. It EH Bildu, a left nationalist party, took 15% of the vote.

The Communist Party centred Popular Unity - United Left (UP-IU) was squeezed almost out of existence winning only two seats. It ran a good campaign led by the 30 year old Alberto Garzon but in the end took just 3.7% of the vote (a big drop on the 7% it received in 2011). Even this was not expressed in seats. The form of PR used in Spain tends to advantage big parties or those with votes concentrated in particular provinces. Hence in this election it took 10 times as many votes to elect a IU MP than a Basque Nationalist Party member.

This is not only a setback for the Popular Unity, the debacle has weakened the whole left. There had been talks in October with Podemos on forming a single list, but these broke down in rancour. If the United Left’s votes had gone to such a Podemos-led list it would have come second to the PP and beaten the Socialist Party. Those votes would have also have brought some 15 seats rather than two, giving Podemos 84 seats to the Socialists 90. It would have seriously changed the balance of power.

The populist right bombs

Ciudadanos (Citizens), a new centre-right populist party, led by the 36 year old Albert Rivera, did badly. Polls had predicted them coming third or even second. In fact they look like scraping in fourth with just 14% of the vote. They even bombed in their home region of origin Catalonia. Where they came in fifth.

They are often referred to as the the ‘Podemos of the right’. This is true in that it is a new force, outside of the traditional two-party system which wanted to harness general anger at the political class.

They are nothing like Podemos though. Podemos was the product of a mass movement starting from M15 protests and moving through new social movements such as the Mareas (Waves). These mobilised hundreds of thousands in activity. Podemos now has 350,000 members.

Ciudadanos is regarded by many as an operation by the establishment and media to undermine Podemos by using the rhetoric of empowering citizens, but to right wing ends. Endlessly hyped by the media it has proven to have few roots in society and could not put feet on the streets.

Who will rule?

The old two-party system has been blown apart. The two big parties used to get 80% of the vote between them. In 2011 they received 73%. In this election they only just scraped over 50%. But the two old parties are still there and will play decisive roles in the coming political crisis.

The formation of a government will now be difficult and politically explosive.
The right wing Popular Party of sitting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy came first with little more than a quarter of the vote. It will have just 123 seats far short of the 176 needed for a majority. Ciudadanos, having promised not to vote for Rajoy for PM in parliament but have also promised to abstain in any such vote , thereby in practise lending their votes to the Popular Party. But even with the Ciudadanos MPs they can only muster 163 seats, 13 short of a majority and not enough to elect a Prime Minister. Both parties are vehemently opposed to the national aspirations of the Basques and Catalans, and with those regions moving to the left, are unlikely to get any help from those quarters.

A government of the lefts?

The 'lefts' as they are referred to, the PSOE, Podemos and the United Left, have 161 seats, 15 short of a majority, but are more likely to be supported by the nationalist parties.

The idea of a government of the 'lefts' seemed highly unlikely only a few months ago, but the balance of power on the left has shifted radically, PSOE and the centre right nationalists losing out to Podemos and its allies.

A similar situation occurred in Portugal in October when the right wing party came first but lost votes and lacked a majority in Parliament. They were forced from power by the left voting together against them once a deal had been don for an alternative left government. The Socialist Party formed an administration supported by the Communist Party and Left Bloc who did not join it but support it in Parliament.

However despite this being discussed by the media, and polls suggesting it to be a popular idea with voters of the left, there are formidable obstacles to it. PSOE is opposed to allowing a referendum in Catalonia, a key demand of Podemos electoral base in a region, where it topped the polls. Iglesias himself has said that Podemos is interested in constitutional reform, not pacts.

The alternatives are no better for anyone really. Whilst for Podeoas governing with PSOE would be a poison chalice, for PSOE an arrangement with either the Popular Party or Ciudadanos would be equally toxic.

It's hard to see how any government based on the current arrangement of seats would last long, forcing a second election, a second roll of the dice that all might start aligning themselves for. Then a government of the lefts might come back onto the agenda, but with a different array of forces behind it.

Movement for change

The situation may take weeks to resolve itself.

But the old political system has been broken and a new anti-austerity left which wants to completely redraw the way society is run has made a stunning breakthrough.
It is clear from huge numbers mobilised by Podemos in the campaign, especially in its massive rallies made it clear that this is a mass popular movement for change.
The movement against austerity has just stepped up a gear as the demand for alternatives starts to become a serious movement to change society in one of Europe’s largest countries. 

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.

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