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 “Spanish Sudoku”: The Long and Troubled Road Towards New Elections


The last Spanish general election was held on Sunday 20 December 2015. More than 120 days have passed and yet, Spain still doesn’t have a government. Since 1977, two big parties have dominated the Spanish political life: the People’s Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE). These two parties accounted for more than two thirds of the votes at every general election, and more than eighty percent of the seats in the Spanish Congress. The only exception was in 1977. Over the past ten years, the born and rise of two new political movements, the populist anti-austerity leftwing Podemos (“We Can”) and the liberal Ciudadanos (“Citizens”), has completely changed the Spanish political scene.

Who’s in the Parliament?

As a matter of fact, the latest elections did not designate a clear winner. The Congress of Deputies counts 250 seats. In order to have the majority, a party should hence reach 176 seats. The last elections led to a “hung parliament” with no clear majority.

The People’s Party, guided by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, emerged as the most popular (28,7%, 123 seats). Yet, it was the worst result since 1989 with a loss of 16% and 64 seats in comparison with the previous mandate. PSOE, the leading opposition party, comes second (22%, 90 seats) but, here again, it is the party’s worst result since the Spanish transition to democracy (1975) with a loss of 7% and 20 seats. Newcomers Podemos and Ciudadanos came in third and fourth position 20% (69 seats) and 13,9% (40 seats) each. The historic leftwing United Left (IU) obtained only 2 seats and 3,6% of the votes. Different regional parties (Catalan, Basque, Galician and Canarias) obtained seats in the Parliament. Spanish electorate has clearly opted for change but the result was a spectacularly fragmented political scene.

A change or a paralysis?

A first attempt in order to form a majority in the Parliament was made by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (PP). He tried to find an agreement first with Ciudadanos and its young leader Albert Rivera and then with Pedro Sanchez, leader of the PSOE. In both cases he failed. The majority of PSOE voters were against a “Big Coalition” government (as in Germany or in Austria) between the right and the left. Ciudadanos, after a strong electoral campaign against Rajoy and PP, considered Rajoy’s resignation a prerequisite of joining any coalition’s government. Rajoy has nevertheless indicated that he has no intention of stepping down.

In the meantime, many cases of corruption implicating members of the Partido Popular were revealed, especially in the Valencia region, making it harder for Rajoy to start any mediation with other parties. At the end of January, after Rajoy had not been able to piece together a coalition, it was Pedro Sanchez’s turn to try to form a majority and indeed a government that would include PSOE, his party. After long rounds of negotiations with all political parties (except PP) Sanchez reached an agreement with Ciudadanos. The deal was based on a 67 pages program.

However, the numbers did not add up. These two parties were not able to reach the threshold of 130 seats to obtain the majority in the Chamber. Sanchez tried to obtain from Podemos, IU (United Left) and some regional parties either their support or, at least, their abstention when the new coalition government would be presented in front of the Parliament. It did not go down really well with Podemos. The party’s leader, Pablo Iglesias, made very clear that he was available to participate only in a “government for change” with PSOE, IU and some regional parties such as the Catalan regional parties.

To be able to support the PSOE-Ciudadanos coalition, Iglesias imposed some “red lines”. One of these was the inclusion of a referendum on Catalan independence in the coalition deal. This point was unacceptable for Sanchez and the Socialists, who historically are strictly against any form of “secession”. On top of that, the leftist part of the PSOE, mainly present in Andalucia (where PSOE has reached 35%) and guided by Andalusia President Susana Diaz was against any deal with Podemos.

Podemos – a game changer?

It is important to remark the fact that in the parliament Podemos is divided in four different regional groups. One of the strongest is “En Comu Podem”, the Catalan faction, inspired by the charismatic Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau. Hence, one can understand why the issue of the Catalan independence referendum is an important part of Podemos’ program. Pushed by the public opinion, Iglesias decided to call an internal referendum regarding the “external” support on a deal between PSOE and Ciudadanos. Podemos was divided on this issue. The majority of the Party and his leader Iglesias were against. The minority, guided by the number two of Podemos, the Secretary for Policy and Strategy Íñigo Errejón, was more favorable to an agreement with the PSOE. On Saturday April 16, Podemos members were called to vote in a referendum on the deal with PSOE and Ciudadanos. The large majority of the 192.000 voters (88%) rejected it.

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In fact it was too hard to find an agreement. King Felipe’s new round of consultations did not give any result either. There will be a new election on June 26, the same week as the UK referendum on the EU membership. It will be interesting to see how voters react to the different parties’ attitude during the last months. There is a possibility that Ciudadanos will be rewarded by voters after its attempts to form a government with the PSOE. At the same time, there is a possibility that Podemos could be punished by the Spanish electorate for blocking a coalition government from being formed. In the meantime, polls for PP and Ciudadanos are growing. It is going to be a hard electoral campaign and a “hot” June for Spain and for Europe.

Zdjęcie: Kongres Deputowanych (ni?sza izba parlamentu), 
źródło: Flickr, Pedro Pablo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0,

Niccolò Querci – has graduated from the University of Milan (International Relations). He also studied European Energy Policy at the Institute of European Studies of the ULB in Brussels. Curently he works as a Policy Advisor at the European Parliament. He speaks Italian, English, Spanish and French. He’s learning Dutch. He is interested in international politics, travelling, reading books and tasting new beers.

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