Elections in Spain: just part of a general European volatility

Spain's general elections (Electoral collage in Gijón, 2011). Photo: Patricia Simón (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Elcano Blog
Spain's general elections (Electoral collage in Gijón, 2011). Photo: Patricia Simón (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Spain's general elections (Electoral collage in Gijón, 2011). Photo: Patricia Simón / Flickr. Creative Commons Licence Attribution-NoCommercial-NoDerivatives. Elcano Blog
Spain’s general elections (Electoral college in Gijón, 2011). Photo: Patricia Simón (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

¿Whoever wins, will Spain’s 20 December general elections mark the beginning of a new era? Of course, they must be seen not only in a specifically Spanish context but also in terms of the volatility and state of flux of electorates, societies and social and political systems prevailing in most of Europe. The state of convulsion is reflected in the emergence of new parties and in the growth of others that were previously relatively marginal, in the fading sense of loyalty of many voters and even in constitutional changes. As a result, fragmented parliaments, with coalition or minority governments, and sometimes unholy alliances have become the order of the day. All these processes derive from the consequences of the crisis that has aggravated some of the effects of globalisation and digitalisation, and the of austerity policies that have led to the submergence of part of the middle and working classes and a growing preoccupation with issues linked to identity, such as immigration and the refugee problem.

It is more than likely that, more than on any other occasion in its recent history, after 20 December Spain will require a coalition in order to agree on a Prime Minister. It is also to be expected that there will be a reform of some depth in the 1978 Constitution. Although Spain only belatedly became a democracy due to the Franco dictatorship’s longevity, since then the party and constitutional system in Spain and the rest of the EU (except, of course, in the countries that emerged from soviet communism) have been fairly stable. They have been even more durable than during the period from 1870 to 1914. France (1958) and Italy (1947), for instance, have not changed their constitutions, although they have been updated and they are renovating their political systems. Italy is undergoing a political mutation of some depth. Germany has reformed its constitution many times, among other reasons because of reunification, but its remains grounded on the Basic Law of 1949. Indeed, the issue is to reform, not to throw long-lasting constitutions overboard.

But there is yet another ‘constitution’: the European treaties, which take precedence over national constitutions, and have changed over the years. Although it would now be necessary, it is not possible to reform the Lisbon Treaty (signed in 2007, following the failed Constitutional Treaty, and which entered into force in 2010) given the internal dynamics in certain EU countries. Some (Germany) want to maximise its interpretation while others (Cameron) would like to reinterpret it, at least until it can be modified.

Even the UK is undergoing a certain review of its unwritten constitution, with the new powers transferred to Scotland and the cities. The previous Parliament was a stop-gap that allowed the Lib-Dems to govern in coalition with the Tories. But the novelty has been the rise of UKIP, the anti-European UK Independence Party, which has a capacity to influence and contaminate that is greater than warranted by its vote or seats as regards the debate on exiting or remaining in the EU and on immigration policy. Thanks to the electoral system, last May Cameron was the outright winner in seats (50.7%) although in votes (36.9%) he only gained 0.8% more than five years earlier. In 1997, the year of his great victory, Blair took 43.2% of the vote, slightly less than Thatcher’s 43.9% when she swept the board in 1979.

In Greece the system has changed, especially on the left. In Portugal there are doubts about who will rule: the Conservatives, with more votes but less seats, or the leftist coalition led by the Socialists with the relatively new Left Bloc and the Communist Party. In France, the growth of the anti-European and xenophobic National Front poses major challenges to the Socialists and to the centre-right. In Switzerland the largest party in the recent elections has been the anti-immigrant Swiss People. In Norway, Sweden and Finland xenophobic parties have grown and some of them are in coalition or can act as arbitrators. And in Poland the Eurosceptic, ultra-Catholic and anti-immigration Law and Justice (PiS) party bounced back in the May presidential elections and last Sunday’s general election.

Electorates are mutating because there is an ongoing social change. And not just between left and right, or between radicalisms, but between the new and the old. Even in Germany, the Christian Democrat Angela Merkel is in coalition with the Social Democrats, but her Bavarian Christian Social Union partners have become increasingly contrary, while xenophobic and anti-Islamic movements such as Pegida and anti-EU parties such as Alternative for Germany are making an appearance. Across Europe social democracy has lost some of its traditional social bases. All this poses an obstacle to a consensus in the EU, both on refugees and immigration and on taking further steps towards economic, if not political, integration.

What is happening in Spain must be seen in this context. It is part of Europe’s overall volatility. The two major national parties, PP and PSOE, are holding out better than expected a year ago. But the European, municipal, regional and Catalan elections indicate that many things are changing. There are not only new parties (Ciudadanos and Podemos) but new social and political movements, alliances, that have emerged with a degree of success. It is difficult to know whether this will be a temporary phenomenon or, more likely, a change in depth that will not be limited to just a few elections. As in most of Europe, Spain is swayed by the same trends and fluctuations, except that major xenophobic movements have not (yet?) arisen, although identity issues are very much to the fore. Spain is not (so) different. Along with all of Europe it is in a state of flux, or perhaps in transition if we only knew towards what. But we do not know and the future is no longer what it used to be.