The unprecedented series of events occurring in the U.S. presidential election cycle has sparked international interest (and concern) and a total saturation of the domestic media, so it’s easy to forget that the U.S. isn’t the only western democracy undergoing a tumultuous political transition. To wit, Spain has been without a government since the general election of December 2015. Spain has had two consistently successful parties, PP on the right and PSOE on the left, since its transition to democracy in the 1970s, but the recent election showed results fractured between four major parties and many small ones. At a time when both the Republican and Democratic parties are facing respective identity crises that could potentially lead to their own demises, it’s worth exploring how another dual-party system can suddenly become one of multiple parties.
Throughout the majority of 2015, Spain was in the midst of political campaigns of some form or another for the separate municipal, regional, and general elections. These elections were contextualized by two distinct elements: a persistent economic crisis and a series of political corruption scandals in both of the major parties. The economic crisis began in 2008 when PSOE controlled the Congress of Deputies, a situation that lead to a landslide victory for the PP in 2011. Despite this, the past 4 years of austerity measures from the government of Mariano Rajoy have not lead to much improvement, and as such both PSOE and PP entered the 2015 election cycle perceived as equally responsible for the dire state of the economy.
This crisis, coupled with years of corruption scandals in both parties (most notably in the recent arrest of over 20 PP officials in the region of Valencia), caused voters to call into question the legitimacy of the parties in their capacity to represent the interests of the people and to doubt the efficacy of what amounted to a two party system. With the popularity of PP and PSOE at record lows, new left-wing party Podemos and the nationally expanded center-right party Ciudadanos to pick up significant support in the regional and municipal elections.
This success continued into the general elections in December with the result of no party having secured a majority of seats in the Congress and preventing any of them from governing alone. Although this was the likely outcome of such a fractured electorate, the history of a two-party system has made all four players ill suited to the style of politics that coalition building necessitates, and thus the Prime Minister’s chair sits empty. In March a pact was formed between PSOE and Ciudadanos with PSOE’s Pedro Sanchez as the Prime Ministerial candidate, but even together they failed to secure 50% of the vote. The measure was firmly opposed by the remaining parties and here Spain stands, without a government, four months after the election.
If a coalition isn’t formed soon, the state may have to resort to new elections in June, although this “solution” would only be the beginning of a new set of problems. The exorbitant cost of such a venture would not even guarantee any major change from the initial results, a prospect that would leave the country back where it started in December. For all the moaning across the internet about how corrupt and rigged the American electoral system is, at least we are able to depend on the levers of the constitution to provide us with a President by next January, for better or worse. Like Sanders and Trump, the alternative voices of Podemos and Ciudadanos rose from the mobilization of passionate voters dissatisfied with the status quo. Unfortunately, an increased plurality in the Spanish system has merely highlighted the deep political divisions in this country and the incapacity of the current political structure to encourage compromise. As a result, democracy has come to a crashing halt.