Second general election looks set to leave Spain divided

Even before Spaniards went to the polls on Sunday, there was talk that Spain might need a third general election to sort out its problems. As the first official results came through early in the night, it looked as though the country remained evenly divided between a left-wing bloc of socialists with the insurgent, anti-austerity Podemos and a right-wing bloc headed by acting prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party (PP). Indeed, very little has changed since Spaniards went to the polls in December. A third round of elections remains a possibility – meaning Spain could spend a whole year in leaderless limbo.

Yet Spanish voters have delivered a clear message that politics is no longer a game of absolute winners and absolute losers. In December they transformed the two-party system that emerged during Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1970s by voting for a fractured parliament where no party has more than 35% of the vote. On Sunday the insurgents lost some ground, but the message remained the same.

Political leaders in Madrid, in other words, must get used to the idea of power-sharing. They failed to get that message after December’s close-run elections;will they now?

The most significant result of this election was meant to be a so-called “sorpasso” (overtaking) on the left, with the traditional social democrats of the Spanish Socialists Workers Party (PSOE) overtaken by the clever young upstarts from Podemos. Yet in terms of parliamentary seats, that clearly has not happened.

A shift back towards the traditional parties – with the liberal insurgents of Ciudadanos losing a large share of their votes – means that Rajoy’s PP is even more clearly in charge of the right-wing bloc.

Much will now depend on whether the left can forget its differences and win the backing of nationalist and separatist parties in Catalonia and the Basque country to form a government. The socialists and Podemos failed to do that after the December elections, provoking this second round.

The other option is that Rajoy returns as prime minister, either at the head of a minority government or in a “grand coalition” with the socialists.

The results were a major blow for Podemos – the first in its short, two and a half year life. Pablo Iglesias, the ponytailed young politics lecturer who almost singlehandedly made the party popular with his television debate show appearances, may find his leadership questioned.

Traditional socialist voters were offended by Iglesias’s fierce criticisms of former party leaders, such as four-times prime minister Felipe González, as soon as he entered parliament. In one notorious speech he blamed González for the death squads that operated against suspected armed Basque separatists in the 1980s.

Podemos was founded, in part, by anti-capitalists. The raised, radical fist was often present at party meetings in its early days. Yet the party has almost proved to be a chameleon. Strategy – and winning power – have often appeared to trump policy and principle.

In its latest incarnation, Podemos had branded itself as representing what it called “new social democracy”. In simple terms that meant going back to a form of social democracy that existed before Tony Blair set off on his “third way” politics, taking the Labour party with him. Indeed, the former prime minister was often held up by Iglesias as the man responsible for leading leftwing politics in the wrong direction.

Yet while Podemos tries to shed the “radical” tag, it also went into these elections in coalition with communist-led Izquierda Unida (IU) – which may have brought it more than 10% of its total vote. Some disgruntled IU members complain that its new partner is a “catchall party” with no real beliefs.

Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez will find his leadership reinforced by this result, but he may face internal rebellion in his party if he chooses to go with Podemos and Catalan separatists.

Just as in December, in fact, the balance of power lies in Catalonia and – more specifically – in the hands of parties demanding a referendum on independence. Rajoy will never give them that. The socialists also, for the moment, refuse.

That returns Spain to impasse, with Catalonia as its greatest headache. It also means a third round of elections is possible.

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