That sound you heard if you were in — or flying over — Europe on Sunday was five million Spanish voters firmly planting their feet on the Socialist party’s behind. And with it, kicking out the last center-left government still standing on the continent.
To be sure, it didn’t come as a surprise; it’s exactly what polls were predicting for months. Although there was a slightly lower turnout than expected, the conservative Popular Party, led by Mariano Rajoy, was granted a comfortable absolute majority with 186 seats in the lower chamber. This is the biggest victory ever for the PP, even larger than in 2000, when Jose Maria Aznar was leading the party. And with just 110 seats‚ 59 less than in 2008, the Socialist party suffered its biggest defeat since the restoration of democracy after Franco’s death in 1975. It’s their Titanic moment.
(To avoid complicating this analysis needlessly, we will focus on the lower chamber, called the Congress of Deputies; because of how Spain’s legislative process works, the Senate is a chamber of second reading. All bills originate in and get final approval in the Congress, which means it’s there where the beef is cut.)
Spanish voters decided they had had enough of youthful idealism and traded it for a more seasoned, though not particularly charismatic, leader who is perceived as more competent with the economy. After all, the PP has the experience to prove it: it led the country to an economic boom in 1996-2004 during Aznar’s tenure, in which Rajoy held several cabinet positions, including deputy prime minister. At 56, Rajoy will become the oldest prime minister ever elected since the transition.
But the results reflect an unquestionable rejection of the Socialist platform by Spanish voters rather than very strong support for the PP. Looking at the actual votes, not seats in parliament, the conservatives gained only 500,000 votes from 2008, while the PSOE lost a whopping five million (if that number rings a bell it’s because, interestingly, it’s the number of jobless Spaniards). Years of erratic, even failed, economic policies that drove the country to the brink of collapse, and made it the country with the highest level of unemployment in the industrialized world, led many leftist voters to either stay at home or vote for alternatives like United Left (former Communists), which, with 11 seats, multiplied its result almost sixfold. Or for UPyD, a young party formed by Rosa Diez, a former Socialist official who left the party with a bang. The UPyD went from one to five seats. The Spanish electoral system punishes atomization: if the same number of votes is divided among several parties, the sum of the number of seats these parties get is lower than it would be if those votes were concentrated in just one party. So the discontent with the PSOE not only made the party lose millions of votes; it also helped the PP, which has more solid support because there’s no alternative on the right, earn a clear majority even though it had 400,000 votes less than the PSOE in 2008, when the PSOE only achieved a plurality.
Further evidence of the Socialists party’s disaster is that they even lost two of its strongholds: Catalonia, where it lost to moderate nationalists, sinking to almost half of the votes from 2008; and, more meaningfully, Andalusia, where it was defeated by the PP. It’s the first time in a national or regional election that the PSOE has lost its “home base.”
In the Basque Country the situation wasn’t better for the Socialists: since the Socialists lost almost 50% from their 2008 vote count, the big winner was Amaiur, ETA’s peaceful political arm, which got a green light by the Constitutional Court to participate in the election after the terrorist group announced a permanent ceasefire. Second in votes but first in the number of seats, the emergence of Amaiur, which openly advocates for the independence of the Basque Country from Spain, opens a new set of issues whose scope is too wide for this article.
So, now that the votes have been counted and the confetti has been dropped, the big question is: what’s next?
There’s no doubt that Rajoy has a clear mandate to govern. After yesterday’s big win, his party holds the biggest concentration of power ever in democratic-era Spain: it won at the national level, and following the regional and local elections in May of this year, it also governs 14 out of 17 regions, as well as all the big cities but a handful. So it’s clear that he’s got what is needed to start applying his program without any allies, but will he want to? Should he?
There’s an almost overwhelming challenge ahead for Spain’s prime minister-elect in order to put the number one 1 priority above anything else — the country’s economy — back on track: restore market confidence and enact the sorely needed reforms to turn a sclerotic system with little flexibility and low productivity into a much more open, agile, and transparent economy that starts growing again and is able to create employment. There have been lots of missed opportunities and broken promises in the last few years, and now is the moment when decisive action is needed, including very painful measures. Right now. And it’s unclear whether Rajoy (who wasn’t too specific during the campaign, presumably in order not to scare voters as David Cameron did in the UK when he started detailing his policies) or anyone else in his position will be able to pull it off. Rajoy seems to be very aware of this, and in his victory speech on election night told his supporters: “Don’t expect any miracles; I didn’t promise any.”
But the biggest priority is going ahead with the reforms while minimizing the chances of generating widespread protests on the streets in order to prevent a worrisome situation from descending directly into chaos, which certainly wouldn’t help the country regain stability. For that reason, it’s vital to prevent the usual temptation of Spanish Socialists to ride the wave of discontent by supporting, even encouraging, any protest movement against their rivals (many of you will probably remember what happened with the Prestige oil spill or the Iraq war). That’s why, even if the PP has the mandate to act on its own, there’s still a chance Rajoy could coax his opponents by handing one or two cabinet seats to the Socialist party, and even one to the moderate Catalan nationalists. This would at least deactivate the opposition, build a bigger support for the unavoidable measures that need to be taken, and reduce the chance of the PP’s rivals trying to exploit the presumable backlash that these measures will bring to their favor. Plus, the rumors were flying in Spain the week before the election that there might be an unofficial request for an agreed “stealth rescue” by the EU, the BCE and the FMI.
The next few days are going to be extraordinarily important. According to Spanish election law, under normal circumstances it would still take one full month from today to complete the transfer of power: once the new parliament is inaugurated, it votes in the new prime minister, and he and his cabinet members are sworn in. There’s a growing chorus, even among the left, that given that the country is in a state of emergency, and that the PP majority grants Rajoy the nomination with no possible alternatives, the process should be sped up. That would reduce the “interregnum” and allow Rajoy to start sending a signal to the world and the financial markets that things have changed in the country.
Let’s hope it’s not too late.