By Arab News
By Mahir Ali
Last Sunday’s election results in Spain have vindicated the pundits who were hedging their bets. As opinion polls predicted, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party (PP) has emerged with the largest number of seats, while falling well short of a majority.
It could, potentially, remain at the helm, but Rajoy’s expressed wish to “form a stable government” is just wishful thinking under the circumstances. At the same time, his party’s primary rival, the Socialist party (PSOE), also lost substantial support even after its dismal showing in 2011.
What sets this week’s poll apart from previous elections is that in the past the PP and PSOE split between 70 and 80 percent of the vote between them; this time they collectively fell short of 50 percent. The two main reasons for this outcome are the left-wing Podemos movement, which came into existence less than two years ago, yet has emerged as the third largest political force after securing nearly 21 percent of the popular vote, and the centrist Ciudadanos, whose anti-corruption stance helped it to wrest away a substantial chunk of the conservative vote.
Yet neither the PP plus Ciudadanos nor the PSOE plus Podemos boast sufficient parliamentary strength to form a majority government. Besides, there are serious issues militating against these combinations. After all, Ciudadanos vowed not to back the PP and could compromise its popular base by going back on that promise, while Podemos and the Socialists are essentially rivals rather than natural allies.
Podemos sprang from the loins of the delightfully monikered Indignados movement that spearheaded popular protests against capitalist voraciousness in the wake of the global financial crisis, and its raison d’etre relies on challenging the status quo rather than compromising with one of its key components.
The party’s savvy leader, Pablo Iglesias, has cause to be pleased — albeit not complacent — about what Podemos has managed to achieve at the ballot box. It would probably have done even better, trumping the PSOE at the very least, had its Syriza comrades in Greece achieved something by opposing the austerity diktat of the European Union (EU).
Instead, the government of Alexis Tsipras chose to capitulate to Brussels’ demands after initially putting up a struggle that captured the international imagination.
Despite its failures, Syriza’s endeavors were rewarded with a second electoral victory within a year, which indicated that the Greek electorate was unwilling to revert to the status quo ante, when power was traditionally disputed between the main conservative and socialist parties, and a change of government made precious little difference the average citizen’s life.
Spain is not Greece, obviously, but the similarities between the two extend beyond their comparable status as victims of the EU’s neoliberal predilections. Both countries returned to democracy in the 1970s following fascist interludes, which in the case of Spain was stretched across four decades. The dictatorship of Francisco Franco followed the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, when Adolf Hitler backed the fascist generals while the rest of the West refused to support their republican opponents, often dubbing those who took up cudgels against the dark forces as “premature anti-fascists.”
In Greece, following its German occupation during World War II, the West tended to back former Nazi collaborators against the communists who had constituted the backbone of the resistance, while Joseph Stalin forbade assistance to progressive forces in keeping with his agreement with the US and Britain on zones of influence. Long before that agreement, though, among the international brigades in Spain, forces loyal to Stalin had devoted a considerable proportion of their energies to depleting the Trotskyites, thereby facilitating Franco’s ascendancy.
If that sounds like ancient history, it is surely remarkable that Western Europe, in the throes of the Cold War, quite happily tolerated fascist dictatorships in Spain and Greece well into the 1970s. In both cases, the circumstances that propelled these countries into a different era were largely internal — in the case of Spain, the idea of a transition emerged only after Franco’s death.
Given the tribulations and exigencies of the not-so-distant past, it is not particularly surprising that the democratic process in countries such as Spain, Greece and, for that matter, Portugal is still in flux.
This volatility isn’t necessarily a negative, just as stability is often overrated. In Spain, despite the primacy of the PP, there is plenty of evidence that the electorate has voted for change. The shape it will take is likely to be determined in the weeks ahead, following negotiations and confabulations with King Felipe VI. The result may well echo that of October’s outcome in Portugal, where an ostensible conservative victory led within days to a socialist coalition.
It can almost be guaranteed, though, that volatility rather than stability will be the order of the day, and the preferable option may well turn out to be another electoral contest, which will ensue if a government fails to emerge within two months.