Spain braces itself for unpredictable four-way electoral battle

Spain’s rollercoaster parliament is coming to an end.

It began with increased taxes and cuts to public service budgets. Popular protests and the formation of new political groups shook the landscape.

And yet the centre-right People’s Party (PP), led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (pictured), has delivered signs of economic improvement. The markets are calm; the streets peaceful. Spain continues its long struggle towards recovery.

And now the rollercoaster is set to begin again.

The end of two-party politics?

This Sunday (20 December) Spain sets off on a new ride.

It is one that may see a change in direction, or at least a different form of politics. Two-party politics may be about to disappear. The era of absolute majorities may be over.

Of course, nothing is decided yet.

According to the polls of Spain’s Sociological Research Centre (CIS), the PP will scrape through to another victory, but without a large enough majority to govern alone.

Polls suggest that just 28 per cent of voters will back the conservatives – a drop of a third based on the results of the last general election in 2011.

And yet the picture for the main opposition party, the Socialists (PSOE), led by Pedro Sanchez (pictured), is even bleaker. Unable to inspire confidence either in opposition or during the campaign, PSOE’s share of the vote could shrivel to 21 per cent, according to CIS estimates.

The drop in support for the two main parties was evident in the 2014 European elections, a phenomenon we noted ahead of the poll.

In the 2011 general election, the PP and PSOE won almost three-quarters of the vote; in 2015 they won’t muster even half.

These figures point to the disappearance of the two-party system that has dominated Spanish politics, opening the doors of Congress to new political groups who may even play a role in a new government.

The pretenders

The Citizens party (Ciudadanos, or C’s), a centrist party led by the charismatic Albert Rivera (pictured), looks set to win about 20 per cent of the vote.

Podemos (We Can), a social movement that was the backbone of citizen protest against austerity and which became a political party, will win 16 per cent of the vote, according to opinion polls.

These two parties join the PP and PSOE in a battle of words and ideas that is ultimately likely to see two or more of them cooperate in government.

The PP is pointing to its record – claiming job creation, containment of the public deficit, an improvement in the country’s credit rating and an economic upturn as the results of its efforts. It paints Citizens as inexperienced; as a risk.

PSOE, meanwhile, says it is the only left-wing party that can realistically lead the government; that it can guarantee change and end cuts. The party’s strategy is to position itself as sufficiently left to win over potential Podemos voters, and to stop a drift in centre-left support to Citizens by depicting Rivera’s party as being close to the PP.

This is a charge that would be refuted by Citizens, whose discourse is built on centrism and moderation. It is the self-styled “key to democratic regeneration”.

The party is appropriating figures such as Adolfo Suárez, the statesman who played a key role in the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970s.

Rivera aims to consolidate support from those who are disenchanted with the PP and PSOE. Since January 2014 he has managed to increase Citizens’ backing from one in thirty voters to one in five.

Podemos, led by Pablo Iglesias (pictured, now an MEP), presents itself as “the normal, decent person’s party, the alternative to old politics”.

It appeals to emotions and its central purpose: to end cuts and corruption; to install a ‘genuine democracy’. But after a powerful entry to the political scene, its support has decreased. The party’s electoral goal is likely to be limited to consolidation and taking enough votes from PSOE to see it finish third.

For undecided voters, it’s all about the economy

Around 40 per cent of voters are thought to be undecided, and the economy has been identified by the parties as the main issue on which to win them over.

The PP and Citizens want to lower the tax burden to boost consumer spending. The PP would reduce the upper and lower bands of income tax.

Citizens would have four categories with the top and bottom rates at slightly higher rates than those proposed by the conservatives, and have two rates of VAT.

On the left, both PSOE and Podemos back greater redistribution of tax income. The latter would introduce a 55 per cent rate on earnings over €300,000, and would cut the VAT rate on basic utilities, such as electricity, by more than half.

On corporation tax, the PP would continue tax incentives in the form of deductions, while PSOE, Citizens and Podemos would change or eliminate them.

Stick or twist?

The key element of this electoral campaign is the choice between the familiar and the new; between continuity and change.

Will the undecided voters back the traditional parties, or put their trust in the ‘renewal’ offered by the new parties?

The only thing that is clear is that, whoever governs, dialogue and consensus will be needed to build a new politics.

Words  Yolanda Vega and Balma Costa (Burson-Marsteller Madrid)
Images  CC/Flickr European People’s Party; CC/Flickr FSA-PSOE; Wikimedia Commons / Carlos Delgado; (c) European Union, 2015; CC/Flickr Elenir 

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