Susana Vera / Reuters

Spain’s unprecedented elections

Influential new parties on the right and the left threaten to upend Spanish politics

December 2, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Dec. 20, Spain will vote for a new government. But this campaign season is very different from all previous ones. Instead of debating over the best ways to tackle increasing unemployment, political corruption scandals and constitutional reforms, the electorate is focused on the recent victory of pro-independence parties in the Catalan parliamentary elections. This dynamic seems to work in favor of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, as it shifts attention from the corruption scandals of his Popular Party (PP) and the ineffective austerity measures applied during his time in office. The rise of a new left in Spain has been matched by the rise of a new far right that could end up in a position to exacerbate Rajoy’s policies.

In Catalonia’s elections, the increased turnout for secessionist parties — the main coalition, Together for Yes, and the radical leftist pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) — helped them win a majority of seats. Although these parties have managed to elect a new president of parliament, an impasse over other leadership issues will probably result in new elections next year.

In the meantime, the new coalition has put forward and voted for a motion calling for the “beginning of a process for the creation of an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic.” Predictably, this motion has triggered a conflict with the national government in Madrid on the grounds that it violates the Spanish Constitution.

Rajoy’s reaction has been disproportionate. Instead of using diplomacy to respond to Catalan demands for independence, he has appealed the motion before the Constitutional Court, requesting “the immediate suspension of this initiative and all its possible effects.” Two days later, the court unanimously agreed to suspend the motion. This explains why in the past few weeks, he began a round of consultations with all the other party leaders to reaffirm the unity of Spain.

Spaniards enthusiastic about the left-wing Podemos party’s anti-austerity eruption last year have tended to ignore the simultaneous emergence of its right-wing counterpart, Ciudadanos (Citizens). Its leader, Albert Rivera, a 35-year-old Catalan, is not only committed to the European Union neoliberal austerity measures but also opposed to the Catalan independence cause. Last spring, after nine years in Catalan politics, he decided to compete in the national elections.

Ciudadanos received almost 18 percent of the votes in Catalonia, becoming the second-largest party, after sweeping success in municipal elections earlier this year. It and Podemos herald the end of the two-party political system that has dominated Spain since the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1975. A televised interview with Rivera and Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias drew more than 5 million viewers in October.

Only those parties that take into consideration demands against social degradation, economic austerity and political corruption deserve to succeed.

These young politicians represent a new generation that will determine the outcome of the next elections. Both Rajoy’s PP and the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), led by Pedro Sánchez, are alarmed. They know they will need the support of Ciudadanos or Podemos to form a coalition to govern Spain for the next four years.

On Monday, El País hosted the first electoral debate, but Rajoy declined to participate in order to delegitimize Rivera and Iglesias. Sánchez, Rivera and Iglesias discussed for two hours whether Spain should provide support to France in Syria, how to tackle unemployment and, most of all, Rajoy’s absence, which indicated his inability to confront Spain’s new generation of politicians.

Traditional ideological labels can be misleading, and it is not certain that Rajoy would form a coalition with Rivera or that Sánchez would with Iglesias. Podemos is too radical for the PSOE, while Ciudadanos demands too many changes in the PP, such as primaries and the removal of all party members facing corruption charges. But Rivera is willing to make deals with anyone along the path to power. For example, in May’s municipal elections, he supported the PP in Madrid and the PSOE in Andalusia. The latest survey shows Ciudadanos narrowly leading the PP and the PSOE nationally, with Podemos not far behind.

Less than a month from election day, a left-wing renewal in Spanish politics appears less likely than an intensification of the conservative agenda through Ciudadanos. This is evident not only in the socialists’ inability to bring forward social and economic alternatives such as those favored by Podemos but also in the agreement they reached with Rajoy and Rivera against Catalan independence. While Podemos believes the only way out of the Catalan impasse is to allow a referendum similar to the ones carried out in Quebec in 1995 and in Scotland last year, the PP, the PSOE and Ciudadanos are united against any sort of concession to separatism.

If Spain is to return to a progressive government, it will have to include Podemos. In the nation where the indignados (outraged) anti-austerity movement began, only those parties that take into consideration demands against social degradation, economic austerity and political corruption deserve to succeed.

Santiago Zabala is the ICREA research professor of philosophy at  the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. He is the author of “The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy,” “The Remains of Being,” “Hermeneutic Communism” (with G. Vattimo) and the forthcoming “Only Art Can Save Us.” He also writes for The Guardian, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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