Mariano Rajoy (C) waves next to his wife Elvira Fernandez (R) after the results of Spain's general elections in Madrid on December 20, 2015
© AFP

Spanish voters did a strange thing on Sunday: they gave birth to the new, but refused to kill off the old.

They delivered a splintered parliament filled with both newcomers and establishment parties that are deeply divided on matters of ideology — and that have every reason to look across the aisle with existential fear. Political logic and Spain’s electoral system suggest the delicate equilibrium that emerged from the general election is unlikely to hold: sooner or later, the old will have to make way for the new, or the new will be rooted out by the old.

The country’s two establishment parties — the centre-right Popular party and the centre-left Socialists — were returned to parliament but in diminished numbers. Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister and leader of the PP, lost a third of his deputies. The opposition socialists were pushed below 100 seats in the legislature for the first time since Spain returned to democracy.

Yet for all their losses, the two parties will remain the strongest by some distance. There can be no government without them. Every law and every budget vote will turn on their numbers. Curiously, the party threatened most acutely by extinction is precisely one of the fancied newcomers — the centrist Ciudadanos party. With just 40 seats in the 350-seat legislature, it is too small even to be a kingmaker.

“The two big parties are still the two big parties,” says José Fernández-Albertos, a political analyst at Spain’s CSIC research centre. “They have new competitors, and the electoral system does not work as well for them as it used to. But they proved themselves to be more resilient than many had expected.”

José Ignacio Torreblanca, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, draws a similar conclusion. “What happened on Sunday had nothing to with regime change. Yes, there are new players. But the only parties who are in a position to lead the next government are the two old ones.”

In that sense, Spain’s old political order has clearly managed to avoid the grisly fate of Italy’s in 1994 or Greece’s in 2014/2015. The PP did not disappear from the scene like Italy’s Christian Democrats did more than two decades ago. And Spain’s Socialists were not overwhelmed by the far-left in the same way Greece’s Pasok was at the two last elections.

Instead, the Spanish parliament will feature a PP and a Socialist party (PSOE) that are both too weak and too strong: they are too weak to rule alone (or together with a pliable minority partner). Yet they are also too strong to simply fit into a new system of variable political geometry, in which majorities are built on ever-shifting alliances between multiple parties.

Shrugging off all the talk of a new political era, Mr Rajoy made his pitch for a new PP-led government on Monday night. He argued that a majority of voters had backed parties that share crucial objectives and values — from the “defence of the constitutional order” and the unity of Spain to the country’s position in the EU and the fight against terrorism. These parties, he added, should attempt to join forces and create a stable government.

His plea was evidently directed at the Socialists and at Ciudadanos. In terms of policy, those two may indeed find just enough common ground to support — or at least tolerate — a government led by the PP.

However, away from the coalition talks, the Socialists are locked in an all-out struggle with the anti-austerity Podemos party over the leftwing vote. Siding with the PP would be precisely the kind of manoeuvre that could condemn the Socialists to a Pasok-like fate. “The current situation, in which both the PSOE and Podemos have a similar number of votes, is unlikely to continue — especially if voters see that the two of them are unable or unwilling to form a coalition,” says Jorge Galindo, a political analyst and editor of the Politikon website. For the newcomer, he adds, it is likely a case of now or never: “Podemos knows they have only one shot of surpassing the Socialists.”

Ciudadanos, meanwhile, faces a different dilemma. As the smallest by far of the four main parties, it already risks being ruled out as a “feasible alternative” by Spanish voters, argues Mr Galindo.

For Ciudadanos, as for other key players, the battle for survival is on.

Get alerts on Spanish politics when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article