It’s not a secret that Spain is in dire straits. While a lot of other European countries, such as Latvia and the UK, have recovered from the worst aspects of the financial crisis of 2007, Spain is still down in the dumps. Despite the Spanish prime minister’s talk of recovery, the country still has a long way to go. Public debt is scarily high, numerous infrastructure projects have been cancelled or put on hold and the country at times only manages to keep its head above water with EU funds. (Spain is the third largest net recipient after Poland and Greece.)
Worse, the unemployment situation remains dire. While it’s fallen from its peak of 26%, the current figure of 23% is the second highest in the EU, with only the Greeks doing worse. Youth unemployment in particular is a serious problem, with half of people aged 18-25 without work. With no obvious sign of the end of the malaise in sight, this weekend’s regional and local elections are likely to produce some dramatic changes in the country’s political situation.
The one that interests me most is my old stomping ground of Valencia. (Valencia is a geographical region, which is made up of three provinces: Alicante, Castellon and Valencia Province which includes Valencia city.) The Valencia region has always been a bit of an oddity. Spain’s third largest city, Valencia, is almost equidistant from Madrid and Barcelona, about 350 km. Its politics are also halfway between the two, with a traditional left/right split on economics and a regionalist versus centralist split over the region’s status within Spain and its regional language. These two tendencies have overlapped and left/right divisions between the regionalists themselves have often erupted into bitter feuds.
To start with, a bit of context is useful on the historical political situation. Valencia was historically a bedrock of the left. It served briefly as the capital of the Spanish republic during the Spanish civil war and when democracy was restored in the late 70s, this trend continued. Valencia and Alicante provinces were among just 9 (out of 50) in Spain that voted for the left at the 1979 general election. Regional elections, held every four years since 1983, also resulted in convincing left wing majorities.
In the early 90s, however, a dramatic swing occurred in the Valencian region and its neighbor Murcia, as a better economic situation, spurred by tourism and a real estate boom, resulted in these areas swinging heavily to the right, so much so that since the mid-90s they have been among the strongest regions for the Spanish right. Control of the regional administration passed from the centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) to the conservative People’s Party (PP) in 1995 and has remained there ever since. While those two parties have been the main players, a number of smaller parties have also been present. United Left, the successors to the Spanish communist party, have won parliamentary seats both at national and regional level at every Valencian regional election bar one.
While all those parties could trace their ancestry to political forces that had been around since at least the 1930s, the late 70s also resulted in the birth of regionalist parties in the area. A fairly bitter struggle, called batalla de Valencia (the battle of Valencia) took place during the period, with disputes often erupting into violence over how much regional autonomy the area should receive, the status of the Valencian language and relationships with the central government and the other Catalan speaking regions, as well as the names and symbols to be used. The main party which emerged from all this was Unio Valenciana (Valencian Union or UV) which exploded into the political scene after the 1982 national elections.
As well as centre-right positions on economics, UV’s main platform was to defend the separate identity of the Valencian region and language, distinct from other Catalan regions, a tendency which became known as “Blauverism” (blue stripe, in reference to the difference between the Valencian and Catalan flags.)
The party steadily built up its support base and by 1987, was breathing down the necks of its right wing competitors, the Popular Alliance, the PP’s predecessors. In Valencia province and Valencia city, UV had overtaken their rivals. However, this was to prove their high water mark. Though they remained a force well into the late 1990s, it was all downhill from there due to a number of factors.
One was that, despite being a centre-right party, UV had a whackier fringe who were prone to outbursts of xenophobia and a hysterical anti-catalanism, including paranoia about Catalan politicians’ alleged plans to take over Valencia. This limited their growth and electoral appeal.
Another major factor was that the PP in the 1990s started a deliberate policy of cannibalising its smaller rival, by adopting some of its policy positions and wooing some of its main activists. UV’s demise was hastened by the death of its leader and alma mater, Vicente Gonzalez Lizondo, during a parliamentary session in 1996 after UV had gone into a regional coalition with the PP.
The demise of one its most recognisable politicians was the beginning of the end. At the 1999 regional elections, UV narrowly missed the 5% threshold and exited the Corts Valencianes, the Valencian regional parliament, for the first time in 16 years. It would never return. Defections to the PP gathered pace and things reached a head when their leader, José María Chiquillo Barber, a former MP for UV in the Spanish national parliament, accepted an offer from the PP to be one of their candidates at the 2004 general election, effectively defecting in the process. Thereafter, the rump of the party descended into in-fighting and ceased to contest elections after poor results in 2007. A number of splinter micro-parties have tried to carry on where UV left off since then but have never been serious players.
In contrast, while UV were falling apart, the left wing regionalists were steadily gaining ground. In the 1980s and 1990s, their main party, Valencian People’s Unity, wasn’t strong enough by itself to win seats in the regional parliament, but did win them on two occasions as part of a joint electoral list with United Left, though at the end of each term the alliance ended acrimoniously. In 1998, they evolved into the Valencian Nationalist Bloc, before joining with environmental parties to form the current Coalició Compromís (Compromise Coalition) in 2011.
To draw an analogy with the UK, Compromise is more of a Plaid Cymru than an SNP. While not rejecting full independence for the region, they generally push for stronger regional autonomy and promote the use of the Valencian language and environmental and left wing politics. In 2011, they finally made their long awaited breakthrough, winning their first seats in their own right in the regional parliament and on Valencia city council on a list not including United Left.
2011 also saw the emergence of another player on the Valencian political scene: Union, Progress and Democracy (UPyD). This party had emerged from citizens’ groups in the Basque country formed as part of a backlash against regional separatism. Led by Rosa Diez, a former leading figure and Euro MP in the socialist PSOE, UPyD is a centrist and “unionist” party which opposes regionalists and Catalan and Basque nationalists.
After Diez won a solitary seat for the party in Madrid in the 2008 general election, the party made a significant breakthrough at the 2011 general election, winning 6 MPs. Five of them in Madrid and, to the surprise of many, the other in Valencia. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been such a big surprise. One of UPyD’s policies is downplaying the importance of regional languages and there are a substantial minority of people in Valencia who would go along with that. When teaching there I spoke to many parents (and teenagers) who would say “why do our kids have to waste time in school studying Valencian, a language useless outside Eastern Spain, when they could be studying French or German or having additional English classes?” Plus, UPyD’s candidate was Toni Canto, a popular and famous TV and film actor.
So, Sunday’s elections are being fought by those parties plus a couple of newer arrivals. There’s a limit on how many parties can get seats due to the electoral system. Like the Spanish national parliament and the other 16 regional assemblies, Valencia uses closed list proportional representation. However, its threshold is much higher than most of the others. To get into the regional parliament, parties need at least 5% of the votes of the total Valencia region and seats are then divided in each of the three provinces according to the votes cast there. This is a higher hurdle than most of the other 16 Spanish regions, most of which, like the Spanish national parliament, only require 3% of the votes to qualify. The overall effect is to shut out most of the micro parties and force others into electoral alliances.
For most of the 2011 to spring 2014 period, the situation in Valencia region, just like the rest of Spain, looked clear enough. The PP, having failed to significantly revive the Spanish or Valencian economy and pushed through a series of unpopular austerity measures, was way down on its 2011 figures. Normally, that would have been good news for the socialists of the PSOE, however, the latter was turfed out of office at national level in 2011 after its disastrous mismanagement of the Spanish economy up to that point and memories of that are still too fresh in voters’ minds. Both the main parties were also embroiled in corruption scandals, often involving alleged kickbacks from construction companies for awarding tenders during the boom years of 2004-2007. In the Valencia region 11 of the 55 PP members of the regional assembly were named in corruption cases and a local joke was that if they got together and formed their own Pro-Corruption party, it would be the third largest party in the regional parliament.
So the main beneficiaries looked to be United Left and UPyD, both of whom were way up in opinion polls. In mid-2014, though, things changed dramatically. The street protest movement against the austerity measures, high unemployment rate and public spending cuts spawned its own left wing political party, Podemos (“we can”), who made a big breakthrough in the 2014 European parliament elections.
Since then, Podemos has enjoyed a meteoric rise. Some polls in Autumn 2014 even showed them as the largest party. They’ve fallen back since then, but still look likely to achieve strong third places regionally and nationally, with over 20% of the vote. Podemos’ emergence has pushed the PSOE’s already dismal projected vote share down even further and also siphoned off protest votes which otherwise would have gone to United Left, who now seem to be down on their 2011 figures.
In late 2014, another player emerged. Citizens had emerged in 2005 as an anti-regionalist force in Catalonia and after limiting its activities to that region for most of its first decade, decided to expand nationwide. On regional issues, Citizens’ policies are fairly identical to UPyD, but it has more liberal policies on social issues (e.g. legalising marijuana and prostitution) and more right wing policies on economics.
The emergence of Citizens exacerbated an internal crisis which was already underway in UPyD, with the latter seeing its support dwindle as supporters and members defected to its rival. A more pragmatic wing of UPyD was open to cooperation with Citizens, including joint electoral lists and even a possible eventual merger, but the other wing sought to keep UPyD’s separate identity. Tensions in UPyD have worsened since the March 2015 regional election in Andalusia, Spain’s largest region.
In the 2014 European elections, UPyD had received 7% of the Andalusian votes, against less than 2% for Citizens. In March, just nine months later, however, the tables were turned. Citizens entered the Andalusian parliament with over 9% of the vote and UPyD scored poorly, with less than 2%, half of what they’d got in the previous regional election there in 2012. This provoked further rancor in the party and criticism of the UPyD leadership and, in Valencia, Toni Canto, the national MP who had been selected as UPyD’s lead candidate for the regional election, withdrew his candidacy and called on Diez to resign as UPyD leader. The party is also suffering from a lack of funds.
The Valencian regional campaign so far has been dominated by economic issues and corruption criticisms. The local newspaper has helpfully grouped the parties’ election manifestos together Some of them run to over 150 pages, a waste of cyberspace, since it’s unlikely that anyone apart from journalists and political junkies like me will read any of them and even then, most of us will just skim through the important bits, most of which are fairly predictable.
The PP’s manifesto, for example, goes through the motions with talk of reducing tax and increasing employment, but ignores the elephant in the room of tackling the rampant corruption in the area. The PSOE are similarly shy on the corruption topic, preferring to dwell on improving public services and reform of the system of financing Spanish regions. Podemos’ manifesto more than makes up for the big two’s reticence on the corruption issue, proposing a series of measure to tackle that as well as opposing austerity and promoting greater popular democracy, including a gimmicky suggestion to add a 100th seat to the regional parliament representing “citizens initiatives.” United Left and Compromise’s manifestos take a similar approach to Podemos on corruption and economic, with Compromise also pushing more “green” issues and suggesting more public festivals (in a country which already has an insane number) such as the Chinese New Year and Gay Pride.
Citizens’ manifesto focuses more on constitutional reform issues, including more controls on party funding, electoral reform, term limits along with more sensible suggestions, such as combining municipalities with less than 5,000 people (some of the smallest Spanish municipalities have less than 10 voters.)
UPyD’s poll numbers have declined so much that they look unlikely to be a serious player any more, at least in Valencia. Controversially, they were even excluded from the pre-election debate in Valencia (and also in Madrid) which featured the other six parties, including Citizens and Podemos, neither of which have representation in Valencia. That debate, which took place both in Valencian and Spanish, had the look of a lynch mob, with PSOE, Podemos, United Left and Compromise all ganging up on the PP.
The latest polls have pointed to big breakthroughs for Podemos and Citizens, a modest increase for Compromise, with a big decline for PP and, to a lesser degree, the PSOE. United Left face a nervy election night, with their support hovering around the 5% cut-off point, meaning they’ll either end up with 6 seats or none. UPyD, after polling 8.5% in Valencia region in last year’s Euro election, are now around 1% and look to have no chance.
What does that all mean in terms of outcome? The second most recent poll suggested PP 36 seats, PSOE 24, Citizens 14, Podemos 12, Compromise 8 and United Left 5. That outcome would leave the left bloc one seat short of an overall majority, leaving Citizens as the kingmakers.
The most recent poll had PP 34, PSOE 22, Podemos 18, Citizens 17 and Compromise on 8, with United Left just missing out. Again, Citizens would decide the outcome and it remains to be seen if, with their more economically right wing policies and opposition to regionalism, they could support a left-led coalition including Podemos and Compromise. I doubt it. In Andalusia, the parliament has been deadlocked since the March elections, with both Citizens and Podemos refusing to back a PSOE president unless preconditions, including resignations of politicians implicated in corruption scandals, are met, which PSOE refuse to meet. In both Valencia and Andalusia, a second election later this year remains a real possibility.
Polls in Madrid, controlled by PP majorities since 1995, point to a similar outcome.
Citizens and Podemos also look likely to hold the balance of power. As they are new parties, this is very much unchartered territory for Spain with few precedents and those available, like Andalusia, hardly look promising.
Faced with Citizens and Podemos demands, unholy alliances of PP and PSOE aren’t even out of the question. There is precedent for this in one of Spain’s northern regions, Asturias, where the 2012 election produced a PSOE minority government which entered into a confidence and supply agreement with United Left and UPyD. These two parties withdrew their support in late 2013 and set a reform of the electoral system (which would give them more seats at the expense of the PSOE and PP) as a precondition for renewed support. Unexpectedly, the PP, which had as much to lose from its large rival from such a reform, backed a continued PSOE minority administration. Elsewhere, the PSOE does look in with a chance of regaining regions like Extremadura. It would be really ironic if the PSOE, despite achieving its worst results historically were to regain control of lost areas, albeit in pacts with Podemos.
For Spain, with a general election looming in November, none of this looks good, either for the country or the EU as a whole, with such instability likely to spook investors and few of the parties having any real idea of how to revive the country’s moribund economy.