Uncertainty, frustration as Spain return to polls

OVIEDO, Spain 

For the fourth time in four years, Spaniards will cast ballots in a general election Sunday.

Around 37 million Spanish citizens have been called to participate in a general election, just like April 28, Yet, this time around, a sense of cynicism has set in, especially among left-wing voters.

“I’m still not sure if I’ll even vote. I’m beginning to think it’s pointless,” a 24-year-old female university student told Anadolu Agency. She did not want to provide her name but last April she she voted for the far-left Unidas Podemos party.

“It’s frustrating. I will vote for a party on the left but I’m not sure they deserve it,” said Jose Vega, 37.

The April elections were widely seen as a victory for the left. The two left-wing parties, the Socialists, led by Pedro Sanchez, and Unidas Podemos, had a clear opportunity to form a government, with the support of nationalist parties. But, after months of failed negotiations, parliament dissolved in September.

Besides administrative paralysis, each election costs around €140 million ($154 million). And despite the fact that politicians passed zero laws, the cost of last Parliament – in terms of wages, spending, travel, etc. — was more than €23.8 million, according to the transparency portal Newtral.

Opinion polls strongly suggest that after Sunday, Parliament will remain similarly, if not more, divided. 

Pollsters at the daily El Pais predict far-right party Vox could double its seats and a new left-wing party, Mas Pais, which splintered off from Podemos, could enter Parliament for the first time.

Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who, polls predict will win another minority, called the political situation “a labyrinth” in an interview Thursday with broadcaster La Sexta. He has not committed to forming a coalition government with any party going forward.

So, what’s responsible for Spain’s political deadlock? 

At the center of the problem is the splintering of Spain’s political landscape. Between the time Spain held its first democratic elections in 1977 and 2011, the country was dominated by the Popular Party and the Socialist Party.

However, in 2015, in response to widespread corruption in the two parties, the economic crisis that devastated the Spanish economy and growing tensions in Catalonia, two new parties broke onto the scene: anti-austerity Podemos and the center-right Ciudadanos.

Elections marked the transition from a two-party system to multi-party. Yet, to govern in Spain, one party must garner the support of a simple majority in parliament. When no party was unable to muster enough abstentions or supporters, elections were triggered again in 2016.

After those elections, which drew similarly fractured results, a government was formed by Mariano Rajoy after 10 months of political deadlock.

To facilitate that government, Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez was ousted by his party, after he refused to abstain and pave the way for a stable Popular Party government.

Sanchez, however, was re-elected as the leader of the Socialist party in 2017. In 2018, he filed a successful motion of no-confidence against Rajoy and became Spain’s prime minister. Yet, after struggling to maintain a working majority in parliament, he called snap elections in April.

Then, before the April polls, another party broke onto the scene, the far-right party Vox. Last April, the party which engages in highly patriotic rhetoric against immigrants and Catalan separatists, won 24 the 350 seats up for grabs. This time around, polls predict they will surge, mostly at the expense of Ciudadanos.

“To explain the deadlock, on one hand, you have the division of the two traditional parties into fragmented blocks that require negotiations and parties that are not used to forming coalitions or making pacts,” Berta Barbet Porta, a Spanish political analyst, told the Anadolu Agency. “The electoral system punishes medium-sized parties, and therefore, the parties are very afraid of losing voters.”

Barbet also pointed to another main issue at the core of Spain’s ongoing political crisis, the situation in Catalonia.

Since 2010, the separatist movement has exploded in the wealthy northeastern region. Since 2014, the region has held two illegal referendums on independence and in 2017, the separatist government even declared independence in the regional parliament.

As a consequence, several politicians were charged with sedition and the misuse of public funds last month, which triggered massive protests and disturbances across Catalonia.
Right-wing parties, Ciudadanos, the Popular Party and Vox, have been highly critical of Sanchez’s management of the situation and call for harsher measures to suppress the movement.

Just this week, the government of the region of Madrid, run by a three-way coalition, passed a motion put forward by Vox that calls for the illegalization of separatist parties in Spain.

Yet, how to deal with Catalan separatism is a major point of departure between the Socialists and Podemos. Pedro Sanchez, for instance, has refused to engage in dialogue with separatist leader of Catalonia, Quim Torra, and included in his election pledges new legislation that would change Catalonia’s education and media. Podemos, on the other hand, insists that dialogue and negotiations with separatists are the only ways to defuse the situation.

At the same time, the Socialists may need to count on the support of nationalist parties from places like Catalonia and the Basque Country to form a functioning government. If not, polls predict it will be likely that the Socialists would have to seek allies on the right, with whom they do not agree on issues including Catalonia, social policy and economics.

“If I had to sum up the political situation in Spain right now in one word, I would say ‘uncertainty,’” said Barbet.

So while the results of the election will be known Sunday night, whether or not Spain will be able to form a functioning government is a question unlikely to be answered in the short-term.
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