Madrid turns left - and Europe too?
By Alberto Mingardi
Spain voted on Sunday in a number of administrative jurisdictions. These were local elections, so one should not underestimate the local peculiarities that may have influenced the outcome. However, the big news is that the Popular (Christian-Democrats) and the Socialist Parties, gained respectively 27% and 25% of the votes in the national projection. This is not quite a debacle, but certainly something is changing in Spain, which has long been basically a two party system.
The newcomers are the centrists of Ciudadanos and Podemos, a strong thriving neo-Marxist party. Ciudadanos gained 6% of the votes nationally, which suggests that it might turn out to be the kingmaker in the coming national elections. There is no national projection for Podemos, because it decided to run with local coalitions and not under its own flag alone.
The BBC confidently states that “Spain enters a new political era”. Their correspondent emphasized the anti-austerity nature of the vote and came to suggest that the fact that Barcelona went for Podemos suggests “many people in Barcelona care more about social policy than Catalan nationalist ambitions”. Xavier Sala-i-Martin has retweeted a tweet which argues for the opposite view, taking into account all the municipal elections in Catalunya.
The Popular Party officials make the point that their party is still the first one at the national level, even though it lost more than two million votes from the previous municipal elections (in Spanish). El Paìs stresses the need for a generational change of leadership in the Popular Party. Rajoy has been around for quite a while indeed: he began his political career in 1981; he was already a Minister in the Nineties, he lost elections in 2004 and 2008 to Zapatero, and won in 2011. Can he accept the idea of a change of leadership now? It doesn’t seem very likely.
What many commentators are suggesting is that the balance of power is moving left. In actual fact, Podemos appear to be more “political” than other protest movements (such as the Five Star Movement in Italy), in the sense that they have already declared their willingness to enter into coalition with the more moderate socialists, whenever possible. They are strongly rooted in the left, so this is somehow a natural move. I’d be very happy for that, if I were a supporter of the socialist party, because this increases the likelihood of a coalition led by the PSOE in the next national elections, scheduled for September.
Particularly when assessing local elections, if you do not know very well the local environment you risk misinterpreting the signals.
The European elites (bureaucracy and incumbent politicians in member states) have an obvious incentive to preserve the status quo. Naturally they look with apprehension at signs of political instability and look for ways to balance them: their effort to stay put, as anything else, can have consequences that go far beyond their intentions. So, if it is highly probable that this election will be understood as a wake up call by folks in Brussels, how will it be interpreted?
Niall Ferguson commented on the recent British elections as the end of “Krugmania” in the UK. There will be many that will interpret the failure of Rajoy exactly in the opposite direction, calling for more “flexibility” and less emphasis on fiscal consolidation. This is very relevant, as the push comes to shove in Greece.
But there is another possible interpretation. People may recognize that the electoral appeal of parties like Podemos is greatly increased by complacency towards Athens. After all, if the Greeks can get away with whatever, why should not the Spanish too go for their version of Tsipras and Varoufakis?
So, getting tougher on Greece may actually remind Spanish voters that there are indeed no free lunches, not even in the European Union. Draghi’s recent speech on the need for credible structural reform may somehow point in that direction.
I would bet that the first interpretation (it is time to stop with “austerity”, whatever it is) will gain traction in the next few days. However, I am not sure it is good news for the future of the Eurozone.