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Politics : Spanish election: national newcomers end era of two-party dominance

Podemos and Ciudadanos will hold balance of power in forthcoming coalition talks after People’s party fail to win clear majority
Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias (c) with other members as they celebrate the election results at the Goya theatre in Madrid. Photograph: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

Spanish politicians are gearing up for what could be weeks of complicated negotiations after Sunday’s general election yielded a deeply fragmented parliament, with the conservative People’s party losing ground to national newcomers Podemos and Ciudadanos.

The PP won 123 seats in the election, with 29% of the vote, leaving them far from a majority in the 350-seat legislature. Led by Mariano Rajoy, the current prime minister, the party has limited possibilities when it comes to the alliances it now needs to form a stable government majority.

The Socialists, who asserted their place as the traditional rival of the conservatives throughout the campaign, came second, with 90 seats and 22% of the vote. With many in Spain still suffering the lingering effects of an economic crisis that sent unemployment rates soaring and triggered painful austerity measures, millions of voters turned away from the PP and Socialists, who have alternated in power for decades, and instead looked to emerging parties.

Anti-austerity Podemos, which was formed in the aftermath of protests following Spain’s financial crisis, finished in third place with 69 seats and 21% of the vote, while the centre-right Ciudadanos won 40 seats and 14% of the vote. “Spain is not going to be the same anymore and we are very happy,” Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias said on Sunday. The PP and Socialists won a combined vote share of about 50%, compared with the 70-80% of past general elections.

Podemos did remarkably well across the country, placing first in Catalonia – where it ran in a coalition with Barcelona en Comú – and the Basque country, a result that suggested widespread support for its campaign promise to hold a referendum on Catalan independence. “Today is a historical day for Spain,” Iglesias told supporters on Sunday night. “Every time there is an election, the forces of change advance.”

Ciudadanos also celebrated their result on Sunday. “Today begins a new phase of hope and excitement,” said leader Albert Rivera on Sunday. “Millions in Spain have decided that things are going to change.”

The results leave open the possibility for Rajoy to become the first leader in Europe to be re-elected after imposing harsh austerity measures on his electorate, but he first faces a tremendous uphill battle to take power. “I’m going to try and form a government,” Rajoy vowed on Sunday as the results came in. “But it won’t be easy.”

In order to be able to govern for the next four years, the PP will have to rely on other parties, suggesting a protracted process of negotiations lies ahead for Spain’s political leaders.

Several scenarios are possible. In the lead-up to the election, many analysts had predicted that the new government would be made up of the PP and supported in some way by Ciudadanos. But Sunday’s election result leave the two parties together still short of a majority. Graphic: election results

Any such alliance would now require a third partner, a scenario that shifts some of the balance of power to regional parties from Catalonia and the Basque country and will be complicated by Ciudadanos’ vehement opposition to Catalan independence and insistence on eradicating longstanding Basque tax benefits.

Many analysts point to a grand pact between the PP and Socialists – an option rejected by the leaders of both parties during the campaign – as the most viable option moving forward.

Another alternative, echoing developments in Portugal, would be a coalition of the Socialists, Podemos and Ciudadanos. However, Rivera said earlier this week his party would not support what he called a “grouping of losers”, diminishing the likelihood of this option.

Sunday’s results could allow the Socialists to govern with the support of Podemos and several smaller parties, such as the Republican Left of Catalonia, who won nine seats, or Artur Mas’s Convergence party, which won eight seats.

If the Socialists amass enough votes to gain control of the lower house of parliament, their government’s attempts to push forward initiatives such as constitutional reform would likely be quashed by the country’s senate, where Sunday’s election left the PP with an absolute majority.

On Sunday evening Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez congratulated Rajoy and said he would allow the conservative leader to take the first crack at forming a government: “It’s up to the first place political force to try and form a government.” But he noted that a new chapter of Spanish politics had begun, saying: “We’re beginning a new process of dialogue and agreement.”

The election results will prompt what could be months of negotiations, said Pablo Simón, a political science professor at Madrid’s Carlos III University. “They need to talk, they need to negotiate. Anything is possible.” He pointed to the 1996 election, won by the PP and resulting in a government propped up by Catalan and Basque nationalists. “The first time PP came into power, it took two months to reach an agreement.”

Despite a result that ranks as their worst in the party’s modern history, the Socialists are now key to the question of what comes next, said Emilio Sáenz-Francés, a professor of history and international relations at Madrid’s Comillas Pontifical University. “The question is whether [the Socialists’] Sánchez will allow Rajoy to lead the government or whether Sánchez will try to build a coalition of several parties in order to take power,” said Sáenz-Francés.

He pointed to the Spanish king, who is now tasked with naming which party will have the chance to try and form a government. Most likely he will point to Rajoy and the PP given that they won the election. “But for the first time in the history of democracy in Spain, it’s not clear how the most-voted party will be able to govern.”
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