After Spain’s inconclusive election last December 20, four frustrating months of efforts to form a government ended in failure. As a result, Spain is again headed to the polls on June 26. This failure was hardly surprising, for the December 20 results reflected the implosion of the traditional two-party system, and the emergence of two new parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, which in turn reflected the deep economic and territorial crisis that began in 2008.1 But the story begins earlier, with the transition to democracy 40 years ago, when the rules of the Spanish political system were set.

The Spanish political system: 1978–2015

The drafters of the Spanish constitution, taking into account the concerns of the so-called poderes fácticos (Catholic Church, Army, financial sector), created a parliamentary monarchy with a peculiar electoral system. It was proportional in principle, since the deputies of the Congreso de los Diputados would be elected in 51 constituencies (provincias) using a proportional formula based on party lists.2 In reality, since the constituencies were small in size, the result was far from proportional. This was no accident, as the system was designed to secure stable majorities and reinforce the existing political parties. And so it did. From the 1980s on, either the centre-right PP (Partido Popular, formerly Alianza Popular) or the centre-left Socialists (PSOE) formed majority governments, with the party leader becoming prime minister. This institutional design produced little competition both within the parties, since the deputies were appointed by the party, and outside the parties, since the system blocked the emergence of new political forces.3

During certain periods the majorities attained by the PP or PSOE depended on the support of smaller parties, especially those representing the Basque and Catalan minorities. A well-known case was the “Majestic Agreement” of 1996, when the Catalan regionalist party Convergència i Unió (CiU), led by Catalonia’s former president Jordi Pujol, agreed to support the Partido Popular, led by José María Aznar, in exchange for strengthening Catalan autonomy.

This all ended with the December 2015 election. Outgoing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular came in first, even though its popular vote dropped by more than a third. Both he and Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Socialist Party (which came second in December), failed to line up a majority. After four months of fruitless negotiations among the parties, on May 3 a new election was called for June.

The main obstacle to an agreement is that in the 2015 election the vote was scattered among four national parties. The PP and PSOE between them won only half the votes, while Podemos won 69 deputies and 21 per cent of the popular vote, and Ciudadanos won 40 deputies and 14 per cent of the popular vote (table 1).


The system confronts an economic and institutional crisis

The current political stalemate must be understood in the context of a societal crisis which has gripped Spanish democracy in recent years.4 The economic crisis was particularly hard on the party systems of southern Europe – Italy, Portugal and Greece have also witnessed a reduction of support for the traditional parties – and for democratic institutions as such. But there are some aspects distinctive to Spain that need to be taken into account.

The Socialist Party came to power in 2004 in an election held three days after Al Qaeda attacks in Madrid. It replaced a conservative PP government whose decisions, and especially its support for the Iraq war, had been much criticized. The tense atmosphere between the PP and PSOE at the time was popularly referred to as crispación. A year later, the new Catalan Statute of Autonomy further divided the two parties. While the Socialists, led by José Luis Zapatero, were ready to accept the more open and decentralized notion of the Estado de las autonomías, the conservatives sought to appeal to the constitutional court, considering several articles of the Statute of Autonomy to be unconstitutional. While a revised version of the text was finally adopted by the Socialist-led parliament, the process led to increasing disaffection among Catalan parties and civil society. This disaffection stoked the secessionist movement – now in power in Catalonia.

In the years that followed, political tensions were exacerbated by the economic situation. Spanish GDP began to decline in the third trimester of 2008, and at the beginning of 2009 Spain was already in recession. The Socialist government tried to deny the existence of the economic crisis, but it soon faced skyrocketing unemployment, which rose to 22.9 per cent in 2011, with youth unemployment at over 50 per cent. As a result, the PSOE lost the 2011 election to the PP, which won a single-party majority. Despite the absence of serious nationwide competitors, the 2011 election already indicated a certain weakening of support for the old parties. One indicator was the emergence of a number of social movements – especially the Indignados – that were to evolve into new political movements.5

Support for democracy and political institutions in Spain plummeted dramatically after 2009. During a previous recession, in 1993, unemployment reached 24 per cent and public debt reached critical levels, but support for democracy held firm. Now, however, the economic crisis had a political impact. Confidence in the Congreso de los Diputados, which had already began to decline in 2006 (to 40 per cent) dropped below 30 per cent in 2010, while confidence in the political parties fell below 20 per cent. In fact, all institutions in Spain, including parliament, the monarchy, regional governments and the courts, underwent a dramatic decline in popular confidence.6

Corruption contributed to the worsening perception of political parties. Scandals linked mainly to housing developments during the period of economic expansion affected both the PSOE and the PP as well as regional parties (60 per cent of municipalities in the southeastern region of Murcia and 40 per cent in the Canary Islands have been investigated). The corruption that was exposed centred not on civil servants but on the political party organizations, allegedly reaching up to the leadership of the Partido Popular.7 Another case touched the royal family with alleged connections to regional leaders of both parties.8 It was evident that there was a flaw in institutional design, with too much power in the hands of unaccountable party organizations.9

Together, these factors help us understand the 2015 election results. Combined support for the PP and PSOE dropped from 83.8 per cent in 2008 to 73.4 per cent in 2011 to 50.7 per cent last December. These developments had already been anticipated by local, regional and European elections in 2014, and especially those in Andalusia in March 2015.

The emergence of Podemos and Ciudadanos and the Catalan question

The breakthrough by Podemos and Ciudadanos made it difficult to form a coalition government in Madrid not simply because of numbers but also because of the dissimilar origins and objectives of the new parties. Podemos’s origins lie in the radical Indignados or 15M movement and its critique of the established political system and the ruling parties. The party manifesto advocates a profound transformation of the Spanish political system. Its ideology is clearly leftist, but it is also decentralist, favouring a federalism that reflects Spain’s plurinational character. It is far from being a homogeneous organization: the Galician, Catalan and Valencian platforms are only partially controlled by Podemos since they belong to local coalitions.10

Ciudadanos, on the other hand, began as a centre-right Catalan political party focused primarily on the defence of Spanish speakers’ rights in Catalonia and opposition to secession. Ciudadanos went national in a big way after making major gains in Catalonia in the regional elections of September 2015. Both parties present themselves as a “new politics” alternative to the traditional two-party system, and both have younger leaders than PP and PSOE. But Ciudadanos has been more open to an agreement with both PP and PSOE, while Podemos remains reluctant to support a coalition with either.

The Catalan question brings another dimension to the current Spanish political impasse. On September 27, 2015, a secessionist majority was elected to the Catalan parliament. The ruling parties in Catalonia formed a common platform called Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), winning 62 of 135 deputies.11 With the support of the small secessionist far-left CUP they arrived at an agreement to give the Catalan prime minister, Carles Puigdemont, the task of producing a plan for attaining independence within 18 months.12 This development is the result of several years of mobilization to achieve Catalan autonomy and the refusal of the Spanish government, supported by the PSOE, to allow a referendum on the constitutional future of Catalonia. Catalan secessionists are now represented in the Spanish parliament by 17 deputies from two parties (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya and Democràcia i Llibertat) which take the common position that they will only support a Spanish government that accepts a referendum on secession in Catalonia. With this stance, they eschew the former role of Catalan representatives as kingmakers in Madrid – unless a referendum is included in the negotiation.

The failure of the negotiations and a new election

In the more than four months since the December 20 election, several coalition options were explored, but none met with success. The real options of a coalition government were few, since there was no clear majority coalition among the four countrywide parties given their preferences and strength in the parliament that was ultimately dissolved on May 3.

Still, there were three factors, both external and internal, that could have forced an agreement before a new election was called. First, the European Union was putting pressure on the main countrywide parties to find a way to deal with the critical economic situation, making them appear irresponsible if they failed to arrive at a deal. Second, polls continuously showed that a new election would produce a similar result13 – unless the expected lower turnout demobilized some parties, most likely the PSOE and Podemos, more than the others. The third factor concerns the effect on public opinion of the Catalan government’s approaching deadline for a unilateral declaration. On the one hand, it could hurt the PP, given the refusal of Rajoy’s caretaker cabinet, upheld by the constitutional court, to negotiate any possible self-determination or secessionist initiative. But it could also lay blame on Podemos for its unwillingness to work to arrive at a consensus to meet the threat.

In effect, Rajoy’s attitude left it to the Socialist leader, Pedro Sánchez, to initiate negotiations despite his party’s weaker position. Sánchez had few options. Given Podemos’s support for a Catalan independence referendum, he turned to the right and negotiated a basic (and vague) common program with Ciudadanos. The agreement was ratified by 79 per cent of participants in an unusual internal consultation in which a comparatively high number of PSOE members (51.7 per cent) voted. For the agreement to put the parties in a position to form a government, given that PSOE and Ciudadanos together could count on only 130 votes, far from the 176 needed for a majority, Podemos’s assent was required. Podemos refused, instead organizing an internal referendum on this issue.

Why it is so difficult to form a government coalition

There are inherent difficulties at reaching an agreement to form a coalition government in Spain. First, voters tend to support integrally one ideology or another. For example, voters who are conservative in economic terms are also conservative in cultural or social terms. This lack of ideological diversity has an impact on parties’ capacity to reach agreement both because they cannot easily find common ground and because those that do occupy the same ideological ground compete for the same voters.14 Second, there is no experience whatsoever of coalition governments comprising more than one national party to fall back on.

Moreover, the economic and institutional crises, as well as the corruption scandals, have exacerbated the situation, both in the attitude of the electorate and in interparty relations. This bitterness was reflected in the election campaign’s televised debate, in which Pedro Sánchez personally attacked Prime Minister Rajoy over the corruption scandals, and in the subsequent parliamentary debates. Finally, as the territorial dimension becomes even more salient with the approach of the Catalan deadline, the division of the left will intensify, with the PSOE unwilling to compromise and Podemos taking a pro-referendum and self-determination position with a Catalan platform closer to the pro-independence position of the left-wing Catalan nationalist parties.

Have the new parties already won?

Whatever happens on June 26, it is clear that these two new forces, Podemos and Ciudadanos, will maintain their pivotal roles in parliament. The implosion of the traditional two-party system not only makes it difficult to form a government but also undermines the constitutional compromise which envisaged a stable party system sustained by large majorities. The continued absence of such majorities could mark the beginning of the end of this institutional design and force Spaniards to contemplate major constitutional reform.

To further complicate matters, any such reform could not ignore the territorial dimension. Indeed, the response to the Catalan situation of an eventual new cabinet will give some clues as to what kind of overall institutional change will emerge, since the territorial model (called Estado de las autonomías) has been one of the pillars of the transitional consensus. If there is a refusal to consider replacing the transitional model at both the institutional and territorial levels, the result will be greater polarization and discontent, increasing the costs of any future constitutional consensus and, most likely, legitimizing the current unilateral pro-sovereignty government plan in Catalonia.

As indicated by recent polls, the outcome of the general election in June will likely result in little change in the composition of parliament.15 The national parties will thus have no choice but to make concessions to one another and to the emerging political forces. Clearly, while the new multiparty face of the Spanish parliament does not fit the constitutional framework, it does reflect Spanish plurality, as well as the desire for change in both the institutional and territorial dimensions. These will be new times for Spanish politics and probably lead to the first coalition among national parties. But it remains to be seen which parties will be involved, and what changes in policy and institutions the new alignment will herald.


1 See my article “Podemos and Spain’s New Political Landscape,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2015, pp. 74–81.

2 Spain, along with many other countries, uses the D’Hondt method of determining seat allocation when strict proportionality would result in a fractional number.

3 Pablo Simón, «El maquiavélico sistema electoral español», in Politikon, La urna rota: la crisis política e institucional del empleo español, Debate (Barcelona and Madrid: Penguin Random House, 2014).

4 See Ignacio Sánchez Cuenca, La impotencia democrática: sobre la crisis política de España (Madrid: Catarata, 2014).Although the Spanish economy has been growing again since the beginning of 2014 the effects of the crisis are still there such as a an unemployment rate over 20%.

5 See Irene Martín Cortés, “Spain’s Indignados: For a Better Representative Democracy, and More,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2013, pp. 65–77.

6 Santiago Pérez-Nievas et al., Los efectos de la crisis económica en la democracia española: legitimidad, insatisfacción y desafección (Madrid, 2013), retrieved here.

7 The Bárcenas affair, in which the existence of a parallel bookkeeping system to hide illegal transactions came to light, and the Gürtel case, involving accusations of bribery, money laundering and tax evasion.

8 Iñaki Urdangarin, who is married to Princess Cristina, has been accused of diverting public funds for his own profit through his consulting company, the Nóos Institute.

9 Manuel Villoria, «La corrupción en España: rasgos y causas esenciales», Cahiers de civilisation espagnole contemporaine, Autumn 2015, retrieved here.

10 In fact, the Valencian platform was supported by the regionalist party Compromís and got nine deputies. During the first parliamentary session the Valencian deputies realized that they could not have their own parliamentary group and four of the deputies belonging to the Valencian platform detached from the Podemos parliamentary group. The Galician and Catalan platforms agreed to be part of the countrywide Podemos parliamentary group with a “federal” functioning system.

11 See Eric Guntermann, “Catalonia’s Ambiguous Vote,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2015, pp. 101–03.

12  See my article “Catalonia: From Secessionism to Secession,” E–International Relations, January 15, 2016, retrieved here.

13 See Gonzalo Cortizo, «La repetición de las elecciones no traería grandes cambios», El Diario, March 7, 2016, retrieved here.

14 See Victor Lapuente Giné, «¿Por qué es tan difícil pactar en España?», El Diario, April 25, 2016, retrieved here.

15 See «Sondeos de voto para elecciones generales», El Mundo, May 6, 2016, retrieved here.