The Partido Popular (Conservatives) and the Socialist party (Labour) have been the two major parties alternating in government in Spain for many years. Last week-end they managed to secure just one half of the vote between them. The “winners” got under 29% of the popular vote, and were left well short of a majority of seats.
Two new challenger parties shot to prominence. Podemos is as party of the left against austerity, which also argued for a referendum on Catalan independence. They secured 21% of the vote. Cuidadanos, a party of the centre right, gained 14% of the vote. As a result there is no obvious stable coalition that can form the government. The only two parties with sufficient seats to form a coalition government are the Partido Popular and the socialists. Unlike Germany where such a grand coalition has been constructed by Frau Merkel, it seems unlikely these two opponents can work together.
Part of the solution to the problem of how to govern Spain now rests in the hands of the Catalans. The attractiveness of the Podemos offer of a referendum on Catalan independence reduced the numbers voting for independence parties. The Republican left of Catalonia won nine seats, and the independence party called Democracy and Freedom secured 8 seats. The Catalan nationalists and their friends in Podemos will presumably try to gain an official referendum on independence as their price for co-operating in any government. Podemos is in the paradoxical position of wanting a referendum but wanting to oppose independence, and now has 12 Catalan seats which places it in the middle of this row.
It seems unlikely that a minority government of PP and Cuidadanos would be willing to do a deal on a referendum for Catalonia, as they are strongly against. This makes it more difficult for them to win votes as they seek to build from their strong minority vote, which would be thirteen short of winning on its own .
In contrast a coalition of the Socialists and Podemos could just get over the line if they could reach agreement with the Catalan parties. That would be no problem for Podemos, but would require a change of heart by the Socialists.
Catalonia may still not get her referendum, but this result has put it back in play. It serves as a timely reminder of how the EU project can be very destabilising of member states. The dreadful economic performance visited on Spain by the Euro, the austerity policies and the poor regulation of her banks by the Euro authorities has undermined support for the two main pro Union parties. I am myself, of course, entirely neutral on the constitutional future of Spain and Catalonia. It is a matter for them. The recent election has shown yet again how damaging to traditional parties the EU scheme can be, and how that in turn then leads people to question their loyalties to country. It makes working out why these traditional major parties are so keen on this political project, when it does such damage to them as well as to their countries. We saw this in Greece with the collapse of the two main parties there, and may see this spreading to France and elsewhere in the Eurozone.