Why Spain isn't likely to catch anti-establishment bug

With a government beset by corruption scandals and rising anger over austerity, some fear that Spain could follow Italy's path into political dysfunction. But experts say that's unlikely.

Juan Medina/Reuters
Spain's Economy Minister Luis de Guindos listens to a question during an interview with Reuters at his office in Madrid last month. Though the political deadlock in Italy has raised concerns that similar dysfunction could occur in Spain, where the pro-austerity government is increasingly unpopular, experts say that it is unlikely to occur.

In the aftermath of Italy’s vote and the resulting political stalemate, some markets and European capitals have been worried that Spain could catch the anti-establishment bug. 

But despite corruption scandals, secessionist threats, and rising street anger over austerity, experts say that Spain is shielded from the type of radical political swings that Italy saw in its recent national elections. How? Thanks to a combination of Spanish political culture, shifting attitudes in Europe toward austerity, and a lack of popular political alternatives. 

Still, fears of an Italian-style government deadlock are justified. Spain’s economy, Europe’s fifth biggest, is in worse shape than its big peers, and it offers fewer signs of recovery. Its citizens are loudly rejecting Europe-prescribed austerity and their trust in European Union institutions and its own leaders is rapidly eroding.

Voter support for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's governing Popular Party (PP) has plummeted since the November 2011 elections, from 44 percent then to 24 percent in March, more recently coinciding with corruption scandals, according to monthly opinion polls published by El País daily. Mr. Rajoy's approval rating is 22 percent and that of his most popular cabinet member is only 31 percent.

Trust in the EU has also plummeted among Spaniards since the crisis began, according to the latest Eurobarometer survey, which polls all EU countries. In 2007, 65 percent trusted the EU and 23 percent didn’t, but now only 20 percent trust it and 72 percent don’t. Out of all Europeans, Spaniards, along with the Greeks, feel the most distrust for their politicians, parliament, political parties, and country institutions.

Further, Spain faces the threat of secession by Catalonia, its richest region, which is trying to leverage greater freedom out of Spain's economic woes.

As a result, many worry about the possibility of an Italian-style election revolt in Spain, bringing the government to a halt. A dysfunctional government would almost surely upend deficit-cutting policies, lead the country into requesting a crippling bailout, and stall growth further, undermining Europe’s fragile strategy to pull itself out of a grueling crisis.

Political breakwaters

But the country’s political culture and timing work to its advantage, even if polls and experts suggest the political landscape will invariably weaken traditional bipartisanship.

“Spain’s political culture doesn’t allow for something like Italy,” says Fermín Bouza, a sociology professor in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and an expert in voter trends and public opinion.

“Italy has a humoristic side to it, and political transformation comes as a result of dissidence. But Spain is not as comical,” Dr. Bouza says. “It’s more tragic because it’s accustomed to the useful vote, to vote for the best of all evils.”

Furthermore, an institutional crisis such as Italy’s would require national elections, which are not scheduled in Spain until the end of 2015, giving the government a window to manage public frustration, which in any case is blamed more on European policies.

Shifts on austerity?

While Rajoy and the PP have time, they still have little economic wiggle room with the population already on edge. As in other parts of Europe, there are growing demands to ease off draconian austerity measures in favor of a shift toward more stimulus-driven policies, like those of the US and Japan.

And while adhering to its austerity-driven continental policies, Madrid also supports French-led and Italian-backed pressure on Germany to add flexibility. Chancellor Angela Merkel is showing signs of political fatigue, as are all incumbent governments. And the global economy, led by China and the US, appears to be gaining steam.

But Spain also appears to be inspiring confidence in the markets that it will more likely be a source of stability in Europe. The cost of borrowing for Spain has gradually dropped and reached parity with Italy’s, in a clear sign of both the growing trust in Spain’s stability, and of growing mistrust in Italy’s.

And even with Spain's economic plight, corruption scandals, and infighting in the PP, experts agree that they will likely trigger a government shake-up, but not snap elections.

No alternatives

And even if they did trigger early elections, the top anti-austerity political alternatives to the PP are even more unpopular.

Support for the biggest opposition Socialist Party has plummeted to 23 percent in March, from 31 percent in November elections. The two smaller national parties, the heirs of the Communist Party and an offshoot of the Socialist Party positioned in the center right, have both more than doubled voter support in the same period to reach 15 percent and 10 percent respectively.

The left vote further fractured after Catalonian Socialists defied their national leaders by supporting the region’s plans to hold a referendum on the whether to secede from Spain. But the PP is also fast losing support from the far right, exposing infighting in the normally monolithic vote, and to the center-right party.

Moreover, Spain’s political establishment is wholly discredited. Corruption is the second most pressing issue for Spaniards after unemployment, according to a survey released in March by the country’s census and statistical body. But Spanish voters translate that into apathy and resignation, as opposed to supporting risky alternatives.

“The systematic political crisis faces the lack of alternatives, unlike Italy where they have critical mass to block the government,” says Jaime Pastor, a political science professor in the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia and an expert in mass movements.

“We will see a legitimacy crisis of the government and the regime, but not enough to force the government or Europe to backtrack on its policies. We’ll have to see how synchronized European popular movements are going forward.”

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