Spanish voters join Europe's flight from the mainstream

No clear winner emerged from Spain's general election on Sunday, as new upstart parties claimed a third of the country's parliamentary seats.

Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP
A worker removes a campaign poster for the national elections depicting Spain's Prime Minister and Popular Party candidate Mariano Rajoy, in Madrid on Monday. A strong showing by a pair of upstart parties in Spain's general election upended the country's traditional two-party system, with the ruling Popular Party winning the most votes but falling far short of a parliamentary majority and at risk of being booted from power.

Chalk up another victory for Europe's growing populist movements.

While anti-establishment parties didn't poll first in Spain’s general election Sunday, they ended its long political duopoly, with no single party achieving a majority.

And in doing so they sent a wake-up call to mainstream parties across Europe who are grappling with new divisions that no longer split neatly between right and left, but between old parties and new ones.

While populist challenges have been growing for years, 2015 has been a year of reckoning for the old guard. It began with the victory of left-wing Syriza in Greece, buoyed by the same anti-austerity backlash that rocked the Spanish political system at year’s end. And from France to Poland to Denmark to Austria, populist figures on the right appealed to voters worried about immigration and the refugee crisis and about getting left behind.

A hung parliament favors the "losers"

In Spain, two new populist parties broke up the historic rivalry between the conservative Popular Party (PP) and the center-left Socialists (PSOE). The ruling PP won the largest share of votes (28.7 percent) in Sunday's parliamentary elections, but only took 123 out of 350 seats. 

The PSOE, with whom the PP has alternated power since Spain’s transition to democracy, slumped to their poorest showing in modern history, with 90 seats. Together the two upstart parties, left-wing Podemos and centrist Ciudadanos, captured more seats than the PSOE, with 69 and 40 respectively.

Spain’s political elites have been hurt by corruption scandals amid a grinding economic crisis. While incumbent Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy campaigned on economic improvements under his watch, many Spaniards have not experienced the recovery.

The PP fell far short of the 176 seats required to govern alone, and lacks a clear partner to form a coalition government. That could open the door instead for a government of left-leaning parties: a coalition of “losers” as recently happened in Portugal.

Spain’s upstarts are jubilant. Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, or "We can," said “a new Spain has been born. The bipartisan political system is over.”

A new era of minorities?

If Mr. Rajoy loses power, Spain would follow Greece and Portugal, where angry voters supported leftists fighting against anti-austerity measures put in place by both the mainstream right and left in Europe.

Today’s editorial in El Pais urges politicians to listen to the demands for change. “We must learn to live together in a new era of parliamentary minorities,” they say. “There is no doubt that there will be complex negotiations to form a government, but one hopes that the main constitutional actors take this on with constructive energy. Voters’ hopes will be frustrated if the process now leads to maximalist demands or blockages that impedes a change in the system.”

In France, mainstream politicians faced a wakeup call during regional elections this month in which the right-wing National Front (FN) polled strongly. In the regions where Socialists trailed by a distant third, the party dropped out of the second round.

In the end, the FN didn’t win any of France’s 13 regions, to the relief of Europe's established parties. But the Socialists’ call could end up backfiring. “If you are dissatisfied with mainstream parties, you can say simply that they are an oligarchy, that they gang up on smaller parties,” says Helen Thompson, a politics lecturer at the University of Cambridge.

In Marseille, a southern region where the Socialists dropped out, Benjamin Androdias, a student, said ahead of the round-two vote that he felt like the two mainstream parties are nearly identical. “I feel they’re ridiculing us, especially this game between Socialists and the [center-right] Républicains.”

A blow to the European left

The political uncertainty in southern France mirrors a European left that’s been in disarray with the rise of populism. They have been blamed for their handling of the economic crisis and for moving too far to the right in doing so, while abandoning leftist ideals and the working classes that formed their traditional base.

The center-left has also been hurt by loyalists who have defected to the far-right and condemned Socialists for failing to address their concerns, particularly around immigration.

“Whether the FN in France or right-wing parties in Austria, these radical right-wing parties got a lot of votes from the Socialists or Social Democrats because they are appealing to workers' fears,” says Florian Hartleb, a German political consultant who specializes in populism in Europe.

This is even true in Germany, where a grand coalition between the center right and left is in power but where the refugee crisis has piled new pressures on the government. The populist right-wing Alternative for Deutschland saw a jump in popularity from three to 10 percent according to a poll last month after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany will not put an upper limit on the numbers of asylum seekers it admits.

Sylke Tempel, editor-in chief of Internationale Politik, published by the German Council on Foreign Relations, says Chancellor Merkel has increasingly given interviews to explain her vision on the refugee crisis. This kind of “expectation management” will become more important as political elites face scrutiny, she says.

“Mainstream parties have to understand that they have to do much more management, and constant communication with the public.”

 Rachel Stern contributed reporting from Berlin.

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