After two unsuccessful previous attempts and eight years spent in opposition, the gates to Moncloa Palace, the official residence of the Prime Minister of Spain, have finally been opened to Mariano Rajoy, 56, who became the sixth Spanish head of government of the democratic era.
November’s general election took place in a tense European political climate. In the days leading up to the ballot, pressure from the markets had already caused two other European governments – those led by Georges Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi – to fall. While the situation is Spain has clearly also been prompted by the markets, it falls under a slightly different category as the outgoing prime minister, Socialist Jose Luis Zapatero, announced the upcoming elections back in August and indicated that he would not be standing in them.
The People’s Party were declared victorious in the elections by an unprecedented margin, securing 186 seats in the Congress (the parliamentary lower house), the highest total since the return to democracy, compared to just 110 for PSOE (the centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), who lost 59 seats and, most significantly, 4.3 million voters. As expected, the Spanish public ruthlessly punished the outgoing Socialist government, whose severe austerity measures were unable to steer the country out of a dire economic position, with unemployment currently at 22% – the highest rate for 15 years.
In these circumstances, the PP’s victory is anything but euphoric, especially once the political context in which it took place is examined in greater detail. A large number of PSOE voters abstained (although fewer than had been anticipated) leaving them with just 29% of the vote. In particular, many Spanish commentators saw the election as a mere ‘formality’ the main purpose of which was to provide reassurance to the markets rather than mapping out a political agenda for the country. The poor quality of the electoral campaign and the absence of any concrete political programme on the part of either of the two main candidates only served to reinforce the views of those members of the population who have become disillusioned with Spanish politics, who saw the election as a travesty of democracy.
The Spanish public do not appear to have elected Mariano Rajoy and the People’s Party as a genuine political alternative. Rather, it seems that they have unwittingly taken part in a referendum on the political and democratic approval of the rule of law by the markets. In spite of the election result, the overriding impression given by the People’s Party’s return to power is the same as the one we saw when both Papandreou and Berlusconi were being shown the door – a situation in which a country’s political leaders no longer dictate the rules in the game of democracy. Any legitimacy gained by Mariano Rajoy in the polls ultimately seems as artificial as that claimed by the other two leaders, especially with Spaniards feeling ‘indignant’ at having been deprived of a genuine electoral campaign.
The victory of the Spanish right – which already has a strong political presence at local and regional levels – nevertheless puts political pressure on the People’s Party as it comes into government ; it is faced with tackling a country in crisis asphyxiated by unemployment and on the verge of falling into a deep recession. Mariano Rajoy may well have already spoken of the tears and sacrifice that will need to go into redressing the country’s budget, but at present very little is known about the content of the People’s Party’s political programme. The markets are still concerned about the incoming Spanish prime minister’s apparent lack of leadership and political force of will. This is especially so given that the People’s Party must avoid appearing incommunicative at all costs, even despite the fact that it enjoys an absolute majority. The new government will need to promote open dialogue and cooperate with all parties with seats in parliament, in addition to social partners.
The ‘indignants’ protestors have been a powerful social force for the past few months in the major Spanish cities but were conspicuous by their absence during the recent electoral campaign Source : calafellvalo, flickr.com
Mariano Rajoy must bear in mind that, more than simply a vote of support, the Spanish public have given him a resigned vote of confidence to get the country out of crisis. The change in government does not seem to have inspired great confidence in investors in the country’s ability to rapidly improve its economic and budgetary position. The EU has warned that if the new government fails to adopt a bold austerity programme then Spain will receive no external aid.
Mariano Rajoy most likely been toasted his victory, but the 20 November election left Spain under some heavy dark clouds. The country is hurtling towards a recession and the forecast is for zero growth until 2013 at the very earliest. For Rajoy, this victory at the third time of asking has been won out of perseverance, but it is now up to him to prove through his actions that this is not the limit of his political ambitions.