MADRID — On the eve of Spain’s general elections my phone rang before dawn: “There are 150 fires in northern Spain.” The caller, a veteran newspaper hand, sounded distressed. The elders of the profession are well aware that in the Spanish elections, “something unexpected always happens,” and often it’s horrible. The most glaring example, certainly, was the attack of March 11, 2004, when terrorists blew up commuter trains here, killing 191 people and injuring more than 1,800. But the history of Spain is full of pre-election shocks. And these fires, most of them set by arsonists, seem to presage yet another uneasy election day.
Then rains came on Saturday night, and the embers in the northern hills cooled. But we understood the metaphor. This time the real conflagration was in Spain’s political system, with an end to the overwhelming dominance of two parties, the PP, or Partido Popular, on the right, and the PSOE, the Socialists, on the left. And the result, as became clear on Sunday night, places Spain in a state of un-governability unprecedented since democracy took hold here more than three decades back.
As Victor de la Serna, a veteran journalist with El Mundo, summed it up: “We’re looking at the most uncertain times since the death of the dictator Franco 40 years ago.”
The implications for the economy and for security are profound for Spain, for Europe, and far beyond.
The PP’s Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, did win a plurality in the election, but with 16 percent fewer votes than in the elections of 2011. His party will get only 123 deputies in parliament, far short of the 178 needed for a majority.
The PSOE’s Pedro Sánchez garnered the worst results in the Socialists’ history, even though his party remains the second-largest, with 90 deputies.
But the two major parties have been overshadowed by the success of two emerging parties: Podemos, whose name echoes in Spanish the old Barack Obama slogan, “Yes, we can,” but whose leaders are mostly form communist backgrounds, burst onto the scene with 69 deputies, and the centrist Ciudadanos (Citizens) got 40 deputies, which was much less of a showing than predicted in months of surveys giving them a major role.
Right after learning the results, Rajoy said that he would “attempt to form a government.”
Overwhelmed by bad polls in recent days, the Rajoy government asked for support from Spanish voters to ensure the “stability” of the country and continue the reforms it had worked on hand in hand with the European Union. But Spain finally voted for instability. In short, the 20th of December, or 20D, as we say, has left winners and losers, but not a prime minister.
Emerging parties, about which we’ve been talking since the last municipal elections, have achieved a good but inconclusive result. We won’t see young Albert Rivera emulating former Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez piloting a “second transition to democracy”; nor the communist Pablo Iglesias of Podemos following in the footsteps of Felipe González, who gave Spain 14 years of socialist governments.
The Spanish electoral law does not include a second round as the French one does, perhaps because so far that hasn’t been needed. From 1982 until today, about 80 percent of Spaniards voted for one of the two major parties. Today the sum of both barely tops 50 percent of the vote and none of the possible coalitions guarantee a comfortable government majority. The range of action is so limited that most political analysts are betting on the repetition of the general elections next March, coinciding with regional elections planned in several regions of Spain.
Meanwhile the murmur of doubt has begun in the markets. “The ungovernability and uncertainty don’t go down well,” says financial analyst Maria Muñoz. “Taking a chance here, I’d say the stock market will go down and the risk premium will grow.”
In the European Union, as of Sunday, Spain is at the center of the instability Brussels fears, and this after more that five years of reforms guided and supervised by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi.
Indeed, with the downfall of Rajoy, a great deal of international cooperation may go up in smoke. The PP’s lukewarm but loyal pro-Atlantic posture dating back ex-Prime Minister José María Aznar (a charter member of George W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” in Iraq) may now be replaced by a traditionally anti-U.S. leftist block, which can jeopardize any cooperation with the United States, especially on military matters. And this just as alliance cooperation had been intensifying to face the growing threat of the so-called Islamic State. Spain, after all, is the gateway to Europe and a natural highway for jihad from Africa.
France also will have to forget about having the hypothetical support of Spain for its mission attacking ISIS in Syria. Rajoy had postponed a decision, awaiting the results of the elections, and the only thing that is clear is that it would take a miracle for the fragmented parliament today to take such as step.
So, little by little they have been putting out the fires in the northern edge of the country. The massive clouds of smoke are visible in satellite images, and perhaps we should extend the metaphor of political uncertainty, which does not necessarily end in tragedy. But Spain has lived for years in a bubble of false cohesion amid a serious institutional crisis, with the constitution, written in 1978 as part of post-Franco national reconciliation, challenged more than ever. And this time there’s no possibility of resorting to the old monarchy as the element that pulls everyting together.
Luckily, it’s Christmas and everything can wait: Maybe the party mood is the only thing that all Spaniards can agree on at the end of 2015.