Italian-style political instability comes to Spain

We are witnessing a structural reorganisation of Spanish politics that is turning the country into a ‘poll-ocracy’.

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Spain's socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has been forced to call elections only nine months after he assumed power [Reuters].

Since the inception of Spanish democracy in 1975, political stability has probably been its greatest virtue. This legacy of stability came to an end in June 2018, when Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the People’s Party (PP) was dismissed before the end of his term.

Never in the brief history of Spanish democracy had a government been dismissed as a result of a censure motion. The turmoil continued when the socialist government of Pedro Sanchez, who replaced Rajoy, quickly became the shortest-lived government since the Spanish transition to democracy, as Sanchez has been forced to call elections only nine months after he assumed power. This turbulence reflects not the mere decline of historically consolidated political parties, but rather a structural reorganisation of Spanish politics.

This reorganisation is accompanied by a higher degree of conflict among political parties. The increased risk of early elections forces the governing parties to maintain the constant loyalty of the electorate in order to remain in power, resulting in the adoption of short-term, potentially irresponsible, and propagandistic policies.

In Italy, where instability has been a political constant for decades, the term “poll-ocracy” (“sondaggiocrazia” in Italian) has been coined to describe this phenomenon. Poll-ocracy is the result of political parties basing their policies solely on the polls (that is, on whatever the people want at any given moment) and changing their proposals as voters’ priorities change. Given the potential instability of government coalitions, politicians find it more politically convenient to adopt symbolic policies with short-term impact than to establish a political vision with a long-term agenda.

The tendency towards poll-ocracy seems to be impacting the relationship among all Spanish political parties. To the right of centre, it appears as though Ciudadanos wants to consolidate itself as the largest moderate liberal force in the country. The PP, on the other hand, finds itself trapped between Ciudadanos and the far-right party Vox. Although, in the long term, the PP should focus on competing with Ciudadanos to represent the centre-right, it will likely focus on preventing voters from defecting to Vox, as the radical populism of this far-right party has proven more profitable in the short term.

Although the possibility exists that Ciudadanos will move towards more conservative positions once it has secured the moderate right electorate in an effort to expand its electoral base, the close relationship of Ciudadanos with the left, as well as the party’s recent support of Manuel Valls for mayor of Barcelona, serve as a counterweight to this potential conservative shift. It seems more likely that the PP will take advantage of political opportunism to move towards more conservative positions, at least in the medium and short term.

This new balance among right-wing forces will likely result in unprecedented scenarios in the upcoming national elections scheduled for April 28. If the PP once again receives the most votes, it is likely that the party will be able to form a stable government because of its capacity to dialogue with both Vox and Ciudadanos.

However, an electoral victory for Ciudadanos would open the door to three possible scenarios. Firstly, in order to form a government, Ciudadanos will likely need votes from Vox, which means that Ciudadanos might make concessions to a more conservative agenda in order to ensure support from the right-wing party. This would compromise Ciudadanos’s reputation as a moderate force. Even if Ciudadanos manages to form a government in coalition with Vox, conflict within the coalition could lead to its collapse. The second option is that Ciudadanos would be unable to form a government and be forced to reconvene elections. Finally, given the high level of conflict among the parties, it is possible that Ciudadanos could cede leadership to the PP in an attempt to avoid responsibility for probable failure.

The conflict among right-wing parties will make negotiating within the coalition very difficult. As a result, it is possible that the leader of the new government will not be a representative from the party with more votes, but rather the leader of the party that is best able to broker political negotiations. Although this is unprecedented in Spain, it is common in Italy. True political power in a multiparty system, such as the current Spanish and Italian systems, is not based so much on popular support, but instead on the ability to mediate and negotiate with other groups.

Spain is moving from a bipartisan system to a bipolar system based on potentially unstable and intrinsically conflictive coalitions. As Spanish politics moves towards more populist and radical positions, the country’s path towards greater political conflict seems set. For this trend to reverse, two parties – one on the right and one on the left – would need to once again monopolise the political landscape. However, increased competition among political forces will hinder the formation of a hegemonic party within any short-term coalition. At this point, it seems likely that the Spanish political landscape will follow in the footsteps of the Italian model, where the atomisation of political forces has translated into instability and uncertainty.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.