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Spanish Election Marks Another Rejection of Austerity

Dec 22 2015

By RAPHAEL MINDER – THE NEW YORK TIMES

MADRID — European leaders and economists are still locked in a heated debate about whether austerity policies have done more to help or hurt people in the region, particularly in Europe’s heavily indebted south.

But as the election Sunday in Spain showed, voters seem to have made up their minds. A backlash against austerity has helped crack the club of parties that had a lock on politics, and ushered in a new generation of challengers.

The outcome in Spain was messy, and it could well take weeks of haggling among the parties to sort out who will be able to govern. But in a close approximation of the October election result in Portugal, a majority of Spaniards voted against what had been an austerity-minded government. Those outcomes followed the repudiation of an austerity government in Greece early this year.

“The sense of political crisis in Spain and some other European countries is clearly the fruit of the economic crisis,” said Jaime Pastor, a professor of politics at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia in Madrid.

The financial crisis, he argued, first put into question the viability of the region’s economic model and welfare state, but eventually turned into “a debate over whether the cost of the crisis was shared fairly, to which many voters answered negatively and are therefore demanding the removal of the crony capitalism of the big parties.”

Still, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain is hoping to stay in office, at the helm of a minority or coalition administration, after his conservative Popular Party won the most votes on Sunday but lost its parliamentary majority.

Even if Mr. Rajoy succeeds, some analysts say the shake-up of Spanish politics is irreversible after two emerging parties, Podemos and Citizens, made enough gains on Sunday to lower the combined share of the two traditional parties, the Popular and the Socialist parties, to just over 50 percent of the vote.

“Crises take place with a certain time lag, so it’s clear the Spanish system of political parties has entered a transition, but not clear how long that transition will take,” said Antonio Barroso, a Spanish political analyst at Teneo Intelligence, a think tank in London.

The returns also underlined a generational shift in regional politics. Mr. Rajoy, 60, tried to contrast his three decades in politics with the untested leadership of his three far younger rivals, all of whom are in their 30s or 40s. It did him little good.

On Monday, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece congratulated Podemos and its leader, Pablo Iglesias, 37, on becoming the third-largest party in Spain, as well as the country’s main anti-establishment force. “Austerity has now been politically defeated in Spain, as well,” said Mr. Tsipras, 41, a role model for the rest of the European anti-establishment left.

In southern Europe, perhaps Italy alone has been spared the instability of a breakdown of its main party system. But even there, it is not clear that the storm has passed, and analysts note that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s popularity has declined since he took office last year, as the public pressure for changes has not relented.

In Portugal, the Socialist leader António Costa, 54, survived a poor election result and then managed last month to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat after striking an improbable alliance with far-left, anti-establishment parties in order to oust the center-right coalition that had won the most votes in the national election in October.

But even if more voters have rejected austerity, where this will take the region is uncertain. As the result in Greece showed, even anti-austerity parties have to answer to financial markets and balance national budgets, and the numbers are still deeply stacked against the policies of the old left and their heavy spending on welfare states.

In Portugal, Mr. Costa leads a fragile administration after striking a coalition deal aimed at reversing some tax increases and spending cuts that Portugal made in return for a 2011 international bailout. Since taking office, however, Mr. Costa also has had to reaffirm his commitment to the fiscal targets set for Portugal by the European Union.

Faced with such budgetary constraints, the new political leaders of southern Europe may make more headway in introducing political reform, according to analysts, particularly in a country like Spain, where a majority of voters voiced their frustration on Sunday not only with austerity but also with stagnant, closed and often corrupt establishment parties and the institutions they support.

Mr. Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, said at a news conference on Monday that his party would “extend a hand” to those willing to push through major reforms, but without committing support to any specific government leader.

“All of us must do some thinking in the coming weeks, but particularly the old parties,” Mr. Iglesias said. The election, he added, needed to result in “a new political system” for Spain.

For now, however, Mr. Rajoy faces an uphill struggle to form a government and avoid a period of prolonged political uncertainty, even a new election, that could undermine Spain’s fragile economic recovery. The main Spanish stock market index fell 3.6 percent on Monday.

Mr. Rajoy said at a news briefing on Monday that “the fragmentation of political forces cannot be an element of paralysis, blockage and inaction,” which could also endanger Spain’s economy.

Among various scenarios for a possible coalition government, the only one that would ensure a parliamentary majority would be an alliance of Mr. Rajoy’s Popular Party and the opposition Socialists, led by Pedro Sánchez.

Such a “grand coalition” would be unprecedented for Spain, and would require resolving a very difficult relationship, given the bitterness between the embattled leaders of the two parties during the campaign.

“What came out of the ballot boxes is a monumental mess,” Bieito Rubido, editor in chief of the conservative newspaper ABC, told Spanish national television on Monday. “Almost everybody has lost.”

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A version of this news analysis appears in print on December 22, 2015, on page A9 of the New York edition with the headline: Austerity Backlash Shifts Political Winds in Southern Europe.

ANNEX:

Podemos insists ‘Spain will never again be subordinate to Germany’

The Local.es ( http://www.thelocal.es/)

The head of far-left party Podemos, which came third in a general election, said Monday his priority is to defend Spain’s sovereignty, saying the country will never again be subordinate to Germany.

Podemos has been cast as a potential kingmaker for the next government after it gained a surprisingly high 69 seats in a parliamentary election on Sunday that ended the two-party system that ruled the country for over three decades.

“Our message to Europe is clear. Sovereignty is a priority for us in terms of the organisation of the political system. Spain will never again be a periphery of Germany,” Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias told a news conference.

Podemos, which was founded in January 2014, is close to Greece’s ruling Syriza and it shares the Greek formation’s anger at the German government for enforcing austerity policies in Europe.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party won the most votes in Sunday’s election but lost its absolute majority in the 350-seat parliament. Spain’s main-left-wing parties said Monday they would prevent him from forming a government.

Iglesias said his party’s conditions for joining a leftist coalition include fixing rights to housing, healthcare and education in a new constitution.

He also wants a national agreement to recognise that Spain is a “plurinational country”, allowing regions to hold self-determination referendums.

Podemos came in first place in Catalonia and the Basque Country, two wealthy northern regions that have strong independence movements.

It is the only national party which favours allowing Catalonia to hold an independence referendum, as a majority of people in the region desire.

The Popular Party won 123 seats in the election, far below the 176 seats needed for an absolute majority and down from 186 seats in the outgoing parliament.

The Socialists followed with 90 seats while another new party, centre-right Ciudadanos came in fourth place with 40 seats.

The results mean parliament will be made up of four main groupings with significant clout, as opposed to the usual Popular Party and Socialists.

Iglesias, a fan of the TV series “Game of Thrones” who has described politics as “the art of accumulating power”, said the election outcome opened a period of “historical compromises”.

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