Spanish elections: Rajoy claims a victory for conservatives

The Popular Party leader has topped the poll but is still short of the majority he needs

Acting Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy (left) acknowledges the applause during the meeting of ruling Popular Party’s executive committee held one day after general elections, in Madrid. Photograph: EPA/Ballesteros

Acting Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy (left) acknowledges the applause during the meeting of ruling Popular Party’s executive committee held one day after general elections, in Madrid. Photograph: EPA/Ballesteros

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“This hasn’t been, as you know, an easy time, or to put it another way, it’s been a difficult time,” said Spain’s acting prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, as he addressed his supporters on Sunday night after winning the general election.

His garbled words suggested that Rajoy was as surprised as anyone at how well his conservative Popular Party (PP) had performed: it confounded predictions to claw back 14 of the congressional seats it had lost in the previous election, just six months ago.

That vote in December had created a new-look parliament, the most representative but least predictable of the modern era. The months of fruitless negotiations and mutual recriminations that followed meant that a repeat of the election was a last resort to break the stalemate and form a new administration.

Sunday’s result only makes that slightly more likely. With 176 seats needed to form a majority, the PP is still well short, with 137.

Moreover, its most natural ally, the liberals of Ciudadanos, now only have 32 seats, after losing a fifth of their share in this election. In order to win an investiture vote and govern, the PP would probably still need the abstention of the Socialists and it is still not clear whether that is possible.

However, Rajoy will also be buoyed by the swing away from the left. The Socialists, with 85 seats, recorded their worst-ever result and the leftist alliance of Unidos Podemos posted a disappointing 71 seats, despite widespread predictions that it was on the verge of becoming Spain’s main left-wing force.

Those numbers make a leftist coalition government highly improbable, given that several other, probably nationalist, parties would have to get on board.

The reasons for the surprisingly poor showing of Unidos Podemos are many. In a polarised election campaign it was frequently cast as an extremist option, scaring more moderate voters and mobilising Rajoy’s conservative support. Erroneous polls, which inflated the Unidos Podemos vote, may have exacerbated that phenomenon.

In addition, the uncertainty generated by the United Kingdom’s decision to exit the European Union is likely to have played on many voters’ minds. Rajoy’s predictability and experience managing the economy will have attracted many of those for whom the memory of the euro zone crisis is still fresh.

But the personal image of Pablo Iglesias, the 37-year-old leader of Podemos, may also have been a factor. The angry young man of Spanish politics when his party burst on to the scene in 2014, he has sought to come across as more prime ministerial in recent months.

“The good cop/bad cop tactic works better when one person’s not playing both roles,” noted Ignacio Escolar, editor of ElDiario.es newspaper.

“The moderate clothes Iglesias wore during the campaign weren’t enough to make people forget his more aggressive manner in the previous months.”

Given the losses of Ciudadanos, Spain’s other “new” party, Sunday represented something of a swing back towards the traditional politics which Spain saw in the first three and a halfdecades of its democratic era.

Rajoy, for one, seems to have been emboldened. “The PP is the one which has to form a government because it won the elections and clearly so,” he said on Monday. Given that he is the only one of the four main candidates to have made gains, many will agree.

However, others, including Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera, have warned that Rajoy has been too tainted by the corruption scandals which have engulfed his party and should therefore make way for a more unifying, modern figure from his own party. During the campaign, all the main candidates said that a third election is unlikely.

Whatever their disagreements, the prospect of forcing Spaniards to return to the voting booth in six months’ time is likely to make parties more willing to compromise and reach a governing deal than they were in the first few months of this year.

The chaotic fallout of Brexit could also hurry along negotiations.

However, the doubts remain.

Spaniards, believes the writer Rubén Amón, are culturally programmed to remain entrenched in their views and to refuse to see the arguments of the other side.

“We woke up in December with an Italian-style parliament,” he noted, “but bogged down by a Spanish, sectarian mentality.”

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