Before weary Spanish voters even cast their ballots on June 26th in the second general election in six months, they are learning from opinion polls, and especially from an utterly inflexible leaders’ debate on TV on Monday, that a third round of voting may yet be needed to break the country’s political logjam.
This is in sharp contrast to the expectations that last December's elections would open up new dynamic scenarios in Spanish politics. The eruption of two newly-minted parties promised a breath of fresh air. Podemos, from the radical left, offered hope to the many who had suffered severely from the austerity imposed since the financial crisis, first by the centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE) and then by the right-wing Partido Popular (PP).
Meanwhile, Ciudadanos ('citizens'), from the centre-right, effectively expressed the widespread frustration of entrepreneurs, managers and citizens at the corruption of the PP.
The outcome, however, was not renewal but paralysis. The PP government, led by the veteran Mariano Rajoy, sustained a big hit but remained the biggest party. The PSOE, led by the inexperienced Pedro Sánchez, also slumped. But neither Podemos nor Ciudadanos gained enough ground to set terms for a new government and in May new elections were finally called.
The PP has staggered on as the acting administration. Small shopkeepers and service providers, in particular, bitterly complain that continuing uncertainty is having a negative effect on business.
The public mood generally has shifted from exasperation to resignation, but the impact of a second impasse will be unpredictable. However, it is remarkable that the frustration of the electorate has not produced bigger shifts in party support during this damaging interregnum, if the polls are to be believed.
The most recent reliable survey shows the PP slipping only slightly, and remaining the largest party, though many commentators blamed Rajoy for standing aloof from serious negotiations last time around. The PSOE was arguably too promiscuous in its negotiating positions and may lose a number of seats which would make Podemos the second party in the state.
The apparent gains for Podemos probably do not represent a radical surge but rather a clever alliance with more conventional leftist groups which should deliver more seats for a similar vote.
The most surprising trend is a slight decline in seats for Ciudadanos, a party adept at identifying centre positions usually favoured by most Spanish voters. It also has a statesmanlike leader in Albert Rivera in contrast to the somewhat raucous style of Podemos's Pablo Iglesias.
The problem remains, however, that no likely result offers viable coalition options unless some parties shift their negotiating options. The leaders’ debate gave no hint whatsoever of any such movement.