Spain is currently in the middle of a significant political shift to the left, and that could have important implications for the fate of Spanish-Russian relations.
Supporters of the Podemos party wait for official results in Madrid, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015. Photo: AP
Last week Spain held its parliamentary elections. Just like the social polls predicted, the outcome of the election marked a major change in the country's political cycle. What does that imply for Moscow?
"Political earthquake" in Spain
Spain, like the majority of other Southern European countries,was hit hard by the global recession that started in 2008. According to the Minister of Economy and Competitiveness Luis de Guindos, this has been "the most lasting, intense and profound crisis" in the modern history of Spain.
In 2008-2013, its gross domestic product (GDP) decreased by 6 percent, imports were down by 13 percent, and overall consumption indicators plummeted. At the same time, all these years were marked by a rapid increase of the national debt, which amounted to 100 percent of the nation’s GDP by the end of 2014.
Socialists who were in power until 2011 and their successor, the conservative People's Party (PP) led by current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, implemented anti-crisis measures in line with the notorious neoliberal principles of austerity and cutting social spending.
According to Doctor of Economics Petr Yakovlev, this course of action caused "Spaniards' average income to drop by 10.9 percent over 2009-2013, and 13.1 percent of households did not have a single breadwinner as of the beginning of 2015."
At the peak of the crisis, even the official data showed that more than a fifth of the population lived below the poverty level, while many PP and socialist politicians were involved in major corruption scandals.
In 2014, the crisis started to abate. GDP increased by almost 1.5 percent, domestic consumer demand went up, and the unemployment rate was steadily declining, even though it is still over 20 percent.
While Spain has been relatively successful in overcoming financial and economic difficulties, it appears that the Dec. 20 election brought on an unprecedented social and political crisis, the largest since the 1970s.
From bipolarity to a tetrahedral
As Jaime Pastor, a leftist Spanish Professor of Political Sciences, pointedly remarks, the elections "mark the end of an electoral cycle which shook up the entire political landscape in about a year and a half."
Indeed, May 2014 European elections already made it clear that the Spanish political party system is in turmoil, and the Dec. 20 election only manifested this tendency. In truth, on Dec. 20 Spain let go of the political model that was driven by two major political parties for almost 40 years.
PP and the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), which alternated as the ruling parties at the turn of the century, together drew the support of 73 percent of active Spaniards back in 2011. In 2015, the situation changed dramatically. The two most influential parties received only 50 percent of the votes.
The conservative PP won the election, but with certain reservations. Of course, Rajoy's party celebrated the victory, but it received only 28.7 percent of the votes compared with 44.5 percent four years ago.
As for PSOE, they received 22 percent of the votes compared to almost 29 percent in 2011.
Spanish political scientist Josep Ramoneda points out that these results are not random at all. He believes that, “Conservatives are widely associated with inequality, instability, and the lack of concern for ordinary citizens; as for the socialists, they got trapped by the ideological void."
Thus, bipolarity transformed into a 'political tetrahedral.' Spanish politics suddenly gained two new prominent players: the left populist Podemos party (the 'We can' party) that is not even two years old and already received 20.6 percent of the votes in the Dec. 20 election and the liberal Ciudadanos party (the 'Citizens' party) supported by 14 percent of the population.
Both parties are not represented in the current Spanish parliament. Undoubtedly, liberals mostly enjoyed the support of former PP electorate, while Podemos attracted those who used to back the socialist party.
The outcome of the election confirmed the opinion of Sergey Henkin, a Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) Professor specializing in Spain, who believes that, "For many people, the general feeling of frustration intertwined with the crisis of faith in political institutions."
In the next several weeks, Spanish political factions will be negotiating the formation of a coalition government, something that has never happened before. Presently, neither the right-of-center forces, nor the leftist opposition (although leftist and left-of-center forces received more than 51 percent of the votes) has the solid majority in the lower chamber of the parliament.
Madrid-Moscow: "A difficult time"
As the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov pointed out when commenting on current ties with Spain, "We are going through a difficult time in our relations against the backdrop of the crisis in Russia-EU communication. We stopped cooperating in a number of areas, the trade turnover is declining fast, and the tourist industry is also hurting due to the current strained relations."
Statistical data for the first nine months of 2015 confirms Lavrov’s assessment. Mutual turnover dropped by 57 percent year-over-year and amounted to $14.2 billion. Russian exports to Spain reduced by 2.5 times due to the decrease in the export of oil, oil products, grain, and fertilizers. Spanish export into Russia dropped by 47 percent due to the reduction in the supply of pharmaceuticals, railway cars, and ceramics.
Under the produce embargo, Russia refuses to purchase Spanish fruits, vegetables, and nuts. In the first half of 2015, Spain saw 25 percent less Russian tourists compared with last year.
Even though Moscow and Madrid agree on a number of important global issues, such as the fight against terrorism, conflict resolution in the Middle East, and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, Rajoy's government follows the general course of the EU and NATO with regards to Russia.
So if centrist regional factions support PP and Citizens or choose to remain neutral and the right-wing liberal government is formed, there is no reason to expect a major breakthrough in the relations between Madrid and Moscow, as long as the EU’s general treatment of Russia stays the same.
Leftist parties in Spain are critical of the sanctions. Since 2014, Podemos has been publicly denouncing them and stating that some of the blame for the confrontation lies with the EU because it "supported the illegitimate coup in Ukraine and facilitated Neo-Nazis’ rise to power." Spanish socialists are also advocating détente in the relations with Moscow.
Therefore, it is possible that if Spain forms a leftist government, we can expect the improvement of Russia-Spain rapport.
But in any case, with the unprecedented crisis in the relations between the center and the Catalan community, Spain is now engulfed in deep political confrontation and is experiencing a political cycle shift. And that is why any new Spanish government will have to start by settling domestic disputes and resolving internal issues before re-evaluating what to do about Russia.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.