The decline of the bipartisan system in Spain

Juliette Lyons, translated by Lucie Marboeuf
13 Mars 2015

On the morning of June 2nd 2014, Juan Carlos publicly announced his abdication to the throne, and his intention to his son Felipe, after 39 years of reign since Franco’s death in 1975, which gave great joy to Spaniards. That same night, the streets of Madrid, especially the Puerta del Sol, the spring of the Indignants and the youth-conducted movements in the capital these last few years, were flooded by republican flags and by citizens asking for a referendum on the future of the Spanish monarchy. This request was ignored and Felipe, a Georgetown graduate, former member of the sailing Olympic team and polyglot, ascended to the throne two weeks later.

Credit DR
Credit DR
Until now, King Felipe and his wife Queen Letizia have managed to keep a low profile and stay far away from scandals and tabloids. Thus, he gives the impression that he is rather considerate and concerned compared to his father for the last years. Not only did he show it during a visit to the LGBT community a week after taking up appointment, but also through his thoughtful approach to the Catalan problem, which remains a major subject of concern in Spain. New King, new times. However, unfortunately for Felipe, some less upright members of his family did not help in cleaning the way to his taking up appointment smoothly, without mentioning the fragile economy, the Catalan independents claims and the mistrust towards political institutions. Juan Carlos declared that his choice to abdicate was personal. 

While the country was sinking into a deep financial crisis, Juan Carlos’ popularity was tarnished, after the major role he played during the democratic transition, especially after successfully repulsing the military coup by the right wing in 1981. Here’s why: negative point, the revelation of his luxurious safaris during which he sometimes hunted elephants after he told journalist in 2012 he had trouble sleeping because of the country unemployment rate. Adding to this the long investigation for corruption on Princess Cristina, Felipe’s sister, and his husband Iñaki Urdangarin, accused embezzlement, and the scandal around Urdangarin’s sexist emails.

And the cherry on the top: as Juan Carlos did not enjoy prosecution immunity after his abdication, the Supreme Court decided to study a judicial declaration of paternity filed by a Belgian claiming to be his daughter.

It is not surprising that the surveys showed a drastic decline in Juan Carlos’ popularity at the end of his reign. And King Felipe, well aware of the Crown’s scandals, is the one who has to pick up the pieces while promoting a more open and transparent monarchy. 

An orientation towards the left wing: Juan Carlos 0 – 1 Podemos

What does it have to do with the decline of the bipartisan system in Spain (center-left, PSOED and center-right, PP) and the rise of Podemos (We can)? As head of state, the monarch played a key role in politics. However, with the politic dynamic changing this year in Spain, Felipe could well find himself in a delicate situation. The Spanish citizens associated his father to Spain’s problems: the wrong economic management, the unemployment and the corruption, just name a few.

At this moment, Podemos entered the stage. The new left wing party, headed by Pablo Iglesias, emerged this last year mainly to address these issues and, unlike PSOE or PP, this party does not support monarchy. In November 2014, Iglesias declared that, if his party were to win the next general elections, Spaniards should express themselves on the monarchy future through a referendum. With such a declaration, useless to say the important rise of Podemos partisans as well as the growing antimonarchy and the anti-institutional feelings throughout the country are threats for the King. His destiny depends on the next general elections. As in Greece, Spain will surely experience a radical shift to the left as a consequence of the last years of austerity measures, thus bringing electors to their limits. 

Regarding the bipartisan political system, the post fascist Spanish era saw the PSOE and the PP rule alternatively, both linked to their own corruption scandals. Podemos gave to those who flooded Spain’s streets during protests against austerity a way to evacuate their frustration and their rage against the corrupted institutions of the government, which did not succeed in protecting them. Last year, despite a small participation, the European elections allowed Podemos, 4months old at the time, to make a name by winning 8% of the votes (keep in mind that PP and PSOE, which used to win together 70% of the votes during the national elections, won respectively only 16% and 15,8%). 

This rise of popularity, despite the critics on the lack of serious ideology, is stable. Iglesias promised to throw down austerity and to take care of corruption, reminding Spaniards the reasons for which, four years ago, they took Puerta del Sol. Last month, after the election of Syriza in Greece, thousands of people rushed once more into the streets of Madrid. People came from all over the country (260 full buses), called by Iglesias to show their support and their strength for the electoral campaign. 

Spaniards rightfully want a government which acts for the interest of its citizens. And in this day and age, having a monarch as head of the state is somewhat outdated. The academic course and ideals of a new era of King Felipe seems to suit in order to rule the 21st century Spain. However, the country won the “monarchy” status in 1977 after the first post Franco elections and there is nothing less democratic than not being able to vote for your head of state, who is commander in chief of the armed forces. Besides, the constitution cannot be used as an excuse not to change the positions of power. 

It was used by Rajoy as the  main reason to deny Catalonia independence while, when it was about adapting the succession law for King Felipe’s daughter (in the case of the birth of a royal male child), the supreme law of Spain was suddenly open for change. The use of the constitution according to their will is a form of power abuse, the kind of abuses Spain has to grow away from. 

All in all, the rise of Podemos popularity among the people asking for Republic restauration, is surely a threat for the new King and will become a challenge only if the pary wins the general elections. We have to be aware that, despite the great tool the populist left party has to mobilise the frustrated and desperate population, it might be that he does not have what it takes to rule a country, in which case Felipe is protected for few years more. There is still a debate regarding the political and ideological position and more importantly regarding Felipe’s solutions for Spain. The second phase will be out soon, and will explore in greater details the challenges Podemos and its credibility will have to face. Does the party only gather emotional reactions of the masses or can it go far during the next elections? “In a normal democracy, should the head of state be elected based on his blood or on the votes?” said Pablo Iglesias.