Podemos’ lost million

By Luis Fernando Medina Sierra
7 July 2016
Spain Spain
With last month’s repeat elections producing an almost identical outcome, many are asking why the populist left coalition failed to deliver
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June 26 in Spain was full of events. A bar in Seville completed 30 years of uninterrupted operation; a lost cat in Valencia returned safely home, much to the relief of its human guardians; sales of sangría by the beach were significantly higher than what they had been during winter. Oh, and also, beset by its divisions, the Spanish left failed to make headway in the general elections, making a new government by the incumbent Partido Popular (PP) all the more likely. Unlike the other three events, the fourth one came as a shock for many (the present author included), which is in itself shocking. Has not the Spanish left been divided for decades, paying a significant electoral cost for it?

In this case, the surprise was due to pre-election polls that indicated that Unidos Podemos (UP) would emerge as the second largest party in Spain, with the historic Socialists (PSOE) a close third, and that, furthermore, their combined strength would be enough to dislodge the conservative PP from office. But when the votes were counted, history was not so much made as repeated. In fact, with one exception – the loss of seats from the center-right upstart party Ciudadanos, at the hands of the PP – the makeup of the new legislature resembles closely that of the one elected six months ago – the same one that failed to produce a government.

Fittingly, at the heart of these non-changes is a non-event: the failure of a million of Unidos Podemos’s purported voters to make it to the polls. With the exception of the PP and the Catalan-based ERC (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya), every other party lost support in a widespread drop in turnout. But Unidos Podemos suffered more than the rest. As luck has it, the Spanish electoral formula, which in the past had costed the left several seats, this time came to the rescue of UP, awarding them the same number of seats as in December.

Therein resides the irony of the outcome. As late as in the December elections Izquierda Unida (IU), the historic party of Spain’s non-socialist left, saw almost a million votes (there goes that number again) gone to waste, unable to translate them into seats. UP was a merger between the young upstart Podemos and IU, meant precisely to forestall that same vote-wasting on a massive scale. It was estimated that this expected boost might produce 14 extra seats, which, had they materialised in December, would have propelled a coalition of the left and centre left to power.

In the aftermath of the elections, much of the debate has turned on a search for reasons to explain the loss of that million votes. Many reasons have been proffered, spanning a large range of plausibility, but two seem at this point the most plausible. (The true postmortem will have to wait post-electoral polls.) First, although Podemos and IU formally merged, the voters of IU seem not to have been as enthusiastic as their leadership. The better the performance of IU in last December’s election, the greater the drop in UP’s vote in June’s election. Second, apparently Podemos’s supporters were more fickle than the pollsters were prepared to model. Pre-electoral polls fare much better than originally thought if (an important and contentious if) the turnout rate among ‘highly likely’ UP voters is lower than the models conventionally assume.

If these explanations hold (and it will be a while before that can be established), it seems UP was caught in the usual dilemma of the left: some of its voters were not ready to embrace a new party focused on capturing state power through political marketing and electioneering. Some preferred to remain attached to a historical bulwark like IU, others, most likely disgusted with “politics as usual”, simply thought that UP was becoming too much like the other parties.

This would be both bad news and good news for the Spanish left. The bad news would be that the ambivalences toward representative politics that have been playing out in the left for more than a century are still an issue to wrestle with. The good news would be that, whatever new trajectory the left follows in the near future it can still count on substantial pockets of discontent with the current status quo. In the meantime, an opportunity has been missed: the PP remains the single largest party in Spain (although with rather exiguous levels of support) and it is likely to remain in government, without being punished for multiple corruption scandals. And, in other news, summer in Spain will be hot and sunny.