EU 2014: Spain and Sweden

ep2014

Finally, I can wrap up this summer-long analysis of the results of the EP elections in the EU’s 28 member-states, with a final look at the last two member-states in this series – Spain and Sweden.

Spain

Turnout: 43.81% (-1.09%)
Seats: 54 (nc)
Electoral system: Closed list PR, no threshold (national constituency)

PP (EPP) 26.09% (-16.03%) winning 16 seats (-8)
PSOE (S&D) 23.01% (-15.77%) winning 14 seats (-9)
Izquierda Plural (GUE/NGL) 10.03% (+6.32%) winning 6 seats (+4)
Podemos (GUE/NGL) 7.98% (+7.98%) winning 5 seats (+5)
UPyD (ALDE) 6.51% (+3.66%) winning 4 seats (+3)
CEU (ALDE/EPP) 5.42% (+0.32%) winning 3 seats (nc)
EPDD (G-EFA) 4.01% (+1.52%) winning 2 seats (+1)
C’s (ALDE) 3.16% (+3.02%) winning 2 seats (+2)
LPD (GUE/NGL) 2.08% (+0.96%) winning 1 seat (+1)
PE (G-EFA) 1.92% (+1.92%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Vox 1.57% (+1.57%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PACMA 1.13% (+0.87%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 4.79% (+2.81%) winning 0 seats (nc)

 

Map source: Wikipedia

Spain is the EU’s fifth largest economy and also its fifth most populous member-state. Since 2008, Spain has been hit hard by the economic crisis, and the country’s protracted economic and social crisis has had significant political ramifications.

Spain enjoyed several years of solid economic growth at the turn of the century, including five consecutive years (2003 to 2007) of growth over 3%. The roots of this growth – and, subsequently, the collapse and prolonged economic crisis – was a rapid property boom between 1997 and 2007, characterized by an exponential increase in housing prices and a booming construction industry. The housing bubble was caused by a strong push towards home ownership in Spain during the transition to democracy, which was promoted by government policies (15% of mortgage payments were tax-deductible, and the liberalization of land use and construction regulations), low interest rates, the lax terms on mortgage loans granted by banks to individuals and businesses. Between 1997 and 2007, the average price by square metre increased from just over €1000/m² to just under €3000/m². To accede to property ownership, many households became heavily indebted – in 2007, when the bubble burst, household debt stood at nearly 130% of income. Although all the warning signs of a housing bubble and its inevitable explosion had been there for several years, successive governments – both José María Aznar’s conservative People’s Party (PP) government from 1996 to 2004 and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s first Socialist (PSOE) government from 2004 to 2008 – kept whistling the problem away, insisting that Spain’s growth was built on very solid and sustainable foundations, and promoted the myth that Spanish banks were the strongest in western Europe. Politicians, banks, the construction industry and Spanish homeowners in general were all complicit in the bubble. Similar to the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States, Spanish banks – especially the cajas de ahorro (savings banks) – granted mortgage loans on extremely lax terms. Politicians invested heavily in the housing sector, and took advantage of the low interest rates and the cajas‘ terms to indulge in ambitious and lavish pet projects – new highways, new airports, new housing developments, new cultural centres and museums, expansion of the high-speed rail network (AVE) and other projects which have become white elephants, symbols to the optimism and illusions of the bubble years. Regional governments – Spain’s seventeen comunidades autónomas (autonomous communities) account for 35-40% of total spending and have extensive powers on matters such as healthcare and education – borrowed and spent heavily. Some of the regions which became the most heavily indebted were the coastal boom regions of the Valencian Community, Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, Murcia and Andalusia but also interior regions such as Castilla-La Mancha.

In the 2008 electoral campaign, the governing PSOE ran heavily on the idea that Spain was an economic champion, dismissed the opposition PP’s warnings as fear-mongering and made several promises to voters (notably a cheque bebé  a €2500 grant for every Spanish baby). Pedro Solbes, the Socialist finance minister at the time, repeatedly dismissed all warning signs of the impeding collapse as being extremely exaggerated. In any case, the PSOE was reelected with a plurality of seats, and responded to the ‘deceleration’ of the Spanish economy with a stimulus package which injected millions of euros into the banks, public works projects and goodies. However, with GDP growth collapsing to only 0.9% in 2008, the Socialist government was quickly forced to admit that there was a crisis and to adopt austerity measures, which became increasingly hard-hitting and stringent as time passed and the slowdown became a full-blown crisis. Between the third quarter of 2009 and the first quarter of 2010, for example, the unemployment rate increased dramatically from 11.2% to 17.2%. Several cajas threatened to go under, having invested heavily in the construction industry, and the government intervened to inject liquidity into several of them beginning in 2009. Between 2009 and 2011, the Socialist government passed several austerity packages which included tax hikes (a 2% increase in the VAT to 18% in 2009), wage cuts for public servants, a pension freeze, the elimination of the cheque bebé and spending cuts. In 2010, a labour reform which included a shorter term for severance pay and strengthened the employer’s ability to unilaterally modify working conditions led to a general strike in September 2010. In 2011, finally, the government’s pension reform increased the retirement age to 67.

The PSOE’s popularity collapsed in 2010 and 2011, and the party suffered extremely several loses in the regional and municipal elections in May 2011. In July 2011, Zapatero announced snap elections would be held in November 2011 and that he would not be the PSOE’s candidate for the presidency of the government (in Spain, the ‘Prime Minister’ is known as the Presidente del Gobierno). Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, who had been the First Vice President of the government under Zapatero, led a demoralized and pessimistic PSOE into the election. Zapatero left behind a catastrophic economic and social situation: unemployment now stood at over 21%, the deficit had ballooned to 9.6% of GDP (between 2005 and 2008, the government had run a surplus), Spain’s low-ish public debt had increased to 70.5% from 40% in 2008 and growth was going red again after a short-lived period of growth in early 2011 (Spain was in recession in 2009 and 2010, with -3.8% and -0.2%; growth was 0.1% in 2011). In this context, the opposition PP – despite its deadwood leader, Mariano Rajoy, having lost two successive elections (in 2004 and 2008) and the party failing to generate much enthusiasm at all, was the runaway favourite to win. In order to maximize its chances of winning, the right-wing PP promised ill-defined ‘change’ and ‘austerity without pain’ – no tax hikes, a revaluation of pensions or cuts where it would hurt (education, healthcare, social services). In fact, the PP even attacked the PSOE for the government’s cuts to social benefits. Regardless of what one might say about this kind of campaigning, the voters trusted the PP on the issues which mattered (the economy and jobs), and the PSOE suffered an historic rout. The PP won 44.6% and 186 in the Congress of Deputies, giving it an absolute majority and its best result in any election. The PSOE, however, won only 28.8%, its worst result in the party’s post-Francoist history. The election also saw an uptick in support for the United Left (IU), the old radical left coalition around the Communist Party (PCE) – which won 11 seats, up 9; the centrist anti-nationalist Union, Progress and Democracy (UPyD) led by former Socialist Rosa Díez, which won 5 seats. In the regions, the Catalan Socialists (PSC) suffered an historic defeat at the hands of the moderate nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) coalition, which had regained power regionally a year prior; in the Basque Country, the abertzale left (nationalist left) Amaiur coalition placed second with an historically high level of support – the nationalist left in Euskadi has been benefiting splendidly from the 2010 cease-fire and now “definitive cessation of armed activity” (since October 2011) announced by the terrorist separatist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), which has signaled the conclusion of violence in the region after over 50 years.

The economy plunged back into recession in the second quarter of 2011, and remained mired in recession until the third quarter of 2013. On taking power, Mariano Rajoy soon had to deal with the harsh reality of power and the Spanish economy. In its first austerity package in December 2011, the government increased income and land value taxes, froze the minimum wage and public sector wages, froze public sector hiring (except in the security forces, education and healthcare) and cut spending by €8.9 billion; but it still had some goodies to offer – a revaluation of pensions by 1%, continuing a €400 subsidy to the long-term unemployed and the mortgage tax deduction. Madrid, for now, was committed to reducing its deficit to 4.4% in 2012 (from 9.6% in 2011), as agreed upon with the EU, but it soon became clear that Spain would miss its deficit target and that the amount of cuts required to meet the target were unrealistic. In March 2012, Rajoy changed Spain’s deficit target to 5.8%. The government’s first budget, announced at the end of March 2012, announcing savings to reduce the deficit by €27 billion – including the largest spending cuts in the history of Spanish democracy. However, while the government cut spending and raised taxes, it doggedly refused to increase the VAT, cut public servants’ wages or touch pensions and unemployment benefits. The government later changed course, and announced a 3% increase in the VAT to 21%, after having previously refused to raise it. In April, the government also announced further cuts worth €10 billion, mostly in education and healthcare (which meant co-pays in healthcare, increased class sizes, increase in tuition fees), and these cuts led to an historic strike by public education employees in May 2012.

The PP government’s labour law reform in February 2012 aimed at increasing ‘flexibility’ by making it easier for employers to layoff employees by further reducing the duration of severance pay (20 days’ pay for each year worked, for a maximum of 12 months for ‘appropriate dismissals’; and down from 45 to 33 days’ wages for each year worked for a maximum of 24 months for inappropriate dismissals), loosening the reasons for which employees may be laid off (employees must now prove that the dismissal was inappropriate), facilitating collective dismissals including in the public sector and allowing for employers to make unilateral decisions on working conditions in certain cases. Considering it as an attack on workers’ rights, all leading labour unions called for a general strike on March 29.

The government faced another major challenge: the banking sector, which was shackled by ‘toxic assets’ and a high number of bad loans, left overs from the ‘debt binge’ of the real estate boom years when households and contractors took out loans on lax terms. After the bubble burst, banks acquired properties from developers before the loans which supported them went bad. Foreclosures mounted as recession set in, leaving Spanish banks as the owners of a very large stock of empty homes. Many felt that Rajoy’s government evaluated the crisis the wrong way – it treated public finances as the cause of the economic crisis, rather than the symptom, and wasted precious time by attacking the deficit when it should have cleaned up the banking sector. In the spring and summer of 2012, Spain faced a banking crisis, which forced the government to take decisive action. Two financial reforms were approved in February and May 2012, both with the aims of cleaning up the banking sector and restructuring the myriad of failing cajas into stronger, larger financial entities. The state had previously been forced to intervene in several cajas, by nationalizing or recapitalizing them, and despite the financial reforms, would be forced to intervene when Bankia – a large bank created by the merger of seven cajas, badly exposed to the housing bubble, in 2011 – needed injections of €10 billion in public funds, which soon spiraled upwards to €23.5 billion and was nationalized by the state. Rodrigo Rato, the former Managing Director of the IMF and Spain’s economy and/or finance minister under Aznar’s government, had previously resigned as president of Bankia. In the wake of Bankia, in a ‘black Monday’, other Spanish banks saw their shares drop and risk premiums reached all-time highs, close to the levels at which Greece, Portugal and Ireland had been forced to seek EU-IMF bailouts; yet, Rajoy insisted that there would be no need for a bailout of Spain’s banking sector. The government’s handling of the crisis was criticized by the ECB’s Mario Draghi and PSOE leader Rubalcaba.

After other banks required public money, an IMF report estimated the total costs of recapitalizing the banking sector at €40 billion. Despite constant claims that there would be no need for a bailout, in early June 2012, the government announced that it had negotiated a €100 billion rescue package for the banks, to be held by the state through the government’s Fondo de reestructuración ordenada bancaria (FROB), the banking bailout and restructuring fund. The money would go directly to the banks rather than through the government, would not count as sovereign debt, would come from the new European Stability Mechanism (ESM) and would be directly supervised by the Troika. Rajoy and his minister of the economy, Luis de Guindos, refused to call the loan a ‘bailout’. The loan agreement did little little to alleviate the crisis and even sparked another credit rating downgrade and a surge in risk premium values to even higher levels. In August 2012, the Spanish government set up a ‘bad bank’ to isolate the toxic assets.

In July 2012, the EC agreed to raise the 2012 deficit objective to 6.3% of GDP, in return for immediate cuts to reach this objective. Rajoy announced another massive austerity package of €65 billion in cuts over two years to reach the deficit targets, including further cuts in social benefits, an immediate increase in the VAT, cuts in long-term unemployment benefits, the cancellation of the mortgage tax deduction and public servants’ Christmas bonus and more tax hikes. The health ministry announced a list of drugs which would no longer be covered by social security and abolished free healthcare assistance for illegal immigrants. The government continued the policy of spending cuts and tax increases in 2013, culminating with a pension reform in late 2013. The reform, opposed by all other parties, dissociates inflation from the calculation of pensions, takes into account the expenses and revenues of social security in a new revaluation formula and adds a ‘sustainability factor’ (life expectancy) to determine the size of the pension.

Despite the relaxed deficit target, Spain’s deficit in 2012 – excluding the cost of the bank bailout – still overshot the target, at about 7% of GDP (10.6% with the bailout). For 2013 and 2013, the EC set looser targets of 6.5% and 5.8%, with the aim being to achieve the EU’s 3% deficit limit in 2016. In 2013, Eurostat reported the deficit at 7.1% and the EC projects a 5.6% deficit in 2014.

The last few months of 2013, however, saw the first signs of a very fragile economic recovery. The last two quarters of 2013 saw positive quarter-on-quarter growth rates, and official statistics indicate the growth is steadily picking up – the EC predicts 1.1% growth this year and 2.1% growth in 2012, which means that Spain will finally exit its prolonged economic slump after over two years in recession. Unemployment increased during the año negro of 2012, from 22.6% in the last quarter of 2011 to a peak of 26.9% in the first quarter of 2013. Unemployment has been declining, slowly, since early 2013, falling to 24.5% in the second quarter of 2014, the lowest in two years. However, with over 5.6 million unemployed, Spain has the second highest unemployment rate in the EU after Greece. And, like in Greece, it will take years for unemployment to return to pre-crisis levels (8%) – the EC projects 24% unemployment in 2015. Exports have been growing, turning the external current account from a deficit to a surplus, suggesting that Spain is regaining competitiveness and providing the backbone of recovery. In December 2013, after receiving €41.3 billion, the ESM bailout program for Spanish banks ended on schedule.

Given that Spain’s autonomous communities account for a good deal of public spending in Spain, and that many of them became heavily indebted and were running large deficits when the crisis hit, they too have faced a tough time as they try to reduce their debts and deficits. On the latest figures, the total debts owed by Spain’s 17 regions was equivalent to 21.7% of the national GDP; while their deficits in 2013 represented 1.5% of the country’s GDP – down from 2.9% in 2010 and 2011. The most heavily indebted communities remain the Valencian Community (34.8% of regional GDP), Castilla-La Mancha (33.5%), Catalonia (31%), the Balearic Islands (27%) and Murcia (23%); while the regions with the largest deficits in 2013 were Murcia (3.2%), the Valencian Community (2.3%), Castilla-La Mancha (2.1%), Aragon (2.1%) and Catalonia (2%). The region’s failures to meet the deficit targets set by the central government contributed heavily to Spain’s budget overshoots in the last few years. The central government pressed the regional governments to make major cuts and reforms to reduce their debts and deficits to Madrid’s target, a tough task somewhat simplified by the fact that there was less central-regional feuds because most regions are governed by the PP since 2011. However, the PSOE government of Andalusia and the CiU government of Catalonia both argued that the targets set by Madrid were unrealistic and excessively rigid, and that meeting them would require them to make even deeper cuts. Regional governments – especially those in Catalonia, the Valencian Community or Castilla-La Mancha (among others) – have implemented stringent austerity measures, cutting benefits, public spending, selling public assets and rising taxes as they could. Yet, most regions, like the central government, have continuously overshot the targets.

The government’s austerity measures have been unpopular and led to several protests. After the general strike in March 2012 and the historic general strike in public education in May 2012, several sectoral strikes and anti-austerity protests followed in 2012, ending with another general strike in November 2012. Some movements took even more radical actions – in Andalusia, the Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores (SAT), a Andalusian nationalist and anti-capitalist union whose most prominent figure is Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, an IU regional deputy and mayor of the anarcho-syndicalist/communist stronghold of Marinaleda since 1979, organized spectacular ‘Robin Hood’ raids on supermarkets in the region, ‘expropriating’ basic foodstuffs or school supplies to redistribute to poor families. The increase in the number of evictions since the housing bubble burst has led to social despair and several highly-publicized suicides.

Education minister José Ignacio Wert’s education reform (LOMCE) in late 2013 has extremely unpopular on the left and with students. The new reform is criticized for introducing standardized testing at the end of each educational level, the greater place given to religious education in the curriculum, the central government’s power to determine subjects and curricula and the reduced place for co-official regional languages (Catalan, Basque, Galician). Coming during the debate over an independence referendum in Catalonia, Wert’s declaration in October 2012 that his aim was to españolizar a los niños catalanes (‘hispanicize Catalan children’) added fuel to the fire, providing the Catalan nationalists with yet another example of how Catalonia is allegedly mistreated by the rest of Spain. The left, which has promised to repeal the LOMCE if elected, has claimed that the PP is ‘dismantling’ public education. The cuts and the PP’s enthusiasm for controversial schemes to contract out managements of hospitals to private companies has led to claims that the government is out to dismantle public services.

Adding to the growing social discontent and dissatisfaction with both major parties have been a series of high-profile corruption cases, involving both major parties but also the monarchy.

Spanish monarch Juan Carlos I, who abdicated shortly after the EP elections on June 2 in favour of his son Prince Felipe, has seen his legendary popularity tumble following royal missteps and corruption scandals, most notably his ill-advised hunting trip to Botswana in 2012 (in addition to revelations of his womanizing). The former King’s daughter, Infanta Cristina de Borbón, and her husband Iñaki Urdangarin have been embroiled in a major corruption scandal relating to kickbacks Urdangarin received from regional governments. The infanta Cristina was charged with corruption in January 2014.

Over the last few years, several politicians from both major parties have been accused of corruption. In the Valencian Community, a stronghold of the PP, the regional president Francisco Camps – an ally of Rajoy – was finally forced to resign in June 2011 after years of scandal surrounding his involvement in a huge kickbacks-for-contracts scheme (Caso Gürtel). Camps was later acquitted, but the Caso Gürtel continues to linger in the background. In the same region, millions in international development funds were embezzled by businesses and fraudulent ‘NGOs’ with the cooperation and support of a high-ranking member of the regional government and local PP, who was finally sentenced to jail in May 2014. In Andalusia, which has been ruled by the PSOE since the creation of regional government in 1978, millions of euros were fraudulently siphoned off in government-subsidized illegal early retirement deals. The PP had hoped to benefit from the EREgate scandal and Andalusia’s catastrophic economic situation in the March 2012 regional elections, and polls indicated that Javier Arenas’ PP was on track to win an historic absolute majority in the left-wing stronghold. However, the PP, albeit winning the most votes in a regional election for the first time in its history, failed to win a majority and PSOE incumbent José Antonio Griñán was reelected in coalition with IU (which made significant gains). The PP’s surprise ‘defeat’ in Andalusia was seen as an early warning sign for Rajoy.

Controversially, judge Baltasar Garzón, Spain’s most famous magistrate who led judicial investigations into domestic and international cases (most notably the attempted persecution of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet), was expelled from the judiciary in 2012 for illegally wiretapping conversations (ruled as perverting the course of justice) between inmates and their lawyers in the Caso Gürtel. This sparked an outcry on the left, judging that the ruling against Garzón was excessive and that he was being persecuted by his peers and other enemies in the judiciary.

The biggest scandal, however, has been the caso Bárcenas, first revealed to the public eye in January 2013. El País published handwritten notes belonging to Luis Bárcenas, the former treasurer of the PP (until 2009), then under investigation in the Caso Gürtel (where he was accused of pocketing millions in illegal donations from businessmen). These notes indicated the existence of a parallel, illegal financing system in the PP between 1990 and 2009 and suggested that regular cash payments had been made from a slush fund (whose donors were mostly construction magnates) to several leading members of the PP including current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Rajoy himself allegedly received €25,000 a year for eleven years; other leading figures of the PP including former Prime Minister José María Aznar, Rodrigo Rato (finance minister under Aznar), Ángel Acebes (interior minister under Aznar), Javier Arenas (labour minister, later minister of the presidency under Aznar, and current leader of the Andalusian PP), Jaime Mayor Oreja (MEP and former interior minister under Aznar from the PP’s far-right) and María Dolores de Cospedal (current president of Castilla-La Mancha and secretary-general of the PP) are also suspected of having benefited from illegal party bonuses. Although the bulk of those suspected denied involvement, their credibility was dealt a blow when Pío García Escudero, the president of the Senate, admitted that he had received a bonus from the PP.

Rajoy desperately tried to avoid making a statement on the scandal, and repeatedly denied having taken illegal funds. However, the proof he presented was widely judged to be unconvincing and still left much to be desired. The PP tried to its best to make the scandal go away, but it made a comeback in July, with juicy admissions from Bárcenas that the PP had been financed illegally for the last 20 years and revelations by El Mundo that Rajoy was in contact with Bárcenas until March 2012 in the form of text messages privately lending support to Bárcenas (even after it was made public that Bárcenas had millions of euros stashed away in a Swiss bank account). Forced to respond, Rajoy again denied allegations and obviously refused to resign.

Major corruption cases such as the Caso Gürtel, the Caso Bárcenas and EREgate revealed a corrupt system, involving all governing parties (in Catalonia, the CiU has also been involved in scandals, with allegations that the current President of the Generalitat Artur Mas and Jordi Pujol, the former leader of the region, both have secret Swiss bank accounts), characterized by opaqueness in the awarding of contracts and toxic ties between politicians and businessmen. The responses of both parties to such cases have been quite terrible – denying all involvement or loudly denouncing a ‘conspiracy’ against them. For instance, in the Bárcenas scandal, Rajoy implicitly accused anyone who believed Bárcenas’ accounts of a lack of patriotism and threw his former party colleague under the bus, calling him an inveterate liar just months after he had offered him his private backing. It appears as if the public has become much less tolerant of political corruption since the economic crisis.

Since 2011, the issue of domestic Basque separatist terrorism and ETA has slowly faded away, but the final fate of ETA and particularly ETA prisoners in Spanish jails continues to be a highly contentious issue. Historically, the PP has tended to favour a very tough hard line against ETA, refusing any negotiations with the terrorist organization unless it disarms and repents. In good part, Rajoy’s government has continued on the same general line – refusing to extend a hand to ETA unless the organizations dissolves itself, to the chagrin of many Basque nationalists – including the moderate and anti-violence Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which has always had an ambiguous and conflicted attitude towards ETA. However, Rajoy’s government has shied away from being overly hawkish, leaving many of its most conservative anti-ETA supporters quite disappointed. In 2012, the PP and PSOE defeated a UPyD motion to ban Amaiur, the abertzale coalition in the Cortes Generales which is seen by many opponents of ETA as the latest political front for the terrorist movement. In doing so, the PP began viewing the issue of ETA as being both military and political, which it had not done in the past. The government has supported a strategy of conditional ‘individual reinsertion’ of ETA prisioners, which is opposed by the Association of Victims of Terrorism (AVT), an association for victims of terrorism and staunch opponents of any negotiations with ETA. Nevertheless, the government publicly manifested its disapproval after the Constitutional Tribunal lifted the ban on Sortu in 2012, a political party banned in 2011 as it was seen as the latest incarnation of ETA and its illegal political wing Batasuna. Other members of the PP were even more acerbic in their reactions to the decision – Esperanza Aguirre, the then-president of the Community of Madrid, mulled abolishing the Constitutional Tribunal; ABC, a very conservative newspaper, proclaimed that the Tribunal surrendered to ETA supporters.

The prospects for negotiations between the government and ETA’s remnants are low. The government insists that ETA dissolves, disarms and apologize to their victims; ETA’s prisoners have renounced violence and embraced democratic ways, but seeks amnesty, self-determination for Euskadi and does not want a ‘one-sided’ apology which they insist ignores the victims of state repression, the Spanish government’s ‘dirty war’ against ETA in the 1980s and the fate of ‘political prisoners’ (like Arnaldo Otegi, the former spokesperson of Batasuna and current secretary-general of Sortu, who remains imprisoned).

Politically, the abertzale left, which has unambiguously rejected any kind of violence – including that of ETA – and seeks a democratic path to a ‘socialist, independent Euskal Herria’, has met unprecedented success at the polls since 2011, united under the electoral coalition Euskal Herria Bildu (EH Bildu). EH Bildu includes Sortu, the old left-wing/anti-violence Eusko Alkartasuna (EA) founded in 1986 by PNV dissidents, the left-wing/anti-violence Aralar founded in 2001 by Herri Batasuna members who opposed ETA’s violence and intransigence, and Alterniba (a splinter from what was then the local Basque section of IU, EB-B). In the 2012 Basque regional elections, EH Bildu won 25% and 21 seats – placing a very strong second behind the old PNV, which won 34.6% and regained control of the Basque autonomous government (which it had lost, for the first time since its creation in 1980, to the Socialists allied with the PP in 2009). Successive local, provincial, national and regional elections since 2011 have confirmed that the abertzale left, at unprecedented levels of support, has established itself as the second largest party in the Basque autonomous community after the PNV but ahead of both the local Socialists (PSE-EE) and PP.

Unquestionably, however, the most pronounced challenge to the Spanish state has come from Catalonia and a spectacular upsurge in a more explicitly separatist and assertive brand of Catalan nationalism. This represents a sea change in Spain’s peripheral nationalisms – historically, Catalan nationalism was seen as the most moderate and pragmatic (seny catalá) while Basque nationalism was more radical, violent and polarizing. In the historical tradition of the nationalist Catalan bourgeoisie, Jordi Pujol’s Convergence and Union (CiU) nationalist alliance – which controlled the Generalitat (the autonomous government) between 1980 and 2003 – was deliberately ambiguous about the question of independence/sovereignty for Catalonia and instead always sought more devolution and powers for Catalonia, applied a stringent linguistic policy to promote Catalan over Spanish in public and cultural life, used sabre-rattling nationalist rhetoric (Espanya ens roba – ‘Spain robs Catalonia’). This differentiated the CiU from the old Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), which has always explicitly supported the independence of the greater Països Catalans (Catalan-speaking territories including the Valencian Community, the Balearic Islands and Northern Catalonia in France).

Catalan nationalism received its first boost in June 2010, with the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal on the new Statute of Autonomy adopted by the Catalan government (made up of the Socialists, ERC and radical left/eco-socialist ICV-EUiA) in 2006. The PP had appeal the new Statute after its approval by the Spanish Congress and in a Catalan referendum; the PP took issue with the definition of Catalonia as a ‘nation’, the preferential status for the Catalan language, the further devolution of powers and the ‘bilateral principle’ (bilateral talks between Madrid and the Generalitat, excluding other regions) among other contentious clauses. The Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the declaration of Catalonia as a nation lacked legal standing, struck down 14 articles as unconstitutional (notably the decentralization of justice) and 27 were upheld. Although the ruling did not mark a loss of autonomy, the Catalan reaction was livid – it was widely seen as the decision of a partisan, ‘Spanish’ court which was the final straw on top of ‘anti-Catalan’ campaigns from the Spanish right. Shortly after the ruling, a large nationalist rally in Catalonia, Som una nació. Nosaltres decidim, supported by the governing parties and CiU rallied between 500k and 1.5 million people. However, the ruling was the final blow to the much-weakened PSC-led Tripartite government. In the November 2010 regional elections, the PSC was badly defeated by Artur Mas’ CiU, with 62 out of 135 seats. Mas’ CiU had campaigned on the Catalan people’s right to decide (derecho a decidir, or dret a decidir) and his landmark promise was a ‘fiscal pact’ with Madrid, which would allow Catalonia to raise and administer its own taxes – similar to the Concierto Económico held by Navarre and the Basque Country.

The economic crisis has reignited Catalan nationalism. The old issue of the ‘fiscal deficit’ – Catalonia’s old complaint that it pays more in taxes to the central government than it receives in investments, representing an estimated ‘loss’ of 6-9% of the regional GDP and often seen as ‘subsidizing’ poorer region – has returned to the forefront of political debate. Many nationalists feel that an independent state would offer relief from the Spanish recession. With the Generalitat struggling to reduce its deficit and the debt asphyxiating the region, Mas has been accused of opportunistically shifting towards nationalism to distract attention from his unpopular austerity policies and the region’s bad economic situation – arguing that the current financing of autonomous communities is unfair, and Catalonia would recover quickly if its taxes weren’t being used by Madrid to subsidize poorer regions. On September 11, 2012 – the Diada, Catalonia’s national day (commemorating the loss of Catalan autonomy with the 1714 defeat of the pro-Habsburg Catalan forces by the Spanish Bourbons during the Spanish War of Succession), the huge size of the nationalist rally (Catalunya, nou estat d’Europa) organized by the extra-parliamentary separatist Catalan National Assembly (ANC) took Mas by surprise – between 600,000 and 2 million participants turned out. After Mas failed to get Rajoy’s support for his ‘fiscal pact’ and using the nationalist momentum of the Diada, Mas called for early elections for November 2012. Mas announced that he would hold a referendum (even if he lacked legal backing) within the term of the next legislature on Catalonia’s institutional future, and the Catalan Parliament adopted (before its dissolution) a motion calling for a consultation on Catalonia’s future. Mas failed to win an absolute majority – the CiU even fell back, losing 12 seats; but the elections saw strong gains by the separatist ERC (21 seats, up 11 and second in seats ahead of the PSC) and the election of 3 members from the far-left separatist Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP). The elections, however, also showed a polarization of political opinions – the divided PSC, defending a vague and unappealing federalist ‘third way’, was crushed (an all-time low of 14.4% and 20 seats), while the staunchly anti-independence Catalan PP (19 seats, up 1) and Ciutadans (C’s, 9 seats, up 6) made gains.

In December 2012, Mas signed a deal with the ERC, in which the ERC supported Mas’ reelection as president in return for the ERC’s input on a referendum to be held as soon as possible. In January 2013, the Catalan Parliament approved a motion recognizing the Catalan people as ‘sovereign’ and holding the ‘right to decide’, with the votes of the CiU, ERC and the left-wing Initiative for Catalonia Greens-United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA) and the opposition of the PP, C’s and 15 deputies from the PSC. The Constitutional Tribunal struck down the motion in March 2014. After another highly successful nationalist show of force on the Diada in 2013 (an impressive human chain stretching the entire length of Catalonia), Mas announced in December 2013 that a referendum would be held on November 9, 2014 and that voters would answer two questions: “do you want Catalonia to be a state?” and “in case of affirmative answer, do you want this state to be independent?” The two-question structure of the referendum was widely criticized, as were the very ambiguous questions set by the Generalitat – there is no straight up question on sovereignty (a word which Mas is still not keen towards) or separation, and the words ‘state’ and ‘independent’ can be rather ambiguous and twisted different ways. The ERC and CUP wanted a straight up yes/no question on independence, but the ICV-EUiA and the moderate junior party in the CiU (Josep Duran i Lleida’s conservative autonomist Democratic Union of Catalonia, UDC) opposed a straight choice. Nationalists insist that Catalonia would remain in the EU and Eurozone following independence, but most agree that, in the eventuality of Catalan independence, Catalonia would not automatically remain in the EU.

The Spanish government immediately announced that the vote would not take place. The PP, joined by the PSOE, UPyD and C’s, argues that the organization of such a referendum in unconstitutional. On this matter, the Constitution is quite clear: only the Spanish State has the authority to organize a referendum (Article 149.1) and national sovereignty resides in the Spanish people (Article 1.2). The PP denies the Generalitat’s claim that Article 150.2, which allows for the transfer or delegation of the State’s powers to autonomous communities, can be read as allowing for the State to authorize a referendum in Catalonia.

The referendum debate has succeeded in one thing, at least: deeply dividing the PSOE and PSC. The national PSOE has been less centralist than the PP, especially under Zapatero, but has strongly opposed any attempts to hold referendums on independence or declarations of a region’s ‘right to decide’; the PSC, on the other hand, has always been at the very least Catalanist (supportive of a Catalan national identity and extensive self-government) and a significant minority within the PSC has openly supported the ‘right to decide’, the organization of a referendum and even supporting full independence. The PSC’s hapless leader, Pere Navarro, has defended a quite vague and unappealing idea of a federalist ‘third way’ and opposed the organization of a referendum. In January 2014, 3 PSC deputies in the Catalan Parliament voted in favour of the Generalitat’s petition to organize a referendum, disobeying the party line; the PSC deputies in the Congress disobeyed the PSOE’s party line in February 2013 by supporting a CiU-ERC-ICV resolution calling on the government to negotiate with the Generalitat on the organization of a referendum. Some members of the PSOE, notably veteran Socialist leader Alfonso Guerra (the Vice President of the government between 1982 and 1991 under Felipe Gonzáles), openly supported breaking ties with the PSC and founding a clearly anti-independence section of the PSOE in the region. In July 2013, to paper over the cracks, the PSOE adopted the Declaration of Granada, supporting federalism with clearly defined responsibilities, a federalist reform of the Senate and a reform of the financing of the regions. However, federalism has failed to convince many people, and the divisions remain – the PSOE is unwilling to loudly proclaim its federalist conversion by fear of alienating more centralist types in its base and membership, while the PSC supports federalism but some are tempted to go even further. In October 2013, the PSOE voted in favour of a UPyD motion proclaiming that ‘the right to decide resides with all Spaniards’, rendering the PSC (which abstained) even more uncomfortable and kind of casting doubts on what the PSOE’s federalism really means.

The government created another firestorm with justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón’s changes to the abortion law. In 2010, Zapatero’s Socialist government, as part of its series of socially liberal reforms which alienated the PP and the Catholic Church, removed all restrictions on abortion (which was legal in cases of danger to the mother’s physical or mental health, rape and fetal malformations or defects since 1985), legalizing it on demand in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy and allowing minors 16-18 to have an abortion without requiring parental consent. In 2011, the PP’s platform promised to amend the abortion law and Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón reiterated the new government’s commitment towards changing the law. In December 2013, the government announced its draft law – abortion would be illegal except in cases of rape and ‘serious risk to the physical or mental health’ of the mother (malformation of the fetus by itself would not be grounds for an abortion, unless the mother proves that it has a serious impact on her mental health), two doctors (who would not perform the abortion or work for the clinic where it is performed) would judge if these conditions exist, minors will require parental consent and only doctors would be punished for the ‘crime’. The government claimed that its law defends the rights of the unborn and protects mothers, but the new law – which has yet to be passed by Congress – is widely unpopular. Many criticize the PP for starting a useless ‘culture war’ only to satisfy its restless and critical hard-right base (which is less than enamored with most of Rajoy’s policies), and Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón’s popularity has dwindled, making him the second least popular minister, after Wert. The abortion law came alongside a new public safety law from interior minister Jorge Fernández Díaz which would give the police to fine ‘offenses or insults to Spain’ or dissolves unauthorized rallies in front of the Parliament buildings.

There have been regional elections in five regions since 2011 – Andalucia, Asturias (both in March 2012, both resulted in PSOE governments), Galicia and Euskadi (in late 2012, the reelection of the PP majority in Galicia and the PNV’s return in Euskadi) and Catalonia (see above); these EP elections are the first national elections since the 2011 general election, and it kicks off a series of high-stakes elections in 2015 – regional and municipal elections around May, followed by a general election before December 2015. Parties are clearly gearing up for the 2015 elections, which are likely to be the most open-ended, unpredictable and exciting elections in modern Spain. Dealing with a recession, one of the highest unemployment rates in the EU, a terrible deficit, the unpopularity of its austerity policies, controversial legislation, a ‘separatist threat’ in Catalonia, corruption all around and corruption within the government itself, the PP has seen its support fall significantly since 2011. From an all-time high of 45%, the PP’s support fell to about 29-32% in the polls, which would be the PP’s lowest level since the early 1990s (around the time when the old AP shifted away from Manuel Fraga’s toxic past association with Franco, and José María Aznar’s successful construction of a big tent party after 1990).

In opposition, the PSOE has continued to struggle after its all-time low result in 2011. The PSOE’s leader (at the time of the EP elections), Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, has been a very unpopular opposition leader who has struggled to find a voice for the PSOE in opposition and define a new path for the PSOE after the Zapatero era (which is, fairly or unfairly, widely judged to have been a trainwreck by voters). Rubalcaba’s support in the PSOE has also been less than unanimous: Rubalcaba was elected leader of the PSOE at the party’s XXXVIII Congress in February 2012, with 487 delegates against 465 delegates for Carme Chacón, a popular defense minister under Zapatero and a Catalan Socialist. Rubalcaba was supported by the bulk of the PSOE’s old guard – former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzáles, the old regional barons José Bono (Castilla-La Mancha), Manuel Chaves (Andalusia), Juan Carlos Rodríguez Ibarra (Extremadura); Chacón, the outsider, was supported by the likes of Juan Fernando López Aguilar, Josep Borrell, María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, Tómas Gómez and Susana Díaz (who became leader of the Andalusian PSOE and president of Andalusia in September 2013). Rubalcaba has generally moved the party towards the left, opposing the PP’s austerity policies (but many remember that Zapatero was the one who began austerity, and many compare the government’s austerity policies to those of the PSOE), supporting bank and wealth taxes, less power for the Catholic Church and – as aforementioned – a fairly vague ‘federalism’. In polls, the PSOE was at or below its 2011 result – 25 to 28%, which meant that the PP remained ahead of the PSOE in all but a handful of polls (although the gap closed significantly in early 2014).

The IU and UPyD, nationally, have achieved strong polling numbers since 2011 – the IU’s support peaked at nearly 15% before coming down a bit to 10-12% in early 2014; UPyD increased to about 7-11%.

The PP leadership appointed Miguel Arias Cañete, Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Environment (until his resignation on April 28 to run in the EP election) as the PP’s top candidate. Arias Cañete, one of the most popular members of the government (although still in the red), was fairly uncontroversial in his job and has EU experience in dealing with the Common Agricultural Policy. Ramón Luis Valcárcel, the PP president of Murcia from 1995 to 2014, was sixth on the PP’s list. The PSOE leadership appointed Elena Valenciano, the deputy leader of the PSOE and a Rubalcaba ally, who served in the EP from 1999 to 2008, as top candidate. Ramón Jáuregi, a Basque Socialist politician and Minister of the Presidency (2010-2011) was second; Juan Fernando López Aguilar, the top candidate in 2009 and former Minister of Justice (2004-2007), was fourth.

La Izquierda Plural (The Plural Left) was the coalition spearheaded by the IU, led by two-term PCE/IU MEP Willy Meyer. The IU is the old coalition of the Spanish radical left, in which the Communist Party (PCE) has always been the largest although not necessarily dominant component. Since 2008, under the leadership of Cayo Lara, the PCE has regained the upper hand in the IU, after the eight-year leadership of Gaspar Llamazares, who was more independent of the PCE. Under Cayo Lara, the IU has further distanced itself from the PSOE (Llamazares had less confrontational relations with the Socialists) and proclaimed the IU as anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal.

In Catalonia, La Izquierda Plural was led by the Initiative for Catalonia Greens (ICV) and the United and Alternative Left (EUiA), with the ICV’s Ernest Urtasun as the third candidate on the national list. ICV, the largest of the two, grew out of the old Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC) in the 1980s and transformed into an ecosocialist centralized party – more independent of the national IU – in the mid-1990s. EUiA, which has been ICV’s perennial electoral ally since 2003, was founded in 1998 by traditionalist communists (notably the anti-Eurocommunist PCC and a faction of the old PSUC hostile to the green shift of the ICV) and it is the official Catalan wing of IU. The ICV-EUiA supports Catalan self-determination, but the ICV is split between federalists and separatists. In Galicia, La Izquierda Plural was led by the new alliance of the local United Left (EU) and Anova-Irmandade Nacionalista. Anova is an alliance of Galician regionalist/nationalist left-wing parties born from factions which split from the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG) after Xosé Manuel Beiras – a leading figure of Galician nationalism and former leader of the BNG – lost an internal election to the dominant Union of the Galician People (UPG) in 2012. Led by Beiras, the EU-Anova alliance (Alternativa Galega de Esquerda, AGE) in the October 2012 regional elections in Galicia did very well, winning 14% and 9 seats – third ahead of the BNG, a result made more impressive if one considers the weakness of the communist movement in the conservative region. In Euskadi, the local branch of IU (Ezker Anitza, after a nasty split in 2012) was allied with Iratzarri, a small splinter of Aralar; in Navarre, IU was allied with Batzarre, a far-left nationalist party whose roots can be traced to the two major obrerista splinters from ETA during Franco’s regime (ETA Berri in 1966 and ETA-VI in 1970). La Izquierda Plural, finally, also included some members from tiny green parties.

UPyD’s list was led by its sole incumbent MEP, Francisco Sosa Wagner. The centrist liberal UPyD is strongly pro-European, arguing in favour of deeper European integration (it proposes a common immigration policy, banking union, abolishing the inter-governmental European Council to promote EU supranationalism, integrated European defense etc) and warning of the dangers of nationalism. In Spain, UPyD is a fierce opponent of peripheral nationalists – it supports reducing the powers of the autonomous communities, clearly setting out the powers of all levels of government, abolishing the foral rights (conciertos) of Euskadi and Navarre and creating a symmetric, centralized federal state. However, because of its stances, UPyD has been described by critics as centralist and Spanish nationalist. The party has common ground with the PP on issues such as terrorism, centralism and even some structural reforms in the economy but the UPyD’s secularism, mild social liberalism and more centrist economic policies are off-putting to many populares. The party’s reputation is mixed, many accusing it of populism and personalism behind UPyD’s founding leader, former PSOE MEP Rosa Díez.

UPyD is nearly indistinguishable from the Ciudadanos-Ciutadans (C’s), with the exception that the C’s have tended to be a regional party in Catalonia with little presence outside the region, although that is changing. The C’s, like UPyD, are anti-(peripheral) nationalist and support greater centralization, and has also taken strong stances in favour of equal bilingualism between Spanish and Catalan (the Generalitat has tended to heavily promote and favour Catalan). A minor force in Catalan politics until 2010, the party benefited from the polarization of opinion around the issue of independence to gain 6 seats in the 2012 regional elections, winning a record 9 seats. It has provided C’s with an impetus to expand outside of Catalonia and consolidate its new strength in Catalonia. Compared to UPyD, C’s is a bit Eurosceptic and left-leaning – in 2012, C’s took rather populist and left-wing positions on socioeconomic issues; but the main difference remains one of personalities – C’s leader, Albert Rivera, doesn’t get along with Rosa Díez.

The moderate peripheral regionalist and nationalist parties – led by the CiU and the PNV – formed the Coalición por Europa, the same name as a similar alliance for the 2009 EP elections. The coalition included the CiU – more accurately, its two component parties, Artur Mas’ larger nationalist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) and the autonomist conservative Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC), with the former in the ALDE and the latter in the EPP and the PNV, which is with the CDC in ALDE. The coalition was joined, like in 2009, by the Canarian Coalition (CC) – a makeshift coalition of various insular parties (Canarian politics are extremely insular) which is the governing party in the Canaries since 1993 which, unlike the PNV or CiU, is not as much a nationalist party (although it defines itself as one) as an autonomist and Canarian regionalist party seeking various concessions from the central government. In Galicia, the coalition was joined by Compromise for Galicia (CxG), a small centre-left nationalist party (1% in the 2012 regionals) founded by another faction of BNG dissidents in 2012 (from the Máis Galiza faction of the BNG) and small nationalist parties (the liberal PNG-PG, notably). In Catalonia, the Reagrupment – a small separatist movement – joined the coalition, after moving towards the CDC in 2013. Incumbent MEP Ramon Tremosa (CDC) was the lead candidate, followed by Izaskun Bilbao MEP (PNV) and Francesc Gambús (UDC).

The ERC allied with two small Catalan nationalist parties (Catalunya Sí and Nova Esquerra Catalana – a party led by Ernest Maragall, the brother of former PSC President of the Generalitat Pasqual Maragall) to form L’Esquerra pel Dret a Decidir (EPDD, ‘The Left for the Right to Decide’), running on a strongly nationalist platform endorsing Catalan independence within the EU. The ERC had previously mulled an historic broad nationalist front with the CiU or an alliance with the Basque EH Bildu.

EH Bildu formed a coalition with the Galician BNG (weakened by splits, and led by the communist UPG), a small Canarian separatist party (ANC), the Asturian nationalists, the Aragonese nationalist Puyalón and another small party; the list, led by EH Bildu’s Josu Juaristi, was called Los Pueblos Deciden (The Peoples Decide, LPD). Interestingly, EH Bildu-LPD’s platform was not as separatist as anti-neoliberal and left-wing, with much of it devoted to a left-wing critique of neoliberalism and the economic crisis rather than nationalist calls for self-determination (although they were in there).

Primavera Europea (PE, European Spring) was a coalition spearheaded by the left-wing/green Valencian regionalist Coalició Compromís, a young (2010) alliance of various Valencian nationalist (BLOC) and regional left-wing or green parties. Compromís, which has adopted the ‘third way’ between the warring theoretical schools of Valencian nationalism (Joan Fuster’s pan-Catalanism and the anti-Catalan blaverismo), has been quite successful electorally – 7% and 6 seats in the 2011 regional election, the election of one deputy to Madrid in 2011. It allied, as in November 2011, with EQUO – Spain’s new, but rather unsuccessful, green party; the Chunta Aragonesista (CHA), Aragon’s main left-wing nationalist party; and other small parties.

In January 2014, several academics and civil society actors founded Podemos (‘we can’), a left-wing, anti-establishment movement which would oppose Madrid and the EU’s austerity policies and seek to build on the Spanish indignados movements. Podemos’ list was led by Pablo Iglesias, a 35-year old polisci professor at the Complutense University of Madrid and a regular guest on TV shows; Iglesias’ face was the logo chosen by Podemos to identify itself on ballot papers, a decision which Podemos justified by Iglesias’ greater notoriety and name (face?) recognition. Pablo Iglesias, who was named after the founder of the PSOE and the UGT Pablo Iglesias (1850-1925), was a member of the PCE’s youth wing between the ages of 14 and 21.

Podemos’ platform focuses on six overarching themes: economic recovery, ‘conquering liberty, fraternity and equality’, redefining sovereignty and recovering the land. On economic issues, Podemos supports job creation through public policies and public investments (it opposes the PP’s labour and pension reforms, and calls for a 35-hour workweek and a retirement age at 60, a higher minimum wage and a new maximum wage; it would promote SMEs), an audit of the debt, democratization of the ECB (which would be focused on creation of ‘decent jobs’ and the public financing of member-states by directly buying public debt on the markets), reorienting the financial system to consolidate ‘ethical and cooperative’ banks, public ownership in strategic sectors (communications, energy, food, transport, health, education, pharmaceuticals), subjecting all privatizations to a referendum, cracking down on tax evasion and tax fraud by multinationals, wealth taxes and a minimum basic income.

On the theme of ‘conquering liberty’, Podemos advocates for tougher anti-corruption measures, greater use of legislative initiative referendums and direct democracy, electoral reform, participative budgeting, control of  lobbyists, campaign finance regulations, anti-monopoly measures in communications, the defense of basic freedoms (freedom of speech, assembly, association etc), abolishing ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation which restricts civil liberties and LGBTI rights. On the issue of ‘conquering equality’, Podemos supports defending social and cultural rights, defending public services, gender equality in the workplace, a right to free universal healthcare throughout the EU, a right to free public and secular education including university, a right to decent housing (a moratorium on mortgage debts for low-income families, freezing evictions, legalization of squatting in unoccupied places), defending sexual and reproductive rights and a right of free and secure access to information. By ‘conquering fraternity’, Podemos argues in favour of increasing citizen participation, pro-immigration policies, increasing immigrants’ rights, self-determination (right to decide) and a foreign policy based on international development and peace. Podemos supports abrogating the Treaty of Lisbon, abandoning TAFTA, renegotiating free-trade agreements, mandatory popular ratification of all constitutional amendments and various political reforms (transparency, term limits, possibility for recall, less generous benefits and salaries for politicians). Finally, Podemos endorses a new sustainable development policy for the EU, a right to access water, food security, reducing GHG emissions by 55% by 2030, green energies (45% of energy must be from renewable sources by 2030) and rural development. Similar to Italy’s Beppe Grillo, although with much less radical and inflammatory rhetoric, Podemos presents itself as a new party ‘close to citizens’ and not professionals politicians. Several media reports have noted the importance of social media to Podemos.

Podemos’ list was supported by several small parties, the most notable of which was the far-left Trotskyist Anticapitalist Left (Izquierda Anticapitalista), a small movement which was a part of IU from 1995 to 2007.

The PP faced a challenge to its right from a splinter party founded in 2013, Vox. The party was founded by some right-wing rebels in the PP. The party’s right has been uneasy or on bad terms with Rajoy since 2008, when the right unsuccessfully tried to remove him as leader following the PP’s defeat in 2008. Since taking power, some members of the PP’s right have decried Rajoy as a ‘sellout’, a ‘pansy’ and even a ‘social democrat’ – they dislike his tax increases, his handling of Catalonia and his less confrontational stance with terrorism. Vox seeks to return to the PP’s roots – neoliberalism/Thatcherism, visceral opposition to peripheral nationalism and strong support for ‘national unity’. The party’s leader and most prominent figure is Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a three-term MEP and leader of the Catalan PP from 1991 to 1996. A leading opponent of Catalan nationalism and Jordi Pujol’s CiU governments in the 1990s – comparing its linguistic policies to apartheid – and recently called on the Guardia Civil to intervene if Mas’ government continued its ‘rebellion’. Vox was also joined by Santiago Abascal, a former Basque regional deputy (2004-2009) close to former Basque PP leader María San Gil; and José Antonio Ortega Lara, a ETA hostage for 532 days in the 1990s. Other members of the PP’s right, somewhat estranged from the leadership, such as Esperanza Aguirre (who resigned as president of the Community of Madrid in 2012) and Jaime Mayor Oreja (the PP’s top candidate in the 2009 EP elections who declined to run for reelection) have not joined the new party.

Results

The major losers of the election were Spain’s two major parties – the PP and PSOE – who lost over 15% of the vote each from the 2009 EP election. Together, the two parties won just 49.1% of the vote compared to 73.3% in 2011, 80.9% in 2009 (EP) and 83.7% in 2008. It is the first time in the history of modern Spanish democracy that the two largest parties (the PP/AP and PSOE since 1982, the PSOE and UCD from 1977 to 1982) in the country have not won over 50% of the vote. Falling even lower than its disastrous 2011 result (28.7%), the PSOE’s puny 23% sets another record as the PSOE’s lowest result in any national election. The PP’s result – 26.1% – is down 18.5% from 2011 and it is the PP’s lowest result in any national election since the 1991 municipal elections (25.3%). El País summarized the elections with the headline pierde el bipartidismo (the two-party system loses) – as far as summaries go, it’s a very good one given that the election has confirmed what polls have said since about 2012 – Spain’s two-party system (at a national level, mind you) which has endured since the Transition is at its lowest ebb, with both the right and left feeling pressure from new parties, peripheral nationalists and parties to their left.

The PP can take some solace (and it has) in that it placed first – a Pyrrhic victory, but the PP has said that a victory is a victory and it has expressed much satisfaction (publicly) with its result. As far as it’s concerned, the PP managed to place first and beat the PSOE – which remains its only serious rival for government – in a midterm election despite unpopular austerity policies, recortes (cuts) and a difficult economic situation. The PP hopes that the nascent recovery will help it improve its poll standings, although it is another question whether most voters are actually feeling a recovery and if they’re willing to re-embrace the PP after everything. The other good news for the PP is that, despite its major loses, it still faces no major challenge on its right flank – Vox won only 1.6%. If anything, polls indicate that the PP’s loses have come from more centrist voters, while it has held on to more conservative supporters.

Never mind that its first place showing owes more to the division of its opponents in general and the left in particular, and never mind that the PP’s results hide some very preoccupying (negative) trends and indications – the PP would like to think that its ‘victory’ of sorts in the EP election shores up Rajoy and is good omen for 2015. The PP likely seeks to distract attention from its very severe loses, which saw its raw vote fall from 6.670 million in 2009/10.866 million in 2011 to only 4.098 million votes in 2014. The PP’s results are only decent when compared to those of the PSOE.

If there can be only one loser of these elections, it is undeniably the PSOE. The Socialists suffered an historic defeat – just 23% and 3.6 million votes in the whole of Spain – and this despite being the leading opposition party during an economic crisis (oftentimes, regardless of the actual competence or strength of the main opposition party, it is in a good position to be the main beneficiary of a government’s unpopularity in a midterm vote – ask the Portuguese PS right now). The PSOE has been unable to make a clean break with Zapatero’s toxic legacy (Rubalcaba hasn’t helped matters), and many voters still blame Zapatero and the PSOE for Spain’s economic mess. Despite shifting to the left since 2011, the PSOE still lacks credibility and legitimacy to many voters, and its leftwards shift has mainly come off as opportunism and insincere (many remember Zapatero’s own austerity policies). Additionally, the PSOE has been badly divided since 2011, and the issue of Catalonia’s derecho a decidir and the territorial organization of Spain has been a huge headache for the PSOE.

Following the EP election, PSOE leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba announced his immediate resignation as secretary-general and that he would not be a candidate in the presidential (prime ministerial) primaries planned for November 2014. His leadership had clearly become unsustainable and un-salvageable following the EP thumping. An extraordinary congress to elect his successor was held on July 13. Pedro Sánchez, a 42-year old deputy (2009-2011, and since January 2013) who worked with José Blanco (one of Zapatero’s allies) in the centrist wing of the party, was elected with 48.7% against 36.3% for Eduardo Madina (who is 38), a Basque Socialist who has led the PSOE group in Congress since 2009. José Antonio Pérez Tapias, from the party’s most leftist faction, took 15.1%. Pedro Sánchez, who has promised to build the grassroots and transform the PSOE into the party of ‘change’ for 2015, had strong support in all federations – even in Euskadi – but crucial to his victory was his above-average support in Andalusia, the powerhouse in PSOE politics, where Sánchez was supported by Susana Díaz, the regional president who is becoming one of the new major barons in the PSOE. Sánchez, an economist, was a fairly obscure backbencher until not so long ago; one of his first decisions was to instruct PSOE MEPs not to vote for Jean-Claude Juncker’s confirmation. So far, polls have not indicated much of a ‘leadership boost’ for the PSOE after Sánchez’s victory. The PSOE’s next major event will be the presidential primary in November 2014, where it is possible that Carme Chacón will return from her political hiatus (teaching in Miami), although her position has been rendered more fragile with the Catalan situation and the PSC’s decrepit state.

Both the PP and PSOE were significantly overestimated in the polls – according to the last polls, the PP stood at about 31-34% while the PSOE was between 26% and 30%. Both parties’ poor performance on election day was the first major surprise.

The PP and PSOE lost many – if not most – of its 2011 support to abstention, with over half of Spanish voters not showing up to vote. But, with turnout nationally down only 1% from 2009, the PP and PSOE both lost support to other parties, who were, taken as a whole, the main winners of the election.

The major winner was Podemos, which won a remarkable 8% and 5 MEPs. Podemos’ success was quite unexpected – although some late polls had given it up to 1 (even 2) MEPs and about 2-3% of the vote – because few people believed that it would manage to do all that well. Podemos achieved its result despite few financial resources, and a campaign largely built on social media appeal, word of mouth and Pablo Iglesias’ personal notoriety. The new party has been said to have taken a good chunk of the Socialist vote, but Podemos’ success is also cause for concern for IU – without Podemos, many of its supporters would likely have supported IU.

Podemos appeals because it presents a fresh, left-wing and anti-establishment image, and there is definitely a market for Podemos’ anti-politician, anti-system creed. The PSOE is discredited and lacks legitimacy, still licking its wounds from 2011 and trying to figure out where to go from there. IU has gained support thanks to the PSOE’s sad state and the loss of left-wing voters who had supported the PSOE in the first decade of the 21st century, but IU has problems of its own – it is a fairly bureaucratic traditional party itself, it is quite divided internally and its lacks a charismatic or popular leader with Alexis Tsipras (or Pablo Iglesias)’ stature (Cayo Lara is not very popular). Podemos represents a real threat to the PSOE, because it potentially has what it takes to seriously challenge the PSOE’s ‘leadership’ of the broader Spanish left. Podemos is bad news for both IU and UPyD, because it steals both of these parties’ anti-bipartidismo thunder. Its fourth place showing in the EP election already caused UPyD to fall into fifth place. This also frustrates IU and UPyD’s bids to establish themselves as kingmakers ahead of next year’s open-ended municipal, regional and general elections.

Polls taken since the EP election have shown that Podemos came out of the EP election with the most momentum and has become a ‘phenomenon’. It has surged into third place and double digits, ranging between 12% and 15% in most polls, sending the IU into fourth with only 6-8% and UPyD into fifth with 5-7%; the PSOE polls between 21% and 24%.

The most recent poll by CIS (July 2014), often considered as a gold standard in Spanish polling, had the PP leading the PSOE by 8.8% – 30% to 21.2%, with Podemos a strong third with 15.3%, followed by IU (8.2%) and UPyD (5.9%). In the ‘spontaneous’ answers, including undecideds/non-voters, the PP leads Podemos by 0.9% (12.8% to 11.9%), with the PSOE in third (10.6%). Over 80% of respondents still rate the economy as bad or very bad, a bit less than half think that the economy has neither improved nor worsened in the past year and only 25% think it will get better in the next year. Two-thirds of respondents rate the PP government as bad or very bad, and over 85% have little or no confidence in Rajoy.

Although because of the little ideological proximity it has with the PP, Podemos does not threaten the PP directly, but the PP has been leading the charge to kill it in the egg. Esperanza Aguirre has accused Iglesias of being a friend of castrismo, chavismo (one of Podemos’ main figures, fellow polisci prof Juan Carlos Monedero, is a chavista and in fact a former adviser to Chávez) and ETA and some in the PP have alleged that Podemos is financed by Venezuela (Podemos says it is financed through crowdfunding). Rosa Díez has said that she sees elements of SYRIZA, the Italian M5S and the FN in Podemos.

IU, with 10%, actually won its best result in any national election since 1996 (10.5%) and significantly improves on its catastrophic 2009 EP result (3.7%). IU’s gains in the 2011 election – it won 6.9%, up from 3.7% in 2008 – ended a near-constant decline which begun in 1994. UPyD won 6.5%, which is also the party’s best result in its short history, while C’s won 3.1% of the vote. However, the success of IU and UPyD was overshadowed by the Podemos phenomenon, and the surprising result of Podemos – and its implications for both IU and UPyD – tampered the optimism and enthusiasm of these two parties. With at least 1% of the vote in all regions except Euskadi, and at least 2% in 11 regions, C’s showed that they too have national appeal outside of their Catalan cradle.

Overall, the radical left – IU and Podemos – won about 18% of the vote, a record high result for parties to the radical left in Spanish history. Together, UPyD and C’s won 9.7%, also something of a record.

The regionalist and nationalist parties performed, in general, quite well. The biggest success, and one of the more remarkable result, came from Catalonia. In the turbulent region, turnout was up 9.3% from the 2009 EP election (when only 36.9% voted) and reached 46.2%. The increased turnout came as a result of higher nationalist mobilization to defend the planned November 9 referendum, after nationalist parties had called on voters to turn out in large numbers to bring European attention to the referendum and the Catalan issue. The victor was the ERC, with an historic result of 23.7% (9% in 2009) and its first victory in Catalonia since 1936 (during the Second Republic). CiU, with 21.8% – down from a mediocre result of 22.4% in 2009 – did poorly, although Mas tried to spin the issue away by emphasizing the convincing victory of nationalist parties – together, ERC and CiU won 45.5%, compared to only 31.6% in 2009; with the addition of ICV, the pro-referendum vote reaches no less than 55.8% (compared to 37.7% in 2009). In the 2012 regional election, the ERC-CiU-ICV referendum majority won a similar result (which goes up to 58% if the CUP, which didn’t run in the EP election, is included). The ERC won three provinces – Barcelona (21.9%), Tarragona (25.3%) and Gerona (32.9%) while the CiU narrowly won Lleida (31.8% vs. 29.7% for ERC). In the city of Barcelona itself, ERC won 21.8% against 20.9% for the CiU; third place went to ICV (12.6%) ahead of the PSC (12.2%). The main loser in Catalonia was the PSC, whose 14.3% is the lowest result in the PSC’s history (even lower than 2012) and is down massively from the 36% the Socialists took in the region in 2009.

On the anti-nationalist side, the PP did poorly as well (9.8%, its worst national result), losing about half of its support from 2009 (when it did well with 18%) but not as bad if compared with its 2012 result (13%). C’s failed to beat the PP or PSC, as some regional election polls have suggested it may do, but did quite well with 7% of the vote – down slightly from the 7.6% it won in 2012. UPyD won only 1.1% in the region. Podemos, with 4.7%, had one of its worst results in the country.

ERC did well in the Balearic Islands as well, taking 7.3% in the region, where it was supported (unofficially) by Més per Mallorca, a left-wing regionalist coalition on the island of Majorca. The PP won 27.5% against 22% for the Balearic PSOE.

In Euskadi, the results confirmed the new political dispensation which began in 2011. The PNV placed first, with 27.5%, an average result (for an EP election, the PNV does far better in regional elections) down about 1% from 2009 and tied with its 2011 general election showing. In second place, EH Bildu won 23.4%, at the lower end of what the abertzale left has been polling in Euskadi since 2011 (24% in 2011, 24.6% in 2012); but up from the 16% won by a comparable list supported by the illegal abertzale left in 2009 (the Iniciativa Internacionalista, 16% in Euskadi). At the provincial level, the PNV was only victory in Bizkaia, the heartland of moderate Christian democratic Basque nationalism, with a 12-point victory over EH Bildu (31.7% to 19.9%); EH Bildu won by 6.6% in Gipuzkoa, the most nationalist province and hotbed of the abertzale left forever (with 31.2% against 24.6% for the PNV) and took a narrow victory in Álava/Araba, with 18.9% to the PNV’s 17.2%, in the least nationalist and most ‘Spanish’ of the three provinces of Euskadi. In Navarra, EH Bildu was – by far – the dominant Basque nationalist party, with a strong second place and 20.1%, while the PNV won only 2.5% – the PNV has been a tiny rump in Navarra since the 1980s, after being badly hurt by the EA/PNV split in 1986 and the PNV’s participation in a pact with the Spanish and Navarrese right (both strongly opposed to Navarra’s unification with Euskadi). In Euskadi, both the PSE-EE and PP did poorly – with 13.8% and 10.2% respectively – down from 27.8% and 16% in 2009 and 18.9% and 11.6% in 2012.

The CDC and PNV suffered a significant group in the ALDE group, where they were unable to block the admission of UPyD’s 4 MEPs and C’s 2 MEPs to the group, despite the ALDE’s past statements in favour of the Catalan referendum. The CDC and PNV were the only ALDE members to oppose the two Spanish centralist parties’ admission to the group.

In Galicia, where the PP won 35.2% to the PSdeG’s 21.7%, the IP-Anova nationalist left did quite well (10.5%) and Podemos (8.3%) arrived ahead of the BNG (7.9%), which ran a weak and shoestring campaign. Allied with the CiU and PNV, the CxG won only 1%. In the Canaries, the CC placed a poor third with 12.2%, against 23.3% for the PP and 22.2% for the PSOE. Even in the CC stronghold of Santa Cruz de Tenerife province, the CC won only 14.8%. Podemos, with 11% of the vote in the Canaries, won one of its best results in the country. In Aragon, CHA, in the PE coalition, won only 4.5%. In Ceuta, PE won 9%, thanks to the support of Coalición Caballas, a left-wing party representing the city’s significant Arab-Muslim population.

The PP won the Valencian Community with a 7.5% margin, but the results in what has been one of the PP’s major strongholds since the mid-1990s were terrible. With 29.1%, the PP won its worst result in the Valencian Community since the 1991 regional elections (the last election in which the PP did not top the poll in the region). In the last regional election, the PP won yet another absolute majority with 49.4% (despite the Caso Gürtel) and it did even better (53.3%) a few months later in the general election. The EP results confirm what the polls in the region have been saying: the PP leads, but is down significantly from its pre-2011 levels; the Socialists have utterly failed to benefit, winning only 21.6% (an historic low), with the main winners being IU/EU (10.4%), UPyD (8.5%), Compromís (7.9%) and – this year – Podemos (8.2%). If replicated next spring in the regional elections, the PP would lose its absolute majority in the Corts, which it has held since 1999. While the Socialists would remain the leading opposition party, because of the division of its opponents, it could potentially form a coalition with EU, Compromís and potentially UPyD (and now Podemos?).

Another result which should be cause for panic is Madrid, which has been governed by the PP since 1995 and with an absolute majority since then (excluding the first, disputed, regional election in May 2003). In 2009, the PP won 48.6% and it won 51.7% in the 2011 regional elections. This year, the PP’s support collapsed to only 29.9% – although, because of the PSOE’s decrepitude, it still won the region by over 11%. The PSOE, with 18.9%, won its worst ever result. Significantly, Podemos placed third in the Community of Madrid, taking 11.3% against 10.6% for UPyD and 10.5% for IU. With 4.8%, C’s won their best result outside of Catalonia. Madrid was also Vox’s best region (with 3.6%), although it won 6% in the small North African city of Melilla, where Vox was endorsed by a local party of PP dissidents represented in the local assembly.

The PP also did badly in Murcia, one of the PP’s safest regions, but where the populares crumbled to 37.5% – they had won 61.5% in 2009 and 64.2% in November 2011. Although of less symbolic importance and national weight than the populares bastions of Madrid and Valencia, the numbers indicate that the PP could lose its absolute majority in the Regional Assembly in 2015 (it has governed the region with an absolute majority since 1995). It’s a similar story in other regions where the two-party system has historically been extremely dominant – in the conservative stronghold of Castile-León, where the PP and PSOE won about 90% of the vote in 2009, the PP’s support fell from 52% in 2009 to 37.6% in 2014, and combined with the PSOE (23.4%), won only 61% of the regional vote (with UPyD, IU and Podemos each winning about 8%). In Castila-La Mancha, where the two parties took 91% in 2009, they accounted for only two-thirds of the vote in 2014 – with 37.7% for the PP and 28.7% for the PSOE. In Cantabria, where the PP+PSOE won 90% in 2009, they won only 59% this year, split between the PP (34.7%) and the PSOE (24.3%). If replicated in regional elections, the PP’s absolute majorities in several regions would crumble down, leaving them all vulnerable to opposition coalitions.

One of the few bright spots from the PSOE came from the left-wing citadel of Andalusia, where the PSOE won by 9% against the PP – taking 35.1% (a poor result, but comparable to its 2011 and 2012 results) against only 25.9% for the PP, successfully warding off a PP offensive. With 11.6%, IU did well, although it would have done even better without Podemos coming into the picture (with 7%, tied with UPyD). The PSOE was the largest party in every Andalusian province except Almería, the conservative stronghold in the region. The PSOE even won over 40% in Jaén and Huelva provinces, and 37.2% in the Socialist powerhouse of Seville province. The PSOE only managed to be the largest party in two other regions, both of them traditionally left-leaning: Extremadura, which the PP gained from the PSOE for the first time ever in 2011, taking 38.7% to the PP’s 35.5%; and the northern region of Asturias, governed by the PSOE in a tenuous and unstable coalition since 2012, where the Socialists won 26.1% against 24.1% for the PP. With 13.7%, Asturias – an old communist stronghold – was also Podemos’ best region, and IU (12.9%) also won its best national result in the region (where it is in government with the PSOE).

The national and regional results all confirm El País‘ headline – pierde el bipartidismo. Història Electoral, the leading archive for Spanish election data, has projected the potential results of a general election if the EP results were to be replicated: the PP won win 139 seats (its worst result since 1989), the PSOE would fall again to only 105 seats (110 in 2011, already its worst result) while IU would win a record 25 seats, Podemos would send 19 deputies and UPyD 10. In Catalonia, the ERC would elect 15 members against 13 for the CiU (and the C’s would elect 4 deputies). From the Basque parties, EH Bildu would gain one seat (to win 8) while the PNV would gain 2 (to win 7). In Valencia, Compromís would increase its representation to 2 seats. The remaining seats would be split between CC (2) and Vox (1, in low-threshold Madrid). While the PP will likely perform better, and the PSOE may consolidate some of the left-wing vote as well (if it resists to Podemos), it looks very unlikely that either the PP or PSOE will win a majority or even a large enough minority to govern without a coalition or formal confidence-and-supply deal with small parties. Thus, the 2015 regional and general elections will be exceptionally interesting.

Sweden

Turnout: 51.07% (+5.54%)
Seats: 20 (nc from Lisbon)
Electoral system: Semi-open list PR, 4% threshold (national constituency, may cast a preference vote for a candidate)

S (S&D) 24.19% (-0.22%) winning 5 seats (-1)
Mp (G-EFA) 15.41% (+4.39%) winning 4 seats (+2)
M (EPP) 13.65% (-5.18%) winning 3 seats (-1)
Fp (ALDE) 9.91% (-3.67%) winning 2 seats (-1)
SD (EFDD) 9.67% (+6.4%) winning 2 seats (+2)
C (ALDE) 6.49% (+1.01%) winning 1 seat (±0)
V (GUE/NGL) 6.3% (+0.65%) winning 1 seat (±0)
KD (EPP) 5.93% (+1.26%) winning 1 seat (±0)
F! (S&D) 5.49% (+3.27%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Pirates (G-EFA) 2.23% (-4.9%) winning 0 seats (-2)
Others 0.73% (-3.0%) winning 0 seats (±0)

Sweden 2014 - EP

The Swedish EP elections came only a few months before general elections (local and county council elections are also held the same day) on September 14.

Since 2006, Sweden has been governed by a four-party centre-right coalition (formally known as the Alliance for Sweden, colloquially known as the ‘bourgeois bloc’) led by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, the leader of the senior governing party, the Moderates (M). In the past, Reinfeldt had been very much on the right, authoring a book highly critical of Sweden’s mythical cradle-to-grave welfare state and calling for neoliberal reforms in the 1990s; but following the Moderates’ disastrous performance on the back of a botched low-tax platform in 2002 (15.3% of the v0te), Reinfeldt won the party’s leadership and moved to reinvent the party. Under Reinfeldt, the Moderates, traditionally the most right-wing party in the country, moved to the centre and focused their policies on fine-tuning and reforming, rather than dismantling, the welfare state by encouraging employment through tax reforms. The Moderates have taken to calling themselves ‘the New Moderates’, similar to Tony Blair’s New Labour and presenting themselves as a centrist, modern, competent, responsible and compassionate party. In the 2006 election, Reinfeldt, who had formed a pre-election coalition with three other parties on the right – the Liberal People’s Party (Fp), the Centre Party (C) and the Christian Democrats (KD), defeated Prime Minister Göran Persson’s tired Social Democrats (S), who had governed Sweden since 1994.

In power, the centre-right has largely been pragmatic and moderate, aiming to present an image of ideological moderation and responsibility. The government’s landmark policy achievement, which has been quite popular, is the earned income tax credit, a tax credit targeting low and middle-income workers which reduces the tax to be paid on income from employment. The government’s goal was to increase the after-tax income of those who work compared to those reliant on transfer payments and social benefits – in short, to increase the incentives for those outside the labour market (the unemployed) to proactively look for a job and ultimately increase employment. At the same time, the government tightened the criteria for unemployment benefits, trimmed the numbers on sickness benefits, increased employee contributions to unemployment funds and abolished tax credits for trade union or insurance fund membership – policies which were unpopular in the short term and caused a severe slump in the right’s poll ratings after taking office in 2006. The Alliance government, in its first term, also abolished a wealth tax and replaced a state property tax with a tax at the municipal level.

Although Sweden is often depicted as a left-wing, socialist utopia because of its famously generous universal welfare regime, the ‘Swedish model’ has gone through a lot of changes in recent years – to the point where free-market reformists, such as The Economist, often look to Sweden as an example. The size of Sweden’s public sector has been significantly reduced – Social Democratic governments in the post-war eras famously created a large public sector and in the mid-1990s, government spending accounted for over 65% of GDP. Today, it accounts for 50% or so of GDP. The top marginal tax rate, still very high by international standards, has been reduced significantly since the 1980s, corporate tax has been cut to 22% recently while wealth and inheritance taxes have been scrapped. The retirement age in Sweden is 67, which is high compared to many other EU member-states.

In 1992, school vouchers were introduced under a previous right-wing government (led by Carl Bildt, who has returned to politics as Reinfeldt’s foreign minister) and Swedish parents now have the choice to send their children to public schools or publicly-funded but privately-run free schools which may operate as non-profit or for profit. Much has been made of the centre-right government’s reforms to ‘make work pay’, and Sweden has been cited as inspiration for similar reforms (notably ‘free schools’) under David Cameron’s government in the United Kingdom. However, education remains a hot topic of debate in Sweden to this day. It is playing a major role in this year’s electoral campaign, after the last PISA schools ranking showed that Sweden has fallen quite a bit.

The ‘marketization’ of public services – such as education and healthcare – has also not been without controversy in Sweden. In 2013, there were several scandals about privately-run (but with taxpayer funding) aged care facilities which cut back on staff and services to increase their profit margins, opening a major political debate on profit in the welfare sector. The centre-right parties are generally favourable to for-profit activities by these private companies in the welfare sector, but the Social Democrats (S) resolved to significantly limit profit and allowing municipalities and counties to determine whether they want for-profit companies operating services and the Left Party (V) wants to ban profit in welfare altogether. Outside of V, however, few politicians left or right question the private sector’s role in providing some welfare/public services. Generally, voters still tend to side predominantly with the left when it comes to defending the welfare state.

In 2008-2009, the Alliance was badly hurt by the economic crisis which saw Sweden fall into a two-year recession (-0.6% and -5% growth in 2008-2009, and rising unemployment) but the government was saved by a spectacular economic recovery in 2010, which saw Sweden’s economy grow by 6.6% – the highest growth rate in the EU that year. Running on the creed of sound, responsible stewardship of the economy, the Reinfeldt government roared back in time for the 2010 election. The government was helped by the centre-left opposition’s sorry state. The Social Democrats, who have been the largest party in every general election since 1917 and have been one of Europe’s most successful parties (in the post-war era, the Social Democrats governed – often without coalition partners – from 1936 to 1976, 1982 to 1991 and from 1994 to 2006), had a tough time finding a leader after their 2006 defeat as many A-list candidates declined (notably Sweden’s well-liked then-European Commissioner Margot Wallström) and they settled on Mona Sahlin, who quickly lost popularity when she faced scrutiny. She built a formal alliance, the Red-Greens, with the Green Party (Mp) and the Left Party (V); the inclusion of V, which grew out of the old Communist Party and is still derided as communist by its opponents (although since 1990 it is a more modern and progressive radical left rather than paleo-communists – although former V leader Lars Ohly had a communist past and was widely depicted as a secret communist sympathizer), was controversial and scared centrist middle-class voters away from S. The opposition presented a botched alternative budget in early 2010, which proved to be its undoing. The centre-right took the lead, with S’ support collapsing and M surging. In 2010, S saved face by placing first, but with only 30.7% the party won its worst result since 1911, while the Moderates won 30.1% – the party’s best result since 1914.

The other major result of the 2010 election was the success of the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), who won 5.7% of the vote and elected its first 20 MPs to the Riksdag. The SD’s success meant that, while the Alliance won more votes than the Red-Greens (49.3% against 43.6%), it lost its absolute majority in the Riksdag and was reduced to a minority government. Unlike the far-right/populist right in Sweden’s Scandinavian neighbors – which emerged from anti-tax movements (Norway and Denmark) or agrarian protest (Finland), the SD – founded in 1988 – finds its roots in openly racist or neo-Nazi movements (although SD itself was never Nazi, it did have Nazi sympathizers in its ranks), but the SD moved away from the beyond-the-pale far-right towards the FN/FPÖ far-right in the mid-to-late 1990s, and SDs current leader, Jimmie Åkesson (since 2005) has continued to modernize the party to make it more respectable (for example, the old torch logo is now an innocuous-looking anemone hepatica flower). The party’s support increased to 3% in 2006 and they finally broke through in 2010, much later than most of the Scandinavian populist right. Sweden has a large foreign-born population, making up about 15 to 20% of Sweden’s entire population, and the past decades have seen an increase in immigration from the Middle East (notably Iraq, the second-largest immigrant population behind Finns); Swedish immigration and asylum policies have been quite liberal. The integration of immigrants has been problematic in Sweden – many (non-European) immigrants live concentrated in high-rise apartments or social housing projects in low-income and neglected neighborhoods of the major cities and their suburbs (Rosengård in Malmö, Spånga-Testa in Stockholm, Botkyrka outside Stockholm), areas which concentrate many social and economic problems (poverty, unemployment, low education, criminality) and which have sometimes been called ghettos. Non-European immigrants in Sweden make up about half of the unemployed, and about 4 out 10 are poor. The Sweden Democrats are against multiculturalism, seeks to significantly reduce immigration and insists that immigrants should assimiliate fully with Swedish culture; the party is also socially conservative, anti-EU, anti-Euro and defines itself as democratic nationalist (while affirming that they are non-racist and their nation is culturally rather than ethnically-based). The SDs have seen their support increase to new highs since 2010, despite some controversies, but the party remains widely despised by a vast majority of Swedes who often describe it as racist and xenophobic. The SDs have tried to sanitize its image and make itself more respectable, but the media and other political parties remain very much against SD (although the parties can be more pragmatic if needs be); compared to Denmark’s DF and Norway’s Frp, the SD appear to be more radical and less respectable although it is tough to say if this is a result of their policies or the different national environments (both Danish and Norwegian political cultures have become far more accepting of their populist right). For example, despite being in a potential kingmaker situation, SD has been unable to push the Alliance government to more hardline immigration policies (like DF did with the Danish right) – in fact, Reinfeldt preferred to deal with the Greens on immigration and asylum issues, much to Åkesson’s displeasure.

After its 2010 defeat, the Social Democrats went through some very tough patches. Mona Sahlin resigned in March 2011, and after a convoluted and chaotic process, the party selected Håkan Juholt (mostly known for supposedly being S’ defense specialist) as her successor. Juholt turned out to be a dud who dragged down S’ numbers with his gaffes, before he was finally forced out in January 2012 with a scandal concerning an allowance he received from Parliament to pay for his apartment (he received too much money and was forced to pay back some of it. Under Juholt, S’ support in polls fell to as low as 22%. He was replaced by Stefan Löfven, the former head of the metalworkers union in the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO), the largest trade union and an informal ally of the party. Löfven has successfully kept a low-profile, not attracting controversy and appearing as reassuring, competent and pragmatic.

One of the centre-right government’s strongest points in the past had been its responsible stewardship of the economy – often emphasizing that Sweden was, compared to other EU member-states, performing very well economically. Both Reinfeldt and his popular finance minister, Anders Borg, have received high marks from voters when it comes to economic management. Since 2010, however, while Sweden has been performing well, there has been a clear economic slowdown because of lower demand and a strong krona hurting Swedish exports. The economy grew by only 0.9% in 2012 and 1.6% in 2013. Unemployment has remained higher than at pre-recession levels – frustratingly stable at about 8% (about 2% higher than in 2006, when the right won) and youth unemployment is very high (23.5% for those under 25, above the EU-28 average of 22%). While the centre-right government’s reforms to the welfare state have been lavishly praised by some, they’ve come under lots of criticism from the centre-left in Sweden, which argues that the government has prioritized tax cuts over welfare and that many people risk getting stuck in a ‘poverty trap’ with unskilled, low-wage jobs or unable to find a job altogether (therefore risking social exclusion). The Social Democrats have made youth unemployment, education and limiting profit in welfare services their key priorities in the September 2014 campaign.

Other scandals have taken their toll on the government’s popularity recently. The purchase of a Dutch energy company Nuon by state-owned energy company Vattenfall for 89 billion SEK in 2013 sparked controversy earlier this year, when it transpired that Vattenfall had likely paid more for Nuon than what it was worth (and that the government had actually been advised that the deal would be unprofitable, and Borg/Reinfeldt’s hardly believable claims that the deal was made by a former cabinet minister, former C leader Maud Olofsson, without their knowledge); in 2012, the defense minister was forced because of a secret deal where the Swedish government helped Saudi Arabia build a weapons factor.

One problem for the Alliance is that, in 2010, the centre-right’s success came only as a result of M’s strong showing (+3.8% and 30.1%) while its three junior partners all lost votes: the Fp (7.1%, -0.5%), C (6.6%, -1.3%) and KD (5.6%, -1%). Although all four centre-right parties came from different traditions and histories, they have lost their distinctiveness in recent years and it has become increasingly tough to tell them apart except in the details: M has become more similar to the liberal Fp, C sells itself as a ‘green libertarian party’ to appeal to an elusive and small young urban clientele while KD is hardly ‘socially conservative’ and is just a standard conservative party nowadays; generally, they have largely become differentiated by their niche clientele and issues. The old Nordic agrarian Centre Party went through a tough patch recently with a botched attempt to transform itself into low-tax (quasi-Thatcherite), pro-immigration libertarian party (egged on by a youth wing often seen by outsiders as being hardcore libertarian), which led to significant infighting and terrible polling numbers. C’s leader Annie Lööf, once seen as a young rising star (at 31) has definitely not lived up to the hype (while she hasn’t been a disaster, her leadership has been pretty poor at best and she was hurt by the infighting and libertarian-shift).

EP elections in Sweden tend to see different results than general elections – generally with the major parties weaker in EP elections and minor parties quite a bit stronger. In 1995, as the leading anti-EU list in Sweden’s first elections after joining the EU, the Greens (Mp) won 17.2%; the Left Party (V) peaked at nearly 16% in 1999; in 2004, the Eurosceptic June List won 14.5% but collapsed to 3.5% in 2009; in 2009, the Pirates surged to win 7.1% but the party’s support petered out by the time the 2010 general elections rolled around. In contrast, both S and M have done poorly – S has never won over 30% in a EP election, while M won only 18% or so of the vote in 2004 and 2009.

The Social Democrats topped the poll this year, although with only 24.2% of the vote – a very mediocre result down 0.2% (but up about 125,000 votes) from 2009, when S had already done poorly with only 24.4%. While the Social Democrats will do better in September, and remain the favourites to win the election and lead the next government, the party’s support has been declining for a few months now – from pre-campaign heights of 33-34% to only 29-31% today. As the campaign heats up and voters scrutinize the parties more closely, a few are finding S’ pragmatic, inoffensive and generic platform to be a bit uninspiring. The party has bled support to the Greens and Feminists (F!), so its lost votes seem to be staying within the broader left-wing coalition rather than spilling over to the unpopular government. It is likely that S’ performance in September will be quite mediocre – hardly higher than its bad result in 2010 (30.7%) in any case.

The major losers of the election, however, were the Moderates. The government, which continues to trail the combined left by at least 10% if not more, is rather unpopular – the economic slowdown, concern with unemployment and the left’s renewed ability to find popular issues with the electorate haven’t helped, but what seems to be the general opinion in Sweden is that the government is out of steam, out of ideas and largely running on empty. Reinfeldt and Borg remain somewhat popular, but they have lost their advantage over the opposition’s leader (Löfven) and their personal appeal no longer suffices. The Moderates in particular have been out of steam, with the party’s electoral campaign – if one even exists – largely consisting of rehashing the government’s successes, vaguely promising to keep doing what has worked and little else. Their EP campaign was said to be terrible, and the end result was that M collapsed to 13.7% and third place (down about 5.2% from the last EP election) – an unexpectedly horrible result. While M will do better in September, it won’t do much better – the party, which resisted fairly well in polls for a long stretch, is collapsing with support down to 19-23%. The liberal Fp, who had won a strong 13.6% in 2009, failed to benefit from M’s collapse, as they too fell back to 9.9%.

The only silver lining for the Alliance is the strong performance from the Centre and Christian Democrats, two parties which were hovering dangerously close to (or even below) the 4% threshold for parliamentary representation, leading to fears that one or both of these parties may find themselves thrown out of the Riksdag in September. With their positive EP results – 6.5% and 5.9% and up from 2009 – their position in the Riksdag is looking far more secure. While it is too early for them to celebrate, polls have been showing C consistently above the threshold now and KD is also looking more likely than not to make it as well. Optimistic C and KD supporters joked that they might be the ones who’ll need to vote strategically to save M (M voters have sometimes tended to vote strategically for C or KD to allow them to pass the threshold). KD is pro-EU while C has traditionally been rather Eurosceptic – it still opposes the Euro and its platform was titled ‘a leaner yet sharper EU’.

There were three winners in this elections: the Greens (Mp), the Sweden Democrats (SD) and the Feminist Initiative (F!). The Greens surprised many by placing second, with 15.4% of the vote. Voters, from the left mostly but also (it would seem) from the right, rewarded the Greens for their clear focus, their realistic EU-focused campaign and the publicized work of Green MEP Isabella Lövin in changing the EU’s fisheries policies. Unlike many of its allies in Europe, the Swedish Greens are historically quite Eurosceptic and while they now support the EU, they remain EU-critical and opposed to European federalism and the adoption of the Euro (however, with the Eurozone crisis, Sweden has rallied massively behind the krona and the issue of the Euro has been dropped, including by its original advocates such as Fp and M).

The far-right SD did extremely well – a record high 9.7% and nearly 360,000 votes. The far-right is clearly on the rise in Sweden, although it still has a fairly low ceiling compared to similar parties in the rest of Scandinavia and Sweden is not really on the verge of living a ‘Danish/Norwegian scenario’ where the far-right is able to push the government towards adopting hardline immigration policies. Few politicians have been moving towards the SD on immigration issues – the centre-right parties and most of their activists remain strongly opposed to SD and retain pro-immigration positions (in 2002, Fp famously proposed language tests for immigrants, but Fp is back to being strongly pro-immigration), the centre-left remains broadly pro-immigration (although the former S mayor of Malmö Ilmar Reepalu proposed ‘conditional’ citizenship for new immigrants, setting up a probationary period where these newly-naturalized ‘citizens’ could still be stripped of their citizenship and deported). The SDs likely benefited from several days of rioting in immigrant-heavy low-income suburbs in Stockholm back in May 2013, during which several cars were burned and properties vandalized (allegedly by outside vandals). SD’s two new MEPs have joined the EFDD group, along with Denmark’s DF. SD was sometimes cited as a member of Marine Le Pen’s EAF, although I believe that SD never officially joined her alliance and only SD’s youth wing was active in the EAF. Joining the EFDD instead of teaming up with Le Pen is likely an attempt by SD to further normalize and clean up its image.

The Feminist Initiative (F!), a party founded in 2005 by former V leader Gudrun Schyman (who was forced to resign V’s leadership in 2003 for a tax fraud offense and left V a year later) which won just over 2% of the vote in the 2009 EP election but less than 1% in the 2006 and 2010 elections despite the significant domestic and foreign attention the party attracted in 2006. F! is a left-wing/radical left feminist party – its general orientation on issues should be fairly obvious, opposing male dominance of politics, gender inequality, gender norms and heteronormativity. It has a detailed platform, but the main areas of focus for F! tend to be fighting discrimination, sexual liberation, reproductive rights/sexual health for women, LGBTQ rights, fighting the patriarchal economic structure, very strong support for liberal immigration and asylum laws and addressing violence against women. F! appears to be broadly pro-European although critical of the EU’s workings, with its European policy focused on increasing women’s rights across Europe, democratizing the EU and liberalizing asylum policies in the EU. F! calls itself feminist and anti-racist; its critic often describe it as living up to the stereotype of radical left-wing feminists held by right-wingers (in the past, F! proposed to abolish marriage in favour of a new form of cohabitation which would possibly open itself to polygamy). F! surged during the EP campaign, likely because of significant media attention on gender issues and a active campaign by Gudrun Schyman (who, however, did not run herself); F!’s virulently anti-SD rhetoric may also have helped pick up a few voters on the left who hate the SDs. F!’s new MEP is Soraya Post, who is of mixed Jewish and Roma ancestry. She has joined, somewhat surprisingly, the S&D group over the GUE/NGL.

The Pirates, the big sensation of 2009, collapsed to 2.2% and lost both their seats, as was widely expected. The Pirates’ short-lived success in 2009 was associated with events at the time (the Pirate Bay trial and the guilty verdict in the district court in April 2009, and other domestic events related to intelligence, privacy and copyright laws) and on the back of young protest voters – some of whom may now be voting SD. The party’s star faded quickly and in 2010 it won just 0.7%.

The results in September will certainly be more ‘normal’, but the centre-left opposition (Red-Greens, even if there is no formal alliance) are the favourites to win and are still leading the Alliance by at least 10% in all polls. Mp and V are both likely to increase on their 2010 results (7.3% and 5.6% respectively), all four Alliance parties will likely lose votes (M being the main victim, but with KD still not totally in the clear with the threshold) and SD will likely repeat its result from the EP election or even break 10%. The Alliance could, like in 2010, close the gap further – but, one month or so out, it seems too late for them to turn the ship around barring a surprise. F! is a wildcard – the EP result gave them momentum, and polls in June indicated that F! could win over 4%, but the latest numbers in July and early August suggest that F!’s momentum is already fading and they are unlikely to win over 4%. Certainly the Red-Greens would prefer that – a fourth left-wing party would only complicate things for them.

The main question remains whether or not, with SD doing so well, the Red-Greens will win an absolute majority. A S-Mp-V victory is likely, but it could very well end up only with a minority, with SD in a strong position between the two blocs and creating a chaotic situation. For the first time, it looks very unlikely that S will form a government alone – the most likely option is a S+Mp government, with V providing critical support from the outside (V may seek to join cabinet itself, but both S and Mp seem to be hostile to that idea – and V being outside serves S better). There is also a lot of speculation about the odds of one of the junior Alliance parties defecting – Fp is seen as the likeliest candidate (C has seemingly gone too far down the libertarian road), because Fp leader Jan Björklund has talked about cooperating with the centre-left on some issues. It is worth noting that C governs with S+Mp in Gävleborg County; Fp governs with S+Mp in Södermanland County; Mp governs with the Alliance in Halland, Jönköping, Scania, Värmland and Västernorrland counties. However, nationally, after eight years in the Alliance, Fp (or C) would likely find it hard to jump over – and that might require change of leadership in the parties.

Finally, for the first time this year, the new Prime Minister will require a formal vote of confidence, replacing Sweden’s negative parliamentarianism, which allowed one to govern until a majority votes against the government. Therefore, Reinfeldt will not be able to hang on in the case that no alliance has a majority – unless, of course, he manages to get the Greens over to his side, but that is very unlikely in 2014.

The broad patterns of Swedish electoral geography were unchanged, the odd results of the election notwithstanding. The Social Democrats owned the north, with over 40% of the vote in Norrbotten County, 39.8% in Västernorrland County, 34.9% in Jämtland County and 32.8% in Västerbotten County. It also polled well in inland central Sweden – over 30% in Västmanland, Örebro and Värmland counties. This traditional pattern corresponds to the diffuse nature of Sweden’s resource-based industrialization – meaning that most major industrial centres are outside the major cities (Stockholm never really was, and certainly isn’t today, an industrial city). Remote and sparsely populated northern Sweden is an old industrial region (mining, forestry, steel and iron works; nowadays the public sector is the main employer), making it a blue-collar and fairly poor region which has leaned heavily left (with the exception of the liberal tradition of the free churches, a pattern which has mostly died out anyhow).

Stockholm County is usually the right’s stronghold, but even there M failed to place first. The Greens won first place with 19.4% against 17.6% for M (its best result in the country) and 17.1% for S (its worst result in the country); in Stockholm itself, the Greens won 21.8% against 16.3% for M and 15.1% for S. With 10.5%, F! broke double-digits in the Swedish capital. M retained first place in the county’s most affluent suburban municipalities – Danderyd (36.5% M), Lidingö (30.2% M) and Täby (27.5%); but looking at the results in these places, and specifically the strong gains made by the Greens (as well as C and KD), we can presume that Mp gained some M (and Fp) voters from 2009, as did C and KD. Inside Stockholm itself, M remained ahead in the very affluent central Norrmalm-Östermalm-Gamla Stan district and the affluent Bromma-Kungsholmen district; the Greens’ best result came from Södermalm-Enskede district (Södermalm is a gentrified central district and traditional Green stronghold), with 26.3% – with F! in second with 14.8%. The Social Democrats topped the poll in Yttre Västerort district, with 26.1% against 18% for the Greens; that outer district includes the low-income immigrant-heavy neighborhoods of Spånga-Testa and Rinkeby (areas where S often wins over 50%, if not 60%, of the vote). Outside the city, S also topped the poll in Botkyrka (31% S) – the north of the municipality is a large immigrant-heavy area and in Södertälje (28.5%).

The Greens and Feminists did well in Uppsala County (18.4% and 6.8% respectively) – specifically in the university city of Uppsala (Greens largest party with 21.3%, F! at 8.4%), with the Greens and Feminists again doing well in the same kind of places (university residences/student districts especially – where Mp and F! were often first and second!).

The Sweden Democrats did best in Blekinge County (14%) and Scania/Skåne County (13.4%). Scania, at the southern end of Sweden, is one of the country’s most distinctive regions and tends to have a strong regional identity; it has undergone major demographic transformations in recent years, suffering from deindustrialization in parts while other more affluent parts are increasingly suburban and attracting cross-Øresund commuters/immigrants from Denmark. The SDs’ first successes at the polls, prior to 2010, came from Scania and it can be considered as SD’s main stronghold (Blekinge County, which borders Scania, is quite small). SD performs best in lower middle-class suburban areas (with low percentages of foreigners) and old industrial towns (which have swung hard against the left/S) – generally (and simplifying a lot), as in other Scandinavian countries, SD attracts young blue-collar males with low education who are frustrated about immigration, taxes and/or jobs. SD does poorly in highly-educated places – for instance, SD won only 6% in Lund (a major university town).

On a final, lighter note, the record of write-in votes in the election is quite hilarious: a handful of votes for the ‘Satanist Initiative’ (not sure if this is a parody of F!), a few for Jesus, a number of ‘out-of-the-EU’/’no to EU’/’EUSSR’/’fuck EU’ type protest ballots, a number of write-ins for the pan-European parties or EP groups (ALDE, Greens, G-EFA, PES, EPP), 2 for a ‘Hell’s Angels Freedom Party’… and 3 votes for UKIP!

This concludes my review of the May 2014 European Parliament elections – with much delay, unfortunately, but it’s done as it should be: each country analyzed separately in their own national context. I hope you’ve enjoyed the analysis provided, and that you’ll forgive me for missing a number of elections along the way: I will try to cover a few of them in the next few weeks, without making promises! Enjoy the summer or winter!

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Posted on August 11, 2014, in EU Parliament, Spain, Sweden. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. SPAIN has the same ElectoralSystem as Greece had, which is leading gradually to only 2 big parties. Consequently, 2008 saw the near-extinction of IU (2 seats!, UPyD 1) – and now this mess!

  2. Swedish Cheese

    Excellent Gael! I’ve been waiting for this one obviously and it didn’t disappoint at all.
    Satanist Initiative is indeed a parody on FI (they have their own FB-page) but the most funny write-in votes to me are the numerous misspelled votes for “Kristna värdepatiet” (Christian Values Party) such as Kristina värdepartiet, or even better Kristna väderpartiet (Christian Weather Party) ^^

  1. Pingback: A calendar dominated by Catalan separatism and electionsBig Online News | Big Online News

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