Friday, December 11, 2015

The Chaos Of Colour: Spain's election

In just over a week's time Spain will hold a general election unlike any other in its comparatively short democratic history. If there are those who still cling to the belief that Ciudadanos and Podemos are impostors, these are beliefs of denial: two-party politics in Spain is dead, long live quadripartite politics.

Life will be breathed into this four-party system for at least as long as the life of the next legislature (until the end of 2019). Whether it survives beyond this will depend upon what happens between now and then. The deniers may, in the long term, prove to be right. If they are for the PP and PSOE, they will hope that they are.

Unless the opinion polls are wildly wrong, a prediction can be made before the electorate heads to the booths on Sunday week. Spain's political scene will be altered. It will also be highly uncertain. The country's general elections would normally expect to demand the footnotes of mainly indifference outside the nation's borders, but not this one. It will be watched like a hawk, with the eyes of Brussels, among others, firmly trained on it.

Judging by the comparative turnouts in Palma this week, the Podemos bubble appears anything but burst. Pablo Iglesias fed the five thousand at Palma Arena, while a surreal gathering - a tenth this size - wrapped themselves up against a keen breeze on the Parc de la Mar and listened to Rajoy. The prime minister observed that this was a working day and a gathering during the day. He must surely have made this remark because of events some hours previously. Iglesias had chosen a holiday and the evening: the resulting difference was political PR heaven for Podemos.

Not that these two rallies hold a key to Sunday week. Podemos has not become the mighty force it once looked as if it might; according to the polls, at any rate. The rise of Ciudadanos may explain this. Or perhaps there was always going to be a plateau that Iglesias would not be able to surmount. But in a different sense they did hold a key. Iglesias, populism aside, can be mightily impressive. He is also different.

The four-party televised debate earlier in the week had been a curious prelude to the two Palma rallies; curious because of the absence of Rajoy. This had been known a couple of weeks in advance, the official reason being the number of requests from media outlets and schedule. It was difficult to avoid believing there were other reasons.

One survey of the performances of Iglesias, Sánchez (PSOE), Rivera (Ciudadanos) and Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, Rajoy's substitute, made Iglesias the winner. Had Rajoy appeared, he might have been a greater winner. The debate itself, minus Rajoy, was a winner. There was freshness in the relative youth of the participants and the presence of a woman. There were degrees of charisma as well.

An argument for Rajoy taking part was that his seniority would afford him gravitas in the eyes of the viewer when set next to the younger upstarts - Iglesias, Rivera and Sánchez - but in recalling the debate he had with Alfredo Rubalcaba prior to the 2011 election, any such gravitas might have been lost amidst the greyness. That debate in 2011 was excruciating. Conducted by two grey men, it might now be looked back upon as the moment when the two-party system condemned itself to the political waste bin. If that was Spain's politics, with two tedious and not especially sympathetic characters representing it, change could not have come soon enough.

The new politics expounded by Iglesias and Rivera is not simply an alteration to political party dynamics, not just an assault on the sleaze and the inherent corruption of the two-party state, it is also much closer to the "citizens" through personality. Spain could abide the aloof drabness of Aznar and Zapatero during the boom times. It could also accept, for a time, the unappealing Rajoy, if this was what it genuinely had to endure. Now, battered by austerity and the greyness inflicted on society, it looks for colour, ironically capable of looking forward to this because of the at least partially successful policies of the PP. As the charismatic González supplied a vitality to the youthful democracy in 1982, so the stage awaits a similar character to advance the rebirth of a country that has been kicked but not totally humiliated, unlike Greece.

But González was able to emerge as the flagwaver of the two-party system that resulted from the chaotic transition with its alliances of convenience. A new chaos of alliance now beckons because of its dismantling. Charisma might abound, but it will be enjoyed only by minorities of supporters and rejected by the combined majorities of others. Political colour is being supplied, but who's to be the artist?

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