Spanish Tribulations in Multiparty Democracy

It’s still better than the alternative.

Pablo Iglesias
Spanish Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias speaks at a rally in Madrid, May 20, 2017 (Podemos)

The rise of new parties on the left, right and center has created new opportunities in Spain: a left-wing minority government that usually relies on the support of Basque and Catalan separatists in Congress, but on rare occasions takes votes from the far-right newcomer Vox (Voice).

It has also created crises, currently in the regions of Madrid and Murcia, where the once-dominant People’s Party (PP) has called snap elections in a bid to shore up the right-wing vote.

Regional dramas

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the regional president and PP leader in Madrid, frames the upcoming election as a choice between “communism and liberty”.

Her opponent is Pablo Iglesias, the national Podemos (We Can) party leader, who has stepped down as deputy prime minister in a last-ditch attempt to rescue the far left in the capital region.

So far, he has had little success. Más Madrid (More Madrid), a Podemos offshoot, has refused to endorse him. The Socialists, with whom Podemos govern nationally, will run their own candidate, Ángel Gabilondo.

Díaz Ayuso relied on the support of the liberal-nationalist Ciudadanos (Citizens) and far-right Vox for her majority.

In Murcia, a region in the southeast, the People’s Party similarly governed with the Citizens until half the liberal deputies supported a no-confidence motion brought by the opposition Socialists over accusations of corruption.

National trends

Both stories contain plenty of twists and turns, but they match national trends.

  • The People’s Party keeps making the same mistake: trying to outflank the far right. It doesn’t work. Its support in Madrid is up, but at the expense of the Citizens, not Vox. When the PP takes a harder line, whether it is on abortion, Catalan autonomy, Gibraltar or immigration, Vox is always willing to go a step further, and in the process the conservatives alienate centrist voters.
  • The Ciudadanos couldn’t decide between fighting Catalan nationalism, which would have justified a pact of the right, and liberalizing Spain, which would have argued for a coalition with the center-left. They kept going back and forth and in the end satisfied neither right-wing nor liberal voters. Several deputies and senators switched to the PP this week.
  • Podemos is losing diehard supporters on the left, who are disappointed the party has traded diatribes against capitalism for bread-and-butter issues, such as capping rents and allocating Spain’s share of the EU’s €750 billion coronavirus recovery fund, and pragmatists closer to the center, for whom the gap with the Socialists has shrunk. It’s the tragedy of junior coalition parties everywhere, but it’s the first time for Podemos, who have never governed before. Iglesias’ solution is to present himself as the man who can pull the Socialists to the left and keep out the “fascists”, but it’s doubtful even the prospect of a PP-Vox coalition will convince center-left voters in Madrid to back him instead of the more moderate Gabilondo.
  • The Socialists win by default. The more Podemos slides to the left — if more in rhetoric than in action — and the more the Ciudadanos and PP lurch to the right to compete with Vox, the more the social democrats can credibly claim the center ground.


Some long for a return of the two-party system that persisted until 2015, arguing the introduction of new parties has made Spanish politics too messy and undermined faith in government.

That gets it exactly backward.

Only one in three Spaniards are satisfied with the way democracy works, but that’s up from a few years ago. It was a coalition of parties, led by the current prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, that unseated the PP government of Mariano Rajoy when it was revealed to be corrupt.

80 percent of Spaniards don’t believe their vote changes how government is run, but I suspect that’s because the legacy parties — Socialists and PP — still instinctively look to their flanks for allies and the Citizens have refused to play kingmakers in the center.

Compare those figures with the Netherlands, where 80 percent have faith in the political system. Seventeen parties won seats in parliamentary elections on Wednesday. Four will likely be needed to form a new government. Far from undermine trust, choice and coalition-building enhance it.

The Netherlands isn’t unique: voters in multiparty democracies have more faith in politics (and each other) than voters in two-party systems, whether it is the United Kingdom, the United States or, until six years ago, Spain.

Transitioning from one system to the other is not a silver bullet. Spain has unique problems which impair trust in government, from a politicized judiciary to the Catalan independence crisis. But ending the Socialist-conservative duopoly, and the left-right dichotomy, was a necessary step.