20D: handbook for the next Spain

December 20 (20D) will mark the end of Spain's political governance as we know it. The 13th largest economy in the world is no longer to be governed by a two-party system as it has since the advent of democracy in 1978. The center-right incumbent party, the Popular Party, has a chance of coming in first with a margin of 20 seats, but will hardly win the majority (176 seats) needed to decide the presidency.

Workers stand in front of graffiti that says in Spanish "The future is in your hands 20D (December 20)" in Oviedo, northern Spain, December 14, 2015. REUTERS/Eloy Alonso

Anything can happen, firstly because according to the Spanish system a difference of two points can result in as many as 30 seats. Secondly, the "party" of the undecided peaked at over 41%, and even if it dropped in the last couple days, it didn't break the 25% mark.

Thirdly, there are wide differences in the surveys of different polling firms. This is important especially since the Socialist Party (PSOE), Ciudadanos and Podemos have been all hovering within the 18-22% range. Podemos keeps closing in on PSOE, which is currently second according to polls. The volatility is due primarily to the first in a general election of the two nontraditional parties, Ciudadanos and Podemos.

The first and only face-to-face debate of the president and candidate of the PP, Mariano Rajoy, with one challenger, Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez, might have changed the voting intention of 4% of the ten million Spaniards who stayed glued to the TV on Monday evening. Overall it was a disappointing discussion, but Sanchez's aggressive taking off the white gloves surprised viewers and commentators.

If his goal was to quell divisions within the PSOE, and to appear intransigent with the government to stop vote migration towards Podemos and the now smaller United Left (IU), he was successful. Less so if he wanted to show his credentials and authority to serve as the president of all Spaniards and as the representative of the EU's 5th largest economy. Sanchez had a strong card — corruption, which in recent months tainted the very government repeatedly — and he used it. "You are not a decent person" said Sanchez, who didn't mince words when taking on his rival Rajoy about pensions reductions, the quality of employment and of labor reform (with Troika's recipe), and inaction when it came to tackle the push for independence, like in Catalonia. "You belong to another century" he hammered on.

Rajoy defended his record on economic growth (a good 3.4%), on repaying debt incurred by "previous socialist governments", on Europe's praise for Spain's structural reforms and on the 1 million new jobs in two years. Ballots will tell if his strategy of boiling down his program to employment-employment-employment and the need for continuity and progress consolidation paid off.

The impact here matters because if Íñigo Errejón, Podemos's number two, is right, "this debate was the last attempt to save the two-party system. Many Spaniards still trust the two parties, but Spain is no longer what we saw in the debate." It is a paradox, Errejón said — and he was not alone here: "both parties lost because in the past the undecided could not but vote for the lesser evil, whereas now they have an alternative." Actually two.

Podemos came about "to do something qualitatively different from what [traditional] parties had done so far," told East Rita Maestre, who is a member of Podemos' inner leadership circle. "The Spanish political class is made up of the leaders of those two parties, which alternated in office for 35 years, creating a dense public and private network, being as they are an oligarchy rather than bourgeoisie, more dependent on procurement in the public sector rather than entrepreneurial as to innovation and production. With time they detached from reality."

Their leader Pablo Iglesias (born 1978) campaigned franticly pledging to increase the minimum wage and to defend workers' rights, many of which have been trimmed by austerity policies. Podemos supported Tsipras in Greece, but followed in Spain a slower but more solid path, that this, going first for local governments. The day before yesterday Podemos surpassed in some surveys its center-right counterpart and an alternative to PP, Ciudadanos.

Albert Rivera (Barcelona 1979) firmly opposes corruption as well and a government that this linked to interest groups and keeps slipping away from citizens. His grouping grew from zero to 17-20% in just over a year. In one of Ciudadano's first campaign posters he posed naked to symbolize the pristine birth of his party.

Broad-minded as to civil rights and the economy — he is for entrepreneurial freedom and for safeguarding Rajoy's reforms — Rivera also wants to "strengthen the middle class that was so badly battered by the crisis." And the middle class likes Rivera, tired as it is of scandals and of the suspicion, and often the evidence, that politicians care more about themselves than the public.

Also workers like Rivera to because he promised lower taxes, albeit not being outright opposed to austerity like Podemos. He is the new face of the moderate right, and drew votes from the PP and the PSOE. Rajoy yesterday challenged Rivera to commit to a "more stable" post-election agreement, supporting, for instance, his candidacy to the presidency, because that would convey confidence at the international level.

The other great unknown is Catalonia. PP, PSOE and Ciudadanos reiterated firmly that they oppose the breaking up of Spain. Iglesias is the only one who favors the right of Catalans to decide in a referendum, and a "national project to defend diversity and pluri-nationality." Catalonia could hence beef up the violet list with a chunk of votes. The same would likely do millennials, who also support IU.

"Elections have two functions" said Lluis Orriols, a professor of Political Science at Carlos III University after the face-off. "One is to hold accountable who ruled and the other is to decide between the proposals for the future." On 20D, the abbreviation for the date that will mark a turning point in the Spanish political system, the first function will likely have a big impact on the outcome.

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