The December 20 elections in the Spanish state will attract the usual large field of runners. Challengers will represent every imaginable position along the Spanish state's two main political dimensions — the left-to-right social axis and the axis of national rights.
This second dimension reaches from the centralism of the ruling People's Party (PP) to the pro-independence stance of various Catalan, Basque and Galician parties.
As a result, the incoming Spanish parliament will feature its usual broad spread of parties, despite Spain's rigged electoral law making it harder for smaller all-Spanish parties to win seats. The outgoing parliament had 13 parties; this one could feature 16 or even more.
This will be due partly to the rise in support for newcomer all-Spanish parties Podemos and Citizens - neither with any seats in the outgoing parliament. It will partly be due to the possible emergence of new “popular unity” alliances involving Podemos and/or the United Left and various left-nationalist and regionalist forces.
Such alliances, inspired by the successes of the popular unity tickets in major cities like Madrid and Barcelona in the May 24 council elections, could emerge in Galicia, Catalonia, the Valencian Country and Navarra (for the Senate).
Unfortunately, any increased variety will also be due to the failure of Podemos and IU to come together in support of popular unity candidacies across the whole Spanish state. As matters stand, Podemos and the United Left – the newer and older forces to the left of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) - will be running against each other in most of the country's 17 regions (“autonomous communities”).
Any simplification of party representation in the parliament is likely to take place on the right of the political spectrum. There Citizens (“the Podemos of the right”) seems set to devour the Union for Progress and Democracy (UpyD).
The mystically Spanish-centralist Vox (“the unity of Spain is above the constitution”) will find it hard to find enough space to the right of the PP. The governing party is on the war path against a Catalan independence movement that won a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament at the September 27 regional elections.
Underlying the complexity of Spanish politics lies a triple crisis: the economic crisis that began in 2008 and has produced 5 million unemployed and dramatically deepened mass poverty; the crisis of the undemocratic political regime embodied in Spain's 1978 post-dictatorship constitution; and the crisis of its territorial organisation.
The election will be dominated by the conflict between the PP government and Catalonia, with every day bringing new conflicts, and the PP determined to paint itself as the only reliable defender of the unity of the Spanish state.
An average of polls taken over the last month shows that December 20 remains the four-horse race that it has been since late March, when Citizens surged out of the ranks of the also-rans to join the PP, PSOE and Podemos.
At the same time, Podemos, which for a short time in January was leading in the polls, has sunk to fourth behind the PP, PSOE and, since the Catalan elections, Citizens as well.
The average poll score of the four parties over the last month reveals that practically no governing alliance — except a traditional PP or PSOE government — can be ruled out.
At the moment the PP is at 28.3% (down from 44.6% at the 2011 election). The ruling party of the right would lose 50-60 seats in the 350-seat parliament. The PSOE is at 23.3% (down from 28.4%, equivalent to a 25-30 seat loss), while Citizens is at 16.7% (50-60 seats) and Podemos at 13.9% (35-45 seats).
United Left, which went as high as 15% in the polls before the advent of Podemos, will only win 4.4% (four seats). With just 0.5%, the UPyD will disappear.
If these numbers hold, a PP government could not form without support from Citizens (as happened with the Madrid regional government after May 24). On the other hand, even with Citizens' support, a PSOE government could not be formed (as it did for the regional government of Andalusia after March elections), because the PSOE vote would be just too low.
Nor, on these numbers, would a broadly left government of the PSOE plus Podemos and United Left have majority support — even if backed by the likely vote for all the nationalist and regionalist parties hoping for a better deal from the PSOE than the PP.
Breakthrough or continuity?
Yet, with up to 25% of voters still undecided and Spanish politics more volatile than any time since the 1930s, polling numbers can change abruptly.
Moreover, since the present cycle of elections began with the European parliament poll in May last year, every electoral contest in the Spanish state has given the PSOE and the groups to its left a clear majority.
The vital question is whether this trend will continue on December 20. If it does, Spain's two-party dynasty will begin to fall apart. This would provide institutional room for sharper struggle over solutions to the country's triple crisis and expand space for the “popular unity” councils to advance.
On the other hand, if Citizens wins enough of the undecided vote without pulling too much support away from the PP, the Spanish establishment will be able to breathe a sigh of relief that one important threat of “destabilisation” has been avoided.
This knife-edge situation explains why the PP is harping on about the “principle” that the party winning the relative majority should form government: it dreads a repeat of its losses after May 24, when left and left-nationalist coalitions ousted it from numerous councils and regions.
At the congress of the People's Party of Europe, held in Madrid on October 21-22, Rajoy's party got all the other parties of European conservatism — already nervous about the possible loss of Portugal to a left coalition after the country's October 4 elections — to support this odd interpretation of democratic process.
A war of weaknesses
A vicious many-sided war for hearts and minds is now guaranteed among the four main parties, all vulnerable to attack on many points.
The PP campaign will be very simple: in 2011, the outgoing PSOE government handed Spain an economy on the verge of collapse and intervention by “Brussels”. Now, after all the needed sacrifices, it has avoided a Greece-style bail-out and is leading the European recovery and creating jobs at an unprecedented rate.
There is still a lot to be done, the PP says, but do not entrust the job to the incompetent PSOE that got the country into the mess in the first place. For the PP, Podemos would obviously produce a SYRIZA-style wrecking of the economy.
For those still not convinced there will be a fistful of tax cuts. This either-us-or-chaos message will also be repeated ad nauseam with regard to Catalonia.
Yet the PP is vulnerable — on its entrenched corruption but also on the economy, its supposed strong point. The European Commission has already found that its 2016 budget will spend €7 billion more than allowed for under European Union deficit reduction targets. Its promised bribes may well evaporate.
At the same time, the basis for recent Spanish economic growth — cuts to wages and working conditions in the export sector — has undermined domestic demand to the point of putting future growth at risk. Moreover, the benefits of what growth there has been has overwhelmingly gone to the rich.
The PSOE is vulnerable because it has no program with which to convince a significant fraction of the 5 million who have deserted it since 2008 that it somehow again represents a real enough alternative to the PP.
Its most likely result is a small rise in vote that leaves it unable to govern without making significant concessions to Citizens — and hence abandoning, for example, its boasted federal reform of the Spanish state.
Citizens' main advantage is that it is unknown and has a national leader — Albert Rivera — with the gift of the gab. However, what can it propose — as a neo-liberal party — that is not being proposed by the PP or PSOE?
In its bid to embody European “modernity” against Spanish “backwardness”, Citizens has already run into trouble. For example, Rivera has backed the European Union position in favour of eliminating the special financing regime traditionally enjoyed by Navarra and the Basque Country.
This is a guaranteed vote loser — as is Citizens' position in favour of making public health system users-pay a share of their treatment costs — a “co-payment” — which has even earned criticism from the PP.
And Podemos? At the start of the year, Podemos was actually leading the polls, provoking an enormous search for dirt on its leaders, This was combined with a successful drive to create “a Podemos of the right” — Citizens. With hindsight, it is clear that Podemos would in the best of circumstances have lost ground before this offensive.
However, its retreat has been made worse by two mistakes. The first is the idea that this national Spanish election represents such a unique opportunity for the party to get into government, that much of its politics should be sacrificed to achieve it.
This pressure has at times led Podemos, in its chase for the disaffected PSOE voter, to become ambiguous about its original program on issues such as non-payment of public debt found to be odious.
The second is Podemos's conception of itself as the essential core of popular unity. This has led to its refusal — with some exceptions — to get involved in building spaces where all left and progressive people, including United Left, can come together, as in the successful Barcelona Together project.
Since such unity could be decisive in determining whether or not December 20 marks a breakthrough in the fight against the triple crisis of the Spanish state, it can only be hoped that Podemos changes course in time.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]