The rise of a strong leftist, populist party in Spain could ultimately lead to a restoration of trade ties with Russia and greater support for cooperation between Madrid and Moscow.

Pablo Iglesias, leader of the Podemos (We Can) party gives a speech to celebrate the party results after the elections in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, May 24, 2015. Photo: AP

The local elections held in Spain on May 24 only confirm the deep crisis in which this southern European country finds itself. Prior to the onset of the global financial crisis, Spain’s two leading parties — the People’s Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) — between them attracted more than 80 percent of the vote at all levels. Today, however, their electoral base comprises barely more than 50 percent. PP’s tally was down by 2.5 million votes, while PSOE lost the support of 750,000 voters.

Despite the fact that PP won more votes than its opponents in the municipal elections (27 percent nationally) and topped the polls in eight of the 13 legislative assemblies of the autonomous communities (PSOE took home only three), it smacks of a hollow victory. After the last regional elections the conservative PP walked away with a solid majority in the parliaments of most of Spain’s autonomous communities. But that was then, and the reality today is that PP no longer enjoys a majority.

The real winners of the elections were the political newcomers. Third place in the municipal elections went to the liberal party Citizens, while in many regions the 18-month-old leftist populist party Podemos (“We can”) emerged as the third major force in Spanish politics, calling for an end to economic austerity and a break with neo-liberalism. It was the Podemos-backed alternative left-wing candidates that carried the day in Madrid and Barcelona. Spanish newspapers penned pieces about the “triumph of the indignant.”

Spain’s economic problems

The results of Sunday’s vote are largely due to the palpable sense of disgruntlement with government policy within Spanish society. It was this dissatisfaction that defeated PSOE in the 2011 general elections; now both main parties have fallen afoul of it.

Various data show that Spain is gradually emerging from its long-term financial and economic crisis. Last year saw GDP growth of 1.3 percent; this year it is expected to reach 1.7 percent. Whereas in 2013 unemployment in Spain hit 26 percent of the total working-age population, now the figure is below 24 percent.

But for several years now, the real purchasing power of the general population has been going in the other direction. The minimum wage in Spain is stuck at 750 euros per month. Millions of young people feel part of the “lost generation,” with no hope of finding permanent, well-paid work. According to official statistics, more than half of all Spaniards in the 16-to-24-age bracket do not have a full-time job.

Naturally, the blame for this state of affairs is pinned on the political parties that yield power at the federal and regional levels, i.e. the PP and PSOE. They have also been implicated in numerous corruption scandals. The neophyte parties Podemos and Citizens have capitalized on this explosion of civil discontent, and the parliamentary elections in later 2015 may only serve to confirm Spanish society’s rejection of two-party politics.

Madrid-Moscow: What does the future hold?

Clearly, foreign policy had no effect whatsoever on the outcome of these elections. But the signs are that it will play an important role in the upcoming parliamentary election campaign. Whereas PP and PSOE see eye-to-eye on many international issues (support for European integration and military-political cooperation with EU member states; positive feelings towards NATO and the United States), the radical left in the form of Podemos is, in theory at least, ready to tear the foreign policy consensus to shreds. For instance, the new party’s leaders have spoken out in favor of revising the Spanish-American Defense Treaty, as well as on Spain’s responsibilities under the umbrella of NATO.

Whereas PP and PSOE generally supported the imposition of EU sanctions against Russia, the radical left in Spain (Podemos and United Left) favors their speedy revocation on the part of Madrid. Moreover, Podemos has promised voters that, if elected, it will do all it can to improve Spanish-Russian relations, starting with trade. In their view, relations with Moscow are important to “counterbalance” the dominant “Western vector” of Spanish foreign policy.

There is a certain grassroots movement in favor of that. As in the case of many other EU member states, Spain’s foreign trade turnover with Russia has fallen sharply since 2014.The impact has been felt most keenly by Spanish producers, in particular farmers. As noted by Jose Maria Posanques, secretary general of the Spanish Federation of Producers of Fruit and Vegetables, “Russia is the number one market for our products outside the European Union.”

In any case, the May 24 elections have shown that the political map in Spain is indeed fragmented. Spanish politicians should brace themselves for a challenging second half of the year.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.