The most remarkable thing about yesterday’s election results in Spain is how unremarkable and predictable they were. For weeks, the opinion polls had been predicting that the incumbent Socialist government would be trounced and it duly was. The opposition Partido Popular (PP), lead by a seasoned PP politician, Mariano Rajoy, won 186 seats in the 350 seat assembly. The Socialist Party, the PSOE, won 110 seats. In terms of percentage of the vote, the PP’s victory was all the more striking: 44.62% of the vote for the PP, 28.73% of the vote for the PSOE. The scale of the PP’s victory was no doubt a reflection of the widespread disaffection with the governing Socialists. But beyond that, there was little in the results that indicated the scale of the economic and social crisis the country is facing. No new political formations have been thrown up by the crisis. The United Left party (IU) won 11 seats and 6.2% of the vote – not an insignificant result. But generally the smattering of small parties that won altogether 54 seats were an ideological mixture: left, right, Catalan and Basque nationalist. The Indignados movement, fueled by a widespread disenchantment with the ruling political class, did not prompt any mass withdrawal from the electoral process. Their slogan – They Don’t Represent Us! – did not seem to have much impact. The abstention rate was 28.3%: higher than in the two previous elections (2008 and 2004) but lower than in 2000.
Though unemployment stands at above 20% and the country’s ability to auction its bonds on the international market is looking shakier by the day, the prevailing sentiment in the course of the campaign was that of resignation. Rajoy himself did not propose any new ideas on how to tackle the crisis. His cryptic slogan that promised to transform Spain into the “Germany of the South” could be interpreted in a multitude of ways. His promises of fiscal rectitude and public sector reform was – in the absence of specificities – no more than a vague nod in the direction of both the markets and the EU. That an election at such a crucial time should throw up so few surprises is perhaps a fair reflection of how people are responding to the crisis. But in the case of Spain, it is surprising. After all, when the global financial crisis hit in 2008 Spain was performing well. Its government did not – contrary to Greece – run up large debts in the good times. Public borrowing was low as tax receipts from high growth rates ballooned. In 2007, its debt ratio was only 36% of GDP and from 1999 through to 2008 Spain ran a balanced budget on average i.e. its borrowing was equal to zero.
Spain’s problems today are in part the result of an asset price bubble. Whilst the government did not run up debts during the boom years, private borrowing in Spain rose rapidly as individuals were able to access credit easily via national and international channels. When the downturn struck, individuals found themselves saddled with extensive debts. Regional Spanish banks have also been left with a large number of bad loans, made to finance real estate projects that will never see the light of day. Repayment of these debts has cast a long shadow over the Spanish economy as spending power is squeezed and as banks refrain from financing the private sector.
However, this does not explain why the Spanish government is today struggling to find buyers for its bonds. That is to do with the common currency union. In a downturn, governments usually run up debts in order to pay for increases in welfare payments: with +20% unemployment in Spain, those payments are large but given Spain’s position at the beginning of the crisis it should be able to weather the storm. However, because of the common currency union, the use of automatic stabilizers is limited: Spanish government borrowing is judged not on its own terms as much as in terms of the wider dynamics of the Eurozone. The fact that these automatic stabilizers would have an inflationary effect which would reduce the debt burden in the longer term is also ruled out by the currency union. The disciplinary effect of monetary union is thus not neutral but specifically kicks in to restrain some policies rather than others. As already argued on The Current Moment, the effect is to structurally lock countries into internal adaptations through domestic wages and prices instead of adapting through a mixture of internal and external measures.
A measure of success for today’s protest movements should surely be whether or not they are able to challenge ruling orthodoxies in ways that impact upon electoral outcomes. The evidence from Spain is that up until now, protests have had no such impact.