Why Spain Is Not Greece... Yet!

MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 21: People gather as Spanish Prime Minister and Popular Party (PP) leader, Mariano Rajoy (not seen)
MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 21: People gather as Spanish Prime Minister and Popular Party (PP) leader, Mariano Rajoy (not seen) gives a speech at his party headquarters' balcony after Rajoy's party won the most votes of the General Elections during a public meeting with supporters in Madrid, Spain on December 21, 2015. Spanish citizens went to the polls on 20th of December 2015 to vote for 350 members of the parliament and 208 senators. Popular Party won the elections but failed to reach overall majority. (Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Spain has gone to the polls and, as expected, the two established parties have gotten a routing from the voters. The center-right Popular Party (PP) of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who led a pro-austerity government, lost almost 16 percent of the vote, while the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) lost almost seven percent, despite being in opposition and coming of a historic loss in 2011. The big winners are two newcomers, the radical left Podemos (We Can), who won roughly 20 percent, if one includes all regional coalitions it participated in, and the centrist Citizens (Cs), whose 14 percent was well below expectations.

The implosion of the two old parties and the electoral success of the two new parties are reminiscent of the recent elections in Greece. In fact, when the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) won the elections in January of this year, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias tweeted "2015 will be the year of change in Spain and Europe. We will start in Greece. Let's go Alexis, let's go!" In response, PM Rajoy tried to calm fears in Brussels and Madrid by stressing that "Spain is not Greece."

Last night, Iglesias declared that a new Spain is born. He might be right, but for now, that new Spain does not look much like Greece.

Podemos is not Syriza.

Podemos and Syriza are often presented as identical parties, but their similarity exists mostly in their difference to other parties. Podemos comes out of the broad Indignados protest movement, even if it retains only tenuous connections today. In contrast, Syriza has its roots in the myriad of Marxist groups so typical of Greek politics. Although Iglesias and the other professors who lead Podemos are old-school Marxists, the party has ran a very moderate campaign, to a large extent in response to the European backlash to Syriza's early radicalism. Moreover, it never had the nationalist discourse that allowed Greece's "patriotic left" to reach beyond the limited support base of radical left politics. Finally, and most importantly, Podemos is much less popular than Syriza -- even after the more radical Popular Unity faction split off, Syriza remained the largest party in Greece, whereas Podemos is only the third largest party in Spain, and that is including its coalitions with regional parties in various parts of the country.

PSOE is not PASOK.

Just like in Greece the collapse of the support for the two established parties is uneven, much more caused by the center-left than by the center-right. The PSOE has lost half of its support since 2008, i.e. in the last two general elections. This is a dramatic loss, but nothing like PASOK, which has lost about 85 percent of its support since 2009. PSOE is still the second biggest party in Spain, with 22 percent of the vote, while PASOK is now the fifth biggest party in Greece, with 6.3 percent, and only because of a coalition with the Democratic Left (DIMAR). As a consequence, Podemos is still dependent upon the PSOE to get into government, whereas Syriza has simply replaced PASOK as the dominant force on the left.

Protest but not polarization.

There is no doubt that many people used their vote for the two new upstarts, Citizens and Podemos, to protest against the two established parties, PP and PSOE. But that is as far as the similarity with Greece -- and, frankly, most other European countries -- goes. Greek politics has been polarized for years now, with party politics divided over a vicious pro-Memorandum versus anti-Memorandum opposition. This was the main reason why the May 2012 elections led to new elections the next month -- the two blocs were equally strong and no coalition could be built around any other cleavage. This is not the case in Spain. Contrary to claims by Iglesias and Tsipras, the elections were not "the defeat of austerity", as the PP, PSOE, and Citizens support the bailout conditions in some form or another. Moeover, there is no polarization between the new parties and the old parties, as Citizens were happy to govern with PP and Podemos with PSOE. The liberal democratic center has held.

Finally, and most importantly, in Spain the liberal democratic center has held. Whereas extremist and populist parties gained a majority of the seats and votes in Greece -- i.e. Syriza, Golden Dawn (XA), Independent Greeks (ANEL), and the Communist Party of Greece KKE) -- the only large party to challenge the liberal democratic system in Spain is Podemos -- and they are much more moderate than Syriza. PP and PSOE lost significantly, but their combined loss of 22 percent was largely compensated by the gains of Citizens, another staunchly liberal democratic party. Those three parties together, representing the main party families of Europe -- i.e. the Christian democrats (PP), the social democrats (PSOE) and the liberals (Citizens) -- gained almost two-thirds of the vote.

This is not to say that the Spanish elections weren't historic in a Spanish rather than a European context, or a drumming for the established parties. They were. But their new party system more represents other West European party systems, where weakened established parties are challenged by a (right-wing) populist party and require increasingly complicated coalition governments. Greece remain an outlier, the only West European country with a dominant left populist party and without a liberal democratic majority. This could change, however, particularly if PP and PSOE decide to create a Grand Coalition, under pressure from the EU, just as ND and PASOK did after the June 2012 elections.