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Voting Again, Spain Faces Threat to Two-Party System

Old political orders do not die easily. That may be as good an explanation as any for why Spain has been paralyzed since its last national elections in December yielded no clear winner. To many Spaniards, Election Day on Sunday feels a lot more like the movie "Groundhog Day."

But if Spain's politicians cannot seem to find common ground at the national level, there is one glimmer of hope: That has not been the case at the regional and municipal levels.

For instance, while the leaders of the Socialists and Podemos, now bitter rivals for dominance of the left, have traded jabs in Parliament for the last six months, they have collaborated over the past year in Spain's three largest cities.

In Barcelona and Valencia, lawmakers from both parties now sit side by side in City Hall administrations, while in Madrid, Spain's capital, the Socialists cleared the way for a former Communist and retired judge, Manuela Carmena, to become mayor a year ago.

"Recent practices in regional and municipal politics should serve as a lesson to reduce the rigidity of national politics," said Antoni Zabalza, a professor of economics at the University of Valencia and a former Socialist secretary of state. "Politics cannot be all about red lines and untouchable principles that make coalitions impossible."

The difference, however, may be a matter of stakes. The local and regional politicians can work together on the relatively mundane things that keep cities and regions running.

But at the national level, the fight in Sunday's vote may be for nothing less than preserving or chucking out the two-party system that has characterized the country's politics since its transition to democracy in the late 1970s.

The main challenge to the old order is Podemos. An upstart party started only two years ago, it recently forged an alliance with another radical party, called United Left, posing an even graver threat to Spain's long-established Socialists.

Podemos now stands a good chance of finishing second behind the conservative Popular Party of the caretaker prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, according to recent polls. But once more, neither is expected to get a parliamentary majority.

In fact, Mr. Rajoy's fragile hold on power suffered another blow this week when a left-wing online newspaper, Público, published a leaked recording of his interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, apparently trying to incriminate Catalan political opponents. Mr. Rajoy on Wednesday rejected calls from all the opposition leaders for the minister's ouster.

Even after a new round of voting on Sunday, then, the choices for Spain's politicians may remain very much what they have been for the last six months: a coalition that ushers in a new political order — with new parties potentially in government for the first time — or a coalition that preserves Spain's establishment (the Popular Party supported by the Socialists) against the newcomers.

Failing that, Spaniards will vote yet again.

That is something no one seems to want, and some city politicians are calling on national politicians to follow their example and compromise. They are led by Ada Colau, Barcelona's mayor and a onetime activist, who recently reached a deal with the Socialists to help consolidate her grip on City Hall.

"The end of the two-party system has already happened but, of course, for the two parties that have always occupied that space, that has created internal divisions and has translated into a refusal to understand what is happening," Ms. Colau said in an interview at City Hall.

The rise of Podemos has triggered an existential crisis within a Socialist party that considers itself the architect of modern Spain, particularly after it oversaw the nation's accession to the European Union in the 1980s.

More recently, however, the Socialists led Spain into financial crisis after the bursting of a construction bubble in 2008. The Socialist candidate, Pedro Sánchez, has also struggled to shake off the image of a party mired almost as deeply in corruption scandals as Mr. Rajoy's conservative party.

In Andalusia, the main stronghold of the Socialists, two former Socialist regional leaders have been indicted on charges they helped divert funds to relatives and party cronies that were intended to help the unemployed.

The old guard of the Socialist party is warning that any deal with Podemos would push the Socialists toward oblivion.

Instead, Felipe González, Spain's first Socialist prime minister, has been urging the Socialists to negotiate a rapprochement with Mr. Rajoy's Popular Party, similar to the grand coalitions that have functioned in Germany and some other European countries, in order to preserve Spain's two-party system.

"There is no proof that the scattering of votes, however legitimate, helps solve the big problems of the country," Mr. González told La Sexta, a television channel, in an interview last month.

Yet for now, the main concern of Mr. Sánchez, the Socialist leader, has been to keep a grip on his own party. In early May, Mr. Sánchez stopped Ximo Puig, the regional leader of the Socialists in Valencia, from campaigning alongside far-left candidates from Podemos.

In fact, Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, has recently stepped up efforts to exploit tensions within the Socialist camp over how to respond to the rise of his party.

This month, during the only televised debate among the four main candidates, Mr. Iglesias told Mr. Sánchez that he was going after the wrong opponent whenever Mr. Sánchez criticized Podemos rather than Mr. Rajoy's conservative party.

Still, an alliance between Podemos and the Socialists is unlikely not only because of strategic differences, but also because of Spain's main territorial dispute, the secessionist drive in Catalonia.

In December, Podemos won the most votes in Catalonia, thanks to the popularity of Ms. Colau, but also after the party pledged to allow Catalans to vote on whether to split from the rest of Spain.

That promise turned into a major stumbling block in the coalition negotiations in Madrid, as none of the other three main parties — the Popular Party, Podemos and the Citizens party — support such a referendum.

Instead of a Catalan independence referendum, Mr. Sánchez is promising a constitutional overhaul to transform Spain into a federal state. However, any backtracking over Catalonia by Mr. Iglesias, the Podemos leader, could risk splitting his own formation.

"The subject of the referendum can't be left aside because some have made it a clear pledge and some solution must be given to the Catalan problem," Ms. Colau said.

Despite their divergences, Spain's four national party leaders are promising weary citizens that they will not have to return to the ballot boxes for a third time, even if Sunday's vote proves inconclusive.

But for now, Sunday's vote is also expected to underline the growing disconnect between Spain's national politicians and the electorate, with polls forecasting a record level of abstention.

"It is understandable that a lot of voters look at these elections with melancholy, depression or apathy," José Ignacio Torreblanca, a politics professor at the National University of Distance Education, wrote this month in newspaper El País. "The quality of Spanish democracy still leaves a lot to be desired."

[Source: By Raphael Minder, International New York Times, Barcelona, 23Jun16]

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