On Sunday, general elections were held in Spain, the second in less than a year. In the previous elections, last December, all the candidates won at once. Or all of them lost. Hard to tell, since none reached an agreement to govern and we’ve spent the better part (or worse part) of the year with a ghost government and phantom opposition in a spectral state. (One longed for a visit by ghostbusters Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis.)
In these latest elections Mariano Rajoy’s center-right Partido Popular has won the most votes and the most seats (but not a majority) in parliament by claiming the voters must choose between him and the very scary ghosts of the left wing alliance led by Pablo Iglesias: Podemos Unidos (United We Can). Rajoy said the choice was, "Either me or the communism of Pablo Iglesias," who is, after all, a great admirer of Marx and Lenin and Hugo Chávez.
Between being Spain or being Venezuela, the Spanish have chosen to be Spain.
Here’s the breakdown: The party with the most votes is Rajoy’s PP with 33 percent. It is followed by the PSOE, the traditional center-left Socialists who have alternated power with the PP for years. They got 22 percent. Podemos Unidos got 21 percent, and Ciudadanos (citizens), which is militantly moderate and centrist, got 13 percent.
So one wonders, to paraphrase William Butler Yeats, “Can the center hold?” And in these apocalyptic times, when the rough beasts of populism on both left and right seem to have momentum all over Europe and even in the American Republican Party, the fate of the moderates in Spain needs to be watched carefully. Could they give us an antidote to the Trumps?
For months, polls had insisted the major parties, PP and PSOE, would fall and two emerging parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, would rise. This is the era of the “voto útil,” we were told — votes concentrated against the traditional powers. The result was, week after week, a worsening polarization of the electorate.
But now there appears to have been a reaction against the “vote against,” which helped put the traditional parties back in the lead. And the biggest loser, in fact, was Podemos. “We were hoping for different results,” said Iglesias. “It’s time to think.”
Conventional wisdom on Monday morning is that Rajoy’s victory, taking votes and seats away from Ciudadanos, sinks hopes for the centrist project of its leader, Albert Rivera. Not so: Rajoy has achieved a significant improvement over his standing in the last elections by appropriating the centrist line Rivera has nurtured, and Ciudadanos will be vital to Rajoy in the formation of a new government.
So, who is this Rivera guy?
The year was 2011 and Rivera and I found ourselves on the set of one of those enlightening political TV debates. The subject of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s kept coming up. It’s history that never quite retreats to the shelf in this country. And Rivera, who was only 30 at the time, asked to speak.
His point was brief, subtle, and devastating. I quote from memory: "No doubt there are thousands of issues that could be discussed about the civil war," he said. "In the same vein, we could spend hours discussing many other things that separate us, and continue dividing Spaniards: smokers versus nonsmokers, Catholics versus non-Catholics, right-wing and left-wing ... We could do it.”
But what Rivera wanted from then-President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero “at this delicate moment,” he said, is that he be big enough to keep us united as a country, finding support in what unites us, and helping us to find a solution to the economic crisis.”
Looking at the camera, Rivera declared, “What unites us, Mr. President — work for what unites us."
The debate was called "Dando Caña," which can mean cutting to the chase in a debate, or serving a beer in a restaurant, and the show on Intereconomía TV tries to live up to both meanings, with pundits served jugs of cerveza. Listening to Rivera, I almost knocked over my beer.
It was as if this guy, this handsome kid who spoke so well, but who had almost no national political standing (Ciudadanos only existed in Catalonia at the time), had been possessed by the spirit of the most important political figure in the recent history of Spain: former President Adolfo Suarez, the man who, after the Franco dictatorship, got the two Spains to shake hands; the Suarez who was the only parliamentary deputy who faced down the guns of the plotters whose coup failed in February 1981.
Now five years have passed since our beers and our debate, and Rivera entered Sunday's elections as one of the country’s most worthwhile leaders, esteemed not only in his party, but also by voters in the PP and PSOE.
That Ciudadanos did not make a better showing probably reflects the notion that tradition, in the end, is seen as a safe haven when people turn back away from extremism, at least in the short term. Voters left and right have preferred a “safe” vote, and return to bipartisanship, rather than promote the rise of Podemos.
So, paradoxically, Rivera’s shortfall in parliamentary seats reaffirms that his centrist speech is more alive than ever. And Rajoy must have Ciudadanos on board if he wants to form a government, even though both parties combined have only 169 seats and the Spanish system requires a minimum of 176 deputies to govern.
This is the time for politicking and for dialogue. We are stepping back from the trend toward extremes that afflicts so many countries at the moment, including the United States, where it turns out Donald Trump, who used to be a joke, is now a nightmare. In France, populism is filling the gap left by the inaction of the majority parties. In Britain, political frustration and posturing has led to Brexit and threatens a contagion of chaos.
Spaniards wanted this election to give them a viable government, which the last election did not. And they do not want to try again with yet another election. So there were many who reverted to their old standards, and Rajoy, in the most relaxed and centrist campaign that has conducted so far, came out on top.
Podemos failed in its quest to unite a broad leftist front to supplant the PSOE as the country’s second political force. And Ciudadanos has received a blow. But Rivera has offered to be an arbitrator between the PP and the PSOE, and his language today remains the same inclusive, pragmatic discourse that surprised us all six years ago and made him so esteemed. Perhaps he should appropriate the oft-repeated remark of Adolfo Suarez: “Spaniards, love me less, vote for me more.”
Perhaps it is not yet the moment for the center to come to power on its own. But listen to Trump, listen to Pablo Iglesias, listen to Le Pen, listen to Farage, and listen to Tsipras, and finally listen to Albert Rivera, and let me know in whose hands you would put your life savings.