Madrid - The crushing defeat suffered by Spain's governing socialist party may pave the way for the emergence of a new alterative left capable of standing up to the centre-right People's Party (PP), which won a landslide victory in Sunday's elections.
Above and beyond the mistakes the government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero may have committed, the parliamentary elections were influenced by the "indignados" - "indignant" or "angry" - movement that emerged in May, occupying squares in cities across the country to protest an economic model they perceive as socially unjust, and a political system they say is subordinate to economic concerns.
Ahead of the elections, the indignados - also known as the 15M movement, for May 15, when a clampdown on a demonstration in Madrid gave rise to a spontaneous mass protest at the famous Puerta del Sol square – worked hard to undermine both the socialist PSOE and the PP, and to strengthen smaller alternative parties.
On Sunday, the PSOE's total number of seats in the 350-member parliament shrank from 169 to 110, while the PP's share grew from 153 to 186, giving it a broad margin to appoint its candidate for prime minister, Mariano Rajoy.
The third-largest party is the conservative Convergència i Unió (CiU) from the northeast province of Catalonia, with 16 seats, followed by the United Left (IU), a Communist Party-led coalition that won 11 seats, up from just two – its best performance at the polls since 1996.
Key to the IU's strong showing was the campaign by the 15M which, based on an analysis of the results of earlier elections and the opinion polls, decided on which small party to throw its support behind in each voting district, in order to weaken the PSOE and the PP.
The IU was not the only minority party to grow. The CiU Catalonian coalition won seats in every district in Catalonia with the exception of Barcelona, and the centre-left Unión Progreso y Democracia (UPyD) saw its seats shoot up from one to five, and is no longer an exclusively Madrid-centred party.
The PSOE was also hurt by lower voter turnout, which dropped from 76 percent in the 2008 general elections to 72 percent on Sunday. Blank votes totalled 1.4 percent.
Prime Minister Zapatero, who had already announced that he would not seek a third term in office, said his party would hold a congress in February to analyse the reasons for its devastating defeat and to set out on a "new phase."
The elections were also marked by a strong performance by nationalists in Catalonia and the Basque country in the north, both centrist and leftist groups, an indication that demands for independence for the two provinces will soon grow louder.
The moderate Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV) garnered 323,517 votes, up from 306,128 in 2008, while the CiU went from 779,425 to over one million votes. And the leftwing Basque alliance Amaiur took more than 330,000 votes, making it the strongest Basque country party, with seven seats in Congress.
On Monday, Amaiur called for early elections in the Basque country. Legislator-elect Iñaki Antigüedad said they were necessary because the Basque parliament has to represent "all political sensibilities," which he said it does not at the present time.
The Basque country is currently governed by Patxi López of the PSOE, who is set to stay in office until 2013, unless his government decides on early elections – a move it does not appear likely to make.
Analysts pointed to the strong backing won by Amaiur, that includes former supporters of Batasuna, the political wing of the armed Basque separatist group ETA, which declared a definitive ceasefire on Oct. 20 – an announcement that was welcomed with scepticism as the group did not offer to lay down its weapons.
Eugenio, a former member of ETA who lives in Madrid and abandoned the group 15 years ago, told IPS that the unexpected number of votes won by Amaiur was because Basque voters now feel they can back the demand for independence without it implying that they support violence.
"Many, like myself, who understood that violence gets you nowhere can now express our demand for independence, but in peace, without bloodshed," said Eugenio, who did not give his last name.
It is not clear how Rajoy, who will become prime minister on Dec. 20, plans to address the severe economic crisis that has driven Spain's unemployment rate up to 22 percent - the highest in the EU.
One advantage he has is that this is the first time in Spain's democratic history that a party will govern with an absolute majority in parliament.
On the other hand, experts say that if his administration implements the tough austerity measures demanded by the banks, business community and international financial institutions, unemployment will rise further and social unrest will continue to grow.