• The Left in the Storm: The Radical Left and the Elections in Spain

  • By Jaime Aja Valle , Luís Ramiro | 17 Nov 14 | Posted under: Spain , Elections , The Left
  • Six years after the beginning of the 2008 economic crisis, the 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections resulted in enlarged representation for the parties integrated in the group of the United European Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL). This increase was very significant in a few countries where a considerable growth of radical left parties took place. One of the most important surges in this vote occurred in Spain. Izquierda Unida (United Left, IU, the organisation created by the Partido Comunista de España – Communist Party of Spain, PCE – in 1986, and in which the Spanish Communists are still the largest component) and its allies grew from 4.2 per cent of the vote in the 2009 EP elections to 10 per cent five years later.1 This important upturn in IU’s electoral evolution was, however, partially overshadowed by what became the big news of election night – the strong electoral showing of Podemos (We Can), a party only launched in January 2014 and very loosely organised at the time of the May EP elections. Podemos, which despite the vagueness of its ideological self-definition had announced it would support the candidacy of Alexis Tsipras for the presidency of the European Commission and join the GUE/NGL group in the EP, obtained 8 per cent of the vote and five MEPs. Taken together, the support for IU and Podemos was the highest share of votes ever received by the radical left in Spain in any kind of election.

    The electoral growth of these two parties took place in the context of a large change in Spanish public opinion, a very relevant modification of the voters’ preferences, and, finally, a significant variation in the party system. Ultimately, the 2014 EP election results were part of a political process set in motion by the economic crisis that began in 2008, the implementation of austerity policies since 2010, and the parties’ and voters’ reactions to the general social, economic, and political emergency, and the turmoil afflicting Spanish society ever since.


    The 2014 EP election results in Spain – beyond ‘second order’ election dynamics

    The 2014 EP election results show many striking features. They contrast with the outcome of the previous national elections (2011), and, more importantly, they also indicate a very relevant change in relation to the previous Spanish experience of EP elections.

    In some respects, the 2014 Spanish EP elections still fits the ‘second order’ model. Electoral turnout was low in relative and Spanish terms (43.8 per cent). Yet, despite the fears of a record low participation due to public dissatisfaction amidst a deep economic crisis, turnout was not exceptionally low (in the 2009 EP elections turnout had been 44.9 per cent).2 Additionally, as is normal with ‘second order elections’, the government party saw their support diminished very significantly. However, as Table 1 shows, in more than a mere negative result, the support for the main centre-left and centre­right parties, the social democratic Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido socialista obrero español, PSOE) and the conservative Popular Party (Partido popular, PP), plummeted compared to the previous EP elections. In fact, the sum of the two centre-left and centre-right parties (PSOE and, since 1982, PP) was below 50 per cent of the vote share for the first time since democratic elections began in 1977.

    Table 1. Electoral results, European Parliament elections, 2014


    2014 EP elections, % votes (seats)

    Change from 2009 EP elections, % votes (seats)

    (Popular Party, Centre right)

    26.1 (16)

    -16 (-8)

    (Socialist Party, Centre left)

    23 (14)

    -15.8 (-9)

    IU-ICV et al.
    (United Left-Initiative for Catalonia Greens et al. Radical left and Left-wing Greens)

    10 (6*)

    +6.3 (+4)

    (Radical left)

    8 (5)

    +8 (+5)

    (Union, Progress and Democracy. Centre right)

    6.5 (4)

    +3.7 (+3)

    (Coalition for Europe. Centre right peripheral – Catalan, Basque and others, nationalist)

    5.4 (3)

    -0.3 (0)

    (The Left for the Right to Decide. Centre left peripheral nationalist)

    4 (2)

    too different for comparison

    (Citizens, Centre right)

    3.2 (2)

    +3.2 (+2)

    (Peopels Decide. Left-wing peripheral nationalist)

    2.1 (1)

    too different for comparison

    Primavera Europea
    (European Spring. Left-wing peripheral nationalist and Greens from Equo)

    1.9 (1)

    too different for comparison

    Source: Ministry of the Interior. *The four MEPs who belong to IU and one associated to Anova-Irmandade Nacionalista are part of the GUE/NGL group jointly with the five MEPs from Podemos. One MEP elected in the IU-ICV coalition is a member of ICV and belongs to the Green group of the EP.

    Confirming the ‘second order elections’ hypotheses, several opposition, smaller, and new parties, and parties and coalitions created a few months in advance for the purpose of running in the EP elections, were relatively successful. The centre-liberal UPyD and C’s, the centre-left Catalan nationalist ERC, the coalition (mainly) between the Valencian nationalists (Compromís) and the Greens (Equo), and the left-wing Basque nationalist Bildu were among the parties gaining a significant share of votes. This was also the case with IU and Podemos. The growth of smaller parties and the unprecedented decrease in the vote for larger mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties resulted in a new, more fragmented, party system.

    However, although the 2014 EP elections in Spain show many features common to less relevant ‘second order’ elections, its relevance goes beyond them. EP elections in Spain, in contrast to the ‘second order‘ theory, have in fact been characterised by decreasing gains for smaller parties, and the previous 2004 and 2009 EP elections showed a strongly bipartisan distribution of preferences.3 However, the 2014 EP elections broke not only with the recent experience regarding EP elections in Spain but also the entire Europe-wide record of EP results. As Graph 1 shows, in the 2014 EP elections Spain’s smaller parties reached their highest level of support ever in EP elections. Graph 2 shows the relative vote share of smaller parties and larger parties (including the two larger nationwide parties, PP and PSOE, and the two larger Catalan and Basque nationalist parties, the centre-right PNV and the CiU) in national general elections and EP elections. Both Graph 1 and Graph 2 indicate a previous trend towards the decreasing weight of smaller parties, a small and recent change of this trend in the 2009 EP elections and in the 2011 national general elections (when smaller parties began to improve their results), and a drastic growth for smaller parties in the 2014 EP elections.

    Graph 1.Vote for smaller parties, general and EP elections


    Graph 2.Vote for smaller and larger parties in general and EP elections compared



    The growth and fragmentation of radical left parties in Spain

    The increased fragmentation of the party system after the 2014 EP elections was partly due to the electoral growth of Spain’s radical left. However, one of the most striking features of the May 2014 results was that the support for radical left parties in Spain also showed, for the first time since the democratic transition, a considerable internal fragmentation. Two electoral lists that can be classified as radical left gained parliamentary representation and obtained a similar share of the vote: IU grew electorally and Podemos, created five months before the elections, had a spectacular showing.

    IU experienced a very relevant vote increase compared to the previous EP 2009 elections (from 3.7 per cent to 10 per cent of the votes), and, leaving aside the different conditions proper to each type of election, its share of votes also grew in relation to the 2011 general elections. From this point of view, IU’s results showed an upward trend. Moreover, the support for IU was relatively homogeneous across Spanish regions. Although in some areas IU had a weaker performance, the results in some of the traditionally less ‘IU supportive’ provinces were relatively high and above the ‘usual’ figures (with very high numbers, in relative terms, in regions such as the Canary Islands or Cantabria). At the same time, the electoral support for IU in some of its historic strongholds (such as Andalusia and Asturias) was particularly strong. In sum, across regions IU’s electoral performance was good, improving its results and lending continuity to a pattern of growth already seen in recent, but different, elections.

    However, putting IU’s results in the context of its recent electoral trajectory helps nuance the magnitude of its growth. IU grew in the 2014 EP elections from a very low point of departure. Its recent improvement

    Graph 3.Electoral evolution of IU-ICV (PCE-PSUC before 1986), 1977-2014

    Source: Ministry of Interior

    is against the background of its worst ever electoral results achieved in the 2008 (national) and 2009 (EP) elections and a decade-long electoral crisis (1999-2009). As Graph 3 shows, IU grew from an extremely weak starting position, and in its 2014 EP elections results it has not caught up with its highest level of support in the EP elections of 1994.

    IU’s growth was also lower than forecast by the polls. Leaving aside the very diverse quality of the various polls, and the intrinsic difficulties of predicting election results in an increasingly volatile political environment, IU’s results partly occurred against higher expectations. Additionally, the ‘intention to vote for IU’ indicator produced by one of the most qualified Spanish pollsters, the public institution Centre for Sociological Research (Centro de Investigaciones Sociologicas – CIS), which had showed an uninterrupted growth for IU in the past, ceased to signal this progressing evolution just two months prior to the 2014 May EP elections. To some degree, placed in the context of the evidence provided by previous polls, IU’s 2014 EP elections results expressed an arrested growth.

    Another important element that contributed to IU’s result was that, despite its growth, Podemos was able to gain more votes than IU in several Spanish regions, and in some others it got an almost equal share of votes. That a new party so recently founded and with only a loose organisation on the ground before the May EP elections had been able to electorally overcome IU in some regions was very significant. This was relevant not only because, as Table 2 shows, the number of places in which Podemos overtook IU was relatively high but also because this superior Podemos showing took place in some of the traditional IU strongholds (such as Asturias and Madrid) and in very populated and politically symbolic regions (such as, again, Madrid).

    Table 2.2014 EP elections, IU and Podemos results by region

    IU, ICV et al.











    País Vasco















    Comunidad Valenciana



    Castilla-La Mancha






    La Rioja



    Castilla y León





















    Source: Ministry of Interior. The shaded rows indicate regions where Podemos gained more votes than IU.

    Podemos’ result was striking for several reasons. With the party founded only five months before the May elections, the results meant they had gained the largest share of votes ever obtained by a new contending party in any EP or general election in Spain. At the time of the EP elections, and despite the frequent and regular presence of its party leader on TV shows during the campaign and even long before the launch of the party, Podemos’ ideological self-definition remained vague. Its message made the party resemble radical left populist parties or socialist populist parties, combining classic democratic socialist or radical left positions with an overwhelming emphasis on the confrontation between a corrupted elite (a ‘caste’) and a morally virtuous common people. Since then, the party has progressed in ist political clarification and party building. But a full analysis of its ideology is still pending, leaving aside the accounts by some of the party promoters and founders. One of the most notable recent developments in its clarification of its political and strategic positions is its increasingly open rejection of the left-right division as a determinant of party and political alignments, arguing that this categorisation limits the possibilities of electoral victory for ‘antiregime’ parties. This dismissive approach towards the left-right cleavage (which means that the party will not declare itself as left) – aimed at attracting voters ideologically distant from the traditional left electorate – was likely to benefit Podemos’ support already by the 2014 EP contest (as we will see later) and is likely to have important implications for the near future.

    Although the 2014 EP elections in Spain were not merely the product of the typical ‘second order elections’ dynamic, they were not a completely extraordinary phenomenon either. The 2014 EP elections could signal a move of Spain’s electoral dynamics closer to what is a more general and common pattern in, at least, Western Europe.

    In the most recent period many have warned of successive or simultaneous crises: in the capacity of governments to provide welfare to their citizens, the party government model and the diverse party functions, the different pillars of political representation, representative government itself, or even the Western model of democracy and politics.4 These crises predate the current economic and political crisis of the European Union, have affected every Western European democracy for more than two decades, and have been profusely discussed. They are visible in many symptoms. As to the crises related to parties and electoral politics, these changes, challenges or crises experienced in Western European polities manifest themselves in the form of a significant decline in party membership figures, electoral turnout, voter loyalty, party identification, party and electoral alignment, and, finally, the weight of larger mainstream parties. At the same time, they are expressed through increases in electoral volatility, ‘last-minute’ electoral decisions, the appearance of new parties, and, in general, voter dealignment.

    Spain exhibited several but not all of these features common to many Western European party systems prior to 2014. Some of them were very strongly visible since the 1980s. Spanish parties have always had particularly weak social links, and there was an important symbiosis between mainstream parties and the state characterised by an overwhelming financial dependence on public subsidies. Episodes of corruption and party patronage were not uncommon before the current explosion of corruption cases, and Spain has been an example of high political disaffection. However, some other features of the democratic crisis were not fully visible or had a minor presence. Above all, the Spanish party system projected strong two-party dominance.

    However, the 2008 economic crisis, one of the deepest in Spanish history, triggered a political crisis and a significant change in Spanish public opinion. The public has a negative view of politics, a pessimism and mistrust on a scale never seen before. As the data from CIS surveys show, positive evaluations of the economic and political situations have decreased sharply since the beginning of the economic crisis, and both trends seem to be related.

    Graph 4.Positive evaluations of the economic and political situations

    Source: CIS indicators from Barometer surveys

    The connection between economic and political crises affected how the performance of government and the main opposition parties is seen. As Graph 5 indicates, positive perceptions of the actions of government and the main opposition party have declined, it mattering little which party is in office (PSOE in 2004-2011, PP since 2011) or in opposition.

    Graph 5. Positive evaluations of government and main opposition party performances

    Source: CIS indicators from Barometer surveys

    This change in public opinion seems to represent more than mere short­term corrections, with the positive perceptions of the economic and political situations diminishing rapidly since the start of the economic crisis in 2007­2008. Additionally, the change in public opinion entailed a modification in political preferences, already expressed in the 2011 general elections, manifested again in the 2014 EP elections, and, according to public opinion polls, still ongoing. As Graph 6 shows, the support for the two larger mainstream parties has decreased sharply. PSOE’s decline began in 2008, before the austerity policies were implemented (in 2010), and it has been unable to recover support despite being in opposition since 2011; in turn, the conservative PP was severely punished by public opinion ever since it came into office that year. While the public lost faith in the capacity of the two larger mainstream parties, the two smaller nationwide parties IU and the centrist UPyD increased their figures in terms of voter intention, transforming the two-party dominance of the Spanish party system. Interestingly enough, the growth of the two smaller parties came to a halt shortly before the 2014 EP elections.

    Graph 6.Voter intention: PSOE, PP, IU, and UpyD

    Source: CIS indicators from Barometer surveys


    The left in the storm

    New parties, such as Podemos, have successfully taken advantage of the political opportunity structure. Spain has joined the group of Western European countries with more than one radical left party with parliamentary representation (e.g. Greece, Italy, Portugal, France, or Denmark, at different points in time and with obvious differences). Spain also joins the list of party systems where both radical left and green parties are present, with the green party Equo entering the EP. And, finally, Spain also joins the group of countries in which a new and/or populist party gains parliamentary representation – in this case what could be described as a left-wing populist party.

    The new political landscape in Spain also points to a new competition within the left in general and, more specifically, within the radical left. The centre-left PSOE, the radical left IU and the newly emerged Podemos – which, even if it does not declare itself to be a left party, can be considered as such – have increased the competition for votes, as well as for activists and other resources, such as media exposure, in the left-to-centre space. The negative change in the voter intention trend for IU at the beginning of 2014 anticipated to a certain degree the limited gains obtained in the 2014 EP elections. At the same time, the strong support garnered by Podemos in the elections signalled the appearance of a new party that appeals to some of IU’s voters or potential voters.

    In sum, one of the most important outcomes of the 2014 EP elections was the increased competition, volatility, transfer of votes, and fragmentation within the left-to-centre electoral space.

    This is clearly illustrated in Graph 7 by the data on the distribution of the left-to-centre party preferred by voters over each position of the ideological scale right after the 2014 EP elections. Voters self-placed in the most left­ wing positions (1, 2 and 3) distributed their support among IU, PSOE and Podemos. IU cemented its support with the vote of the more radical left voters (positions 1 and 2) while the PSOE gained the support of the more moderate voters. The PSOE improves and IU worsens their results as we move towards more moderate centre-left positions (3 and 4). As in every western society, the moderate-left (and centrist) voters are more numerous than the radical-left voters, among whom IU was able to win the highest shares in the 2014 EP elections. The strength of Podemos came from ist very good performance among radical-left voters while also being able to attract voters from much more centrist and moderate positions, placing the ideological profile of its voters between those of IU and the PSOE.

    Graph 7.Percentage of vote for PSOE, IU, and Podemos in each ideological position, 2014 EP elections (1-10 left-right scale)

    Source: CIS, 2014 EP elections post-electoral survey

    This signals the emergence of a complex competitive situation in the near future, in which left-wing parties will be forced to adjust their organisational and political strategies to compete or to cooperate. It is much too soon to analyse the ideology, policies, strategies and electorate of Podemos, as the organisation is still in the process of party building. Nevertheless, despite ist vague ideology, or perhaps precisely because of it, it is benefiting from a bandwagon effect with regular improvements of its voter intention numbers in recent polls, which broadens its electorate – and, quite possibly, the heterogeneity of its composition. By contrast, recent polls do not bring such good news for IU, apparently confirming the situation of arrested growth. However, both organisations can anticipate a near future of clarification in terms of strategy decisions. Confronted with their mutual rivalry for votes, IU and Podemos will have to decide whether to collaborate or compete for a partially overlapping electorate in a context marked by a tight electoral calendar; local, regional, and general elections are due in 2015.



    Mair, Peter, Ruling the Void, London: Verso, 2013.

    March, Luke, Radical Left Parties in Europe, Abingdon: Routledge, 2011.

    Ramiro, Luís and Joan Font, ‘¿Una oportunidad para los pequeños? El voto a partidos pequeños en las elecciones al Parlamento Europeo’, Mariano Torcal and Joan Font (eds), Las elecciones europeas de 2009, Madrid: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, 2012.

    Reif, Karlheinz and Hermann Schmitt, ‘Nine second-order national elections. A conceptual framework for the analysis of European Election results’, European Journal of Political Research 8,1 (1980), pp. 3-44.


    1. IU ran within an electoral coalition, Izquierda Plural (Plural Left), with the Catalan Ecosocialist or Left-Green party Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds (Initiative a Green Catalonia, ICV, which belongs to the European Green Party), the Galician left-wing nationalists of Anova-Irmandade Nacionalista (Anova-Nationalist Brotherhood), several smaller Green parties such as The Greens-Green Option (based in Catalonia) and The Greens Federation, the Galician Espazo Ecosocialista (Ecosocialist Space), the left-wing Basque and Navarrese parties Etzkerreko Ekimena-Etorkizuna Iratzarri and Batzarre (Assembly), the small left-wing party Construyendo la Izquierda-Alternativa Socialista (Building the Left-Socialist Alternative, CLI-AS), and the Catalan branch of IU (Esquerra Unida i Alternativa (United and Alternative Left)).
    2. Turnout was 68.9 per cent in the previous national elections of 2011.
    3. Luis Ramiro and Joan Font, ‘¿Una oportunidad para los pequeños? El voto a partidos pequeños en las elecciones al Parlamento Europeo’, Mariano Torcal and Joan Font (eds), Las elecciones europeas de 2009, Madrid: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, 2012.
    4. See, among many others, Peter Mair, Ruling the Void, London: Verso, 2013. 

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