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How two upstarts revolutionized Spanish politics — and why America’s two-party system may not be so stable after all

For decades, two big parties dominated Spanish politics. But in recent elections, complete political neophytes stormed the stage, dealing a blow to the two-party system. Could the same happen in the United States?

Pablo Iglesias, leader of the newly founded Podemos party, took 20 percent of the vote in recent Spanish elections.
Pablo Iglesias, leader of the newly founded Podemos party, took 20 percent of the vote in recent Spanish elections.
Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

Since Spain transitioned to democracy, the country’s politics has been dominated by two major parties. In election after election, the center-right Partido Popular (PP) and the center-left Workers’ Party (PSOE) divvied up much of the popular vote — and the lion’s share of parliamentary seats — between them. When one party became unpopular, swing voters would flock to the other major establishment party, resulting in a clean transition of power and a stable majority for the new government.

To most Spaniards, this state of affairs seemed immovable. As in the United States, each of Spain’s two major parties held the deep loyalty of its electoral core and represented a distinct vision of the country. As in the United States, the country has a voting system that encourages polarization into two political blocks, because candidates from third parties are unlikely to be elected to parliament even if they garner quite a lot of votes. Until a few years ago, most Spaniards, like most Americans, therefore assumed that their politics would continue to consist in the regular handover of power from one major party to the other and back again.

In the past days, however, it has become obvious just how fragile this seemingly immovable political system actually was. Years of economic crisis and political corruption have left many voters revolted with the political system, and deeply distrustful of established political forces. So when they headed for the voting booth this past Sunday, they dealt a decisive blow to the old parties’ monopoly on power. Though the PP retains the most seats in parliament, and the PSOE managed to remain the country’s second biggest party by a hair's breadth, their cumulative share of seats is much lower than at any time since the early 1980s.

The result has been nothing less than a seismic shift. Podemos, a party founded less than two years ago by a self-declared Marxist who used to teach classes on topics like "Cinema, Political Identities, and Hegemony" as a lecturer on political science in Madrid, gained more than 20 percent of the vote. Ciudadanos, another newly founded protest party, which seizes upon the anger of more centrist and affluent citizens, has also stormed the political stage, attracting close to 14 percent of the vote. To round off the establishment’s demise, a host of smaller regional parties also made significant strides.

The implications for the next government are dramatic. Traditionally, either the PP or the PSOE could form a government of its own (though there have been some particularly close-run elections in which they relied on the support of smaller allies for the decisive votes). But in the new, fragmented parliament, neither party has a realistic chance of cobbling together an ideologically coherent majority. This leaves only three options: a temporary government stitched together by a host of very dissimilar parties, which is likely to fail before long; a grand coalition between the PP and the PSOE, which would likely see both parties lose even more support in the next elections; or new elections, which are likely to result in similarly chaotic circumstances.

It is hard not to be excited by the political revolution unfolding in Madrid. An unrepresentative, even rotten system — which has perpetuated deep corruption in the highest echelons of Spanish society — is on its last legs. But it is also hard not to worry about the coming years. It is not only that the new parties are as untested as can be; it is also that the fragmentation of the political system would make it very difficult to govern the country even if the new power brokers weren’t a ragtag collection of ideologically diverse neophytes.

As for the implications for the stability of America's two-party system, it would be easy to overstate the parallels between Spain and the United States. American democracy has been around for much longer, the electoral system favors dominant political parties even more strongly, and the greater role of money in political campaigns gives incumbents an even bigger leg up. There are strong reasons why Democrats and Republicans have been dominant for so long.

But it is just as easy to overstate these differences, or to draw the wrong inferences from them. In the United States, voters have, in the past years, grown just as mistrustful of establishment politicians as they have in Spain. The two-party system may have been around for longer, but by most measures American political parties are much weaker organizations than their Spanish counterparts. Meanwhile, the sheer size and ideological diversity of the United States makes it even more difficult for the two parties to hold their highly diverse coalitions together from election to election — as the populist takeover of the GOP has shown in recent months.

What happened in Spain won’t necessarily happen in the United States. But it would be naive to think that it can’t.

The two-party system has a tendency to look like a self-evident, even immutable part of our politics. It is perfectly possible that it is here to stay for decades or centuries. But though a lot of forces are stacked in favor of the status quo, the European experience — in Spain and beyond — has shown that party systems can and do change rapidly at times. If the right political opportunity arises, a talented populist might well seize upon the deep disenchantment with establishment politics and break the hold that Democrats and Republicans have long had over our system. If that day comes, it will, once again, be bittersweet rife with the chaos wreaked by populism and political instability, yet full of the promise inherent in any break with a deeply flawed system.