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Supporters of Spain’s old parties upended by new politics

Supporters of Spain’s Popular Party (PP) had the bitter taste of victory in their mouths Sunday, after Mariano Rajoy’s conservatives came top in legislative elections but did not yet know whether they could govern.

This is the paradox facing the country as it contemplates a new type of politics.

The PP is stony-faced after losing its parliamentary majority, and its traditional adversary the Socialist Party (PSOE), which came second, is assessing the damage.

But far-left upstart Podemos is celebrating after arriving in third place with a fifth of the votes, while fellow new arrival, the fourth-placed centre-right Ciudadanos, is keeping its cards close to its chest.

On the balcony of the PP’s headquarters in Madrid, a huge sign read “thank you”, while outgoing Prime Minister Rajoy reminded supporters that the party was still the largest political force in Spain, with 123 out of 350 parliamentary seats.

With the calm resolve that has characterised his 34 years in politics, Rajoy announced that he would “try to form a new government”.

But the gathered supporters could not forget the fact that their party had fallen below the symbolic marker of eight million votes for the first time since 1993.

“If Podemos do form a coalition with the Socialists, Spain will be heading towards a default,” said 17-year-old student Javier Sanchez, who had come to the PP headquarters, concerned about the rise of the far-left.

“I think Spain has to grow up,” he said. “This is a country that needs some maturity.”

At the headquarters of the Socialists — the country’s longest-standing political group, formed in 1879 — party official Juan Carlos Munoz comforted supporters after the PSOE took just 90 seats.

“It’s clear that the only person who can push agreements through is Pedro Sanchez,” he said of the 43-year-old PSOE leader.

Referring to Podemos, which split the left-wing vote and contributed to the PSOE’s poor showing, Munoz added: “Now they must show themselves to be statesman and not just populists”.

– ‘Never seen before’ –

Meanwhile, thousands of Podemos supporters gathered in a public square in Madrid, releasing purple balloons into the sky and cheering a result which saw the party, an ally of Greece’s ruling radical Syriza party, take 69 seats.

“It’s unthinkable for any party to take five million votes just a couple of years after being formed,” said Luis Neira, a 63-year-old businessman who has been to all of his local Podemos meetings since its foundation.

“For me, this is something I’ve never seen before in the democratic history of Spain and perhaps even Europe.”

Four years after Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square was occupied by the anti-austerity Indignados movement — which gave rise to Podemos — supporters shouted “Yes, it’s possible!”

But Carmen Garcia, a 53-year-old arts administration worker, was serious despite the celebration around her. “The financial crisis benefited those who already had the most,” she said. “We’ve had enough of them stealing from us.”

Other major new arrival Ciudadanos, which some had predicted would be king-maker in the elections or even come in second place, took 14 percent of the vote following a campaign with an anti-corruption focus.

All the same, the party will make it into parliament. “We must be confident,” said Carlos Portillo, a 28-year-old engineer and Ciudadanos supporter. “This is the year that change happens.”