Is Spain Heading for an Electoral Wreck?

In this month’s election, the choice could boil down to a government influenced by a xenophobic party or one under constant threats by separatists.

Supporters of the right-wing People’s Party attend the party’s campaign kickoff on April 11 in Madrid. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
Supporters of the right-wing People’s Party attend the party’s campaign kickoff on April 11 in Madrid. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

When Spaniards go to the polls on April 28 to elect a new government, they will be choosing from no fewer than five major political parties. The outcome will likely be a repeat of the 2015 vote, in which no single political party won a clear majority of parliamentary seats or proved skillful enough to cobble together a coalition government. The impasse forced a do-over election, in 2016, leaving the country without a government for almost a year. A sequel to this political drama could hardly come at a worse time, with the Spanish economy still recovering from the blows of the massive financial crisis that began in 2008; relations with the prosperous northeastern region of Catalonia, which tried to break away from Spain in 2017, still tense; and far-right populism looming on the horizon.

Leading the pack in the run-up to the vote is the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), fronted by current Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. It was only last June that the PSOE, Spain’s oldest active party, came to power as a result of a surprise vote of no confidence against the government of Mariano Rajoy of the conservative People’s Party (PP). The vote, which was triggered by corruption charges that reached deep into the PP and the Rajoy administration, spelled an end to the PP’s six years in power.

Once in office, Sánchez had expected to be able to wait a few years before facing the voters himself. He was forced to call for early elections, though, when Catalan parliamentarians, who had previously supported Rajoy’s ouster, joined right-wing opposition parties to defeat Sánchez’s 2019 national budget. The separatists were retaliating against Sánchez for his refusal to support a referendum on Catalan independence. But their vote against the budget still came as a surprise. Unlike Rajoy, Sánchez had opened a dialogue with the Catalan separatists and had included in his 2019 budget proposal a large increase in public spending in Catalonia.

At the polls this month, the PSOE will face a battered PP. Rajoy’s dismissal—unprecedented in Spanish politics because of the constitution’s onerous conditions for removing a sitting prime minister—triggered a bitter power struggle. The eventual winner, Pablo Casado, a parliamentarian from the province of Ávila, has tried to keep the party together. But he has been dogged by a series of scandals involving his education, including false claims that he did postgraduate studies at Harvard University.

Also in the running are two political parties propelled to prominence by the financial crisis: the populist, leftist Podemos (We Can) and the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens). Once seen as a real threat to the PSOE, Podemos lost its luster after its leaders were revealed to have profited from their personal ties to the Hugo Chávez regime in Venezuela. Ciudadanos, a party based in Catalonia but a fierce opponent of Catalan independence, has capitalized on Spaniards’ desire for national unity. It is now the largest party in the region and a formidable national player as well.

Vox’s emergence has challenged the popular notion that Spain’s long experience with authoritarianism makes the country immune to right-wing populism.

Finally, there’s Vox. A new far-right populist party, it is the wild card of the 2019 elections. Its emergence has challenged the popular notion that Spain’s long experience with authoritarianism under General Francisco Franco makes the country immune to right-wing populism. Vox advocates an extreme anti-immigrant agenda, which includes deporting all undocumented immigrants, banning the teaching of Islam in public schools, and building walls around Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish enclaves in North Africa. This agenda won Vox 12 parliamentary seats in last December’s regional election in Andalusia, mainland Spain’s southernmost region and a point of entry for thousands of undocumented immigrants.

Although Vox’s opposition to immigration wins the party headlines, the real driver behind its growth is an upsurge in Spanish nationalism kicked off by Catalonia’s attempted secession. (These days, national flags drape the streets of all major Spanish cities, including Barcelona, the Catalan capital.) Vox advocates for rescinding Catalonia’s autonomy charter, which has been in place since the late 1970s, abolishing all traces of regional governance in Spain, and banning separatist parties. No other party embraces such extreme and likely unconstitutional measures, but they do hold considerable appeal among ordinary Spaniards who believe that Catalan separatists have held almost every aspect of Spanish politics hostage for two years.

El País, Spain’s newspaper of record, projects that the PSOE will win the elections with 28.6 percent of the vote, the PP will get 20.2 percent, Ciudadanos 15.8 percent, Podemos 13.5, and Vox 11. If those numbers are correct, neither a left-wing PSOE-Podemos bloc nor a right-wing PP-Ciudadanos-Vox bloc would garner enough seats to form a government. With this much political fragmentation, according to El País, “the parliamentary majority, the presidency, and the government are entirely up in the air.” It also enhances the political clout of a host of regional-nationalist parties whose political influence far surpasses their capacity to generate votes.

Leading regional-nationalist parties include the Basque Nationalist Party, Compromís (a coalition of parties from the Community of Valencia), and two Catalan parties: Together for Catalonia and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). The last two parties are the leading forces behind the push for Catalan independence, including the 2017 referendum on Catalan independence, which the courts ruled unconstitutional, and the subsequent declaration of the Catalan Republic. The architects of the referendum are currently on trial in Madrid on charges of rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds, save for former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium to escape prosecution.

A government propped up by either Vox or a separatist party would pose considerable peril to Spanish democracy. On the one hand, a bloc comprising PP, Ciudadanos, and Vox would mirror the current coalition that governs Andalusia. Initial fears that Vox would turn Andalusia into a cradle of far-right governance in Europe have not been realized, but Vox has tried to swing the region to the right in ominous ways. Included in its agreement to form a government with PP and Ciudadanos was a clause to rescind the 2007 Law of Historical Memory, the landmark law that provided reparations for the victims of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship; a plan to combat what it calls Islamic fundamentalism; and full enforcement of existing immigration laws. Beyond those, Vox has been campaigning nationally on rescinding laws protecting LGBT and women’s rights.

On the other hand, a coalition of PSOE, Podemos, and any number of regional-nationalist parties would essentially mean re-electing the coalition that ousted the PP from power last June. And that would be a prescription for continued political instability. After all, the current government lasted for less than a year. Catalan separatists have already put the PSOE on notice that they would expect the coalition to unambiguously commit to Catalan self-determination. Marta Vilalta, a spokesperson for ERC, has hinted that ERC support for the PSOE would be contingent on a “democratic solution” to the crisis in Catalonia. So far, the PSOE has shown no indication that it is prepared to give in to such demands.

Facing the unsavory prospects of a government influenced by a xenophobic party or one under constant threats by separatists, it is understandable that many Spaniards are praying for a political miracle: the emergence of a centrist coalition.

Facing the unsavory prospects of a government influenced by a xenophobic party or one under constant threats by separatists, it is understandable that many Spaniards are praying for a political miracle: the emergence of a centrist coalition that brings together the leftist PSOE and the right-leaning Ciudadanos. Such a coalition would aim to end Catalan separatists’ stranglehold on politics and keep Vox well away from policymaking. Yet there’s no precedent for such an alliance in Spanish politics. And the hostility that the members of each party have shown for one another during the campaign suggests that a centrist coalition is very unlikely.

Amid all the uncertainty, the electoral campaign is in full swing. Sánchez is positioning himself as a liberal warrior. An avowed feminist, he is touting his record among OECD countries for highest proportion of women in his cabinet—65 percent. He also recently introduced legislation aimed at reducing the gender pay gap (which in Spain stands at 14.2 percent, lower than the European Union average of 16.2 percent), and at increasing parental leave by 2021. And he is sparing no effort to scare Spaniards about Vox, including by evoking the specter of Francoism. “The Fascists are coming” is a frequent rallying cry among the left.

Meanwhile, splintered into three separate political parties, the right appears to be too busy infighting to hit back. In fact, the split on the right could well be the Socialists’ trump card. Traditionally, Spain’s rural provinces, known as La España vacía (Empty Spain), since they include some of the least densely populated parts of Europe, are some of the biggest PP strongholds. And because of the peculiarities of Spain’s proportional system, they are overrepresented in the national parliament, the Cortes Generales. As reported by one study, “The 28 most sparsely populated constituencies have just 20 percent of the population but 30 percent of the seats in parliament—103 out of 350.” But this year, the three-way split within the right could make the PSOE the winner in many rural districts.

The outcome in Spain, the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy, will reverberate across Europe. The Socialists’ unexpected return to power in Madrid last summer was celebrated by liberals and progressives across Europe as a bright spot in an otherwise bleak landscape for European social-democratic parties—and perhaps even the onset of a social-democratic revival. Others saw it as a sign that the far-right populist wave, which had washed over countries as diverse as Britain, Poland, and Italy, was receding. If Sánchez manages to cling to power, a repeat of last June’s euphoria across Europe would be more than justified. If the right-wing opposition overwhelms him, Spain will become yet another casualty of the wave.

Omar G. Encarnación is a professor of political studies at Bard College and author of Democracy without Justice in Spain: The Politics of Forgetting.

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