The Left Will Govern Spain, but the Far-Right Is the Real Winner

Spain used to be seen as Europe’s exception due to its lack of an ultranationalist xenophobic party. Now the upstart Vox holds more than 50 seats in the parliament.

Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain's far-right Vox party, delivers a speech during a rally southwest of Barcelona on Oct. 31.
Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain's far-right Vox party, delivers a speech during a rally southwest of Barcelona on Oct. 31. PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images

On Sunday night, as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez tried to celebrate his party’s plurality in Spain’s fourth general election in four years, his supporters chanted, “With Iglesias, yes! With Casado, no!”—asking him to work with the radical-left party Podemos (“We Can”) and not with the conservative People’s Party (PP).

The Nov. 10 election had been called because Sánchez didn’t come to an agreement with Podemos in the aftermath of April’s election and made a bet based on polls showing his party growing. He lost that bet—and it was not Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party that made gains last weekend.

A few miles away, another victory celebration was being held at the headquarters of Vox, the far-right party that increased its vote share, taking 52 out of the Spanish legislature’s 350 seats—up from 24 in April, the first time it had entered the parliament. “Go get them,” roared Vox supporters at the feet of their leader, Santiago Abascal. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that in their quest to degrade those on their left, the Socialists had strengthened the far-right.

Sánchez came to power in June 2018 after a no-confidence motion toppled conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government. The ragtag group of parties that had voted against Rajoy and for Sánchez included his natural ally Podemos but also six pro-independence or regionalist parties from Catalonia, the Basque Country, Valencia, and the Canary Islands. When Sánchez tried to get his budget passed, pro-independence Catalan parties conditioned their support on hefty concessions from the central government, asking for an independence referendum.

Sánchez’s answer was a sharp “no.” As a result, his budget failed, elections were called for April, and Spaniards went to vote. The results were encouraging for the left-of-center parties. Sánchez, who had become prime minister with support from his left, claimed during the campaign that he could form a progressive government with Podemos. On the night of their electoral victory, Socialist supporters chanted “with Rivera, no” at Sánchez.

At the time, Albert Rivera led the center-right Ciudadanos (“Citizens”), the third-biggest party, that with its 57 seats in the April election could have then come to an agreement with the Socialists and given Sánchez a stable four-year government. Ciudadanos had tried to position itself as a centrist party capable of working with both the center-left and center-right, with a strong emphasis on Spanish unity, especially in the case of Catalonia, where the party was originally formed. With the rise of the virulently nationalist Vox, however, the nationalist voters it had attracted found a more suitable option and abandoned Ciudadanos.

Negotiations after the April election between the parties on the left didn’t go smoothly. Podemos insisted that the only way it would help Sánchez get the necessary number of votes in the parliament to form a government would be a coalition government with Podemos inside the government—a first in democratic Spain.

Sánchez at first talked about a confidence-and-supply arrangement, leaving Podemos only as outside support—like that which Britain’s Conservatives had with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party until this month. He then offered a vague “government of cooperation,” and it was only after insistence by Podemos on a coalition that he relented, setting a precondition: Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias himself should not be in the government. Iglesias accepted the demand, setting up his second-in-command, Irene Montero, as the future deputy prime minister.

According to the Spanish newspaper El País, at one point negotiations broke down because Podemos members mainly used the Telegram messaging app while the Socialists mostly preferred WhatsApp. There were a lot of last-minute negotiations before the first round of voting on July 23. Podemos complained that it hadn’t gotten ministries with actual portfolios. The Socialists said Podemos was overreaching.

Basque and Catalan parties didn’t vote for Sánchez’s investiture but repeatedly warned Iglesias and Sánchez that in the event that they didn’t come to an agreement, the country’s right-wing parties would have no problem doing so later. (They were referring to a possible future surge in support for the right-wing parties.) Negotiations continued for 48 more hours, to no avail. Sánchez’s own statements didn’t help. In a TV interview, he said that if he had accepted the coalition with Podemos, he “would have been a prime minister who couldn’t sleep at night.” Sánchez’s own statements didn’t help. In a TV interview, he said that if he had accepted the coalition with Podemos, he “would have been a prime minister who couldn’t sleep at night.” There was even a last-minute offer by Podemos in the parliament, with Iglesias making more concessions during his speech after consulting a former Socialist prime minister, giving up the party’s desired Labor Ministry in exchange for some say over employment policies.

The parties had two more months to prevent an automatic rerun of the election. Podemos hoped to restart the negotiations where they had broken down. Iglesias even said the party would accept the last Socialist offer. Sánchez was adamant: Any coalition was off the table. He was looking at the polls. Some seemed too good to be true; others showed that the Socialists would gain more seats, gaining an upper hand in negotiations. Most showed both Podemos and Ciudadanos losing. The polls also suggested that Vox was being reabsorbed into the conservative PP. Buoyed by those polls and armed with the threat of calling another election, Sánchez tried to convince Podemos to let go of its main demand: a coalition government. Podemos didn’t budge. So Spaniards went to the polls again.

While the parties of the left were trying to form a government with or without each other, the right enjoyed a resurgence. In regional and municipal elections held in May, the PP lost some votes but managed to hold its most important regional government, the Madrid autonomous community, and defeat the left to take back Madrid City Hall.

Then, on Oct. 14, Spain’s Supreme Court handed down the long-awaited sentences for secessionist Catalan leaders jailed after their failed independence bid in 2017. As expected, the harsh sentences were met by massive protests in Catalonia. Barcelona’s airport came to a standstill, police beat protesters, and some protesters started to set trash containers on fire in order to block police vans.

Life in Barcelona, for the most part, continued as normal, but Spanish TV showed a different story—a city on fire and a government losing control of parts of Spanish territory to the violent protesters. The right fanned the flames. Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, compared a photo from the streets of Barcelona to Aleppo and Baghdad. Pablo Casado, the PP leader, talked about recovering a ruined Catalonia. Abascal, the leader of Vox, called for a state of emergency in Catalonia. All three called for another round of dissolving Catalan autonomy, last tried in 2017.

Little by little, Vox’s popularity rose. PP and Ciudadanos tried to mimic Vox’s harsh anti-Catalan rhetoric in an attempt to avoid losing voters. A few days before the elections, both voted in favor of Vox’s bill in the regional assembly of Madrid calling for the banning of pro-independence parties even though regional assemblies have no say in such matters.

Electoral debates didn’t help either. Most issues were sidelined in favor of talking about Catalonia. Even Sánchez veered toward the nationalist right when talking about Catalonia. Rivera and Casado tried to outdo each other in moving to the right. But Abascal and Vox were already there.

Many political scientists have argued that the accommodation of far-right ideas by mainstream parties does not reduce support for the far-right—and once again, it didn’t.

Many political scientists have argued that the accommodation of far-right ideas by mainstream parties does not reduce support for the far-right—and once again, it didn’t. Ciudadanos hemorrhaged voters to Vox. Ciudadanos originally grew out of fierce opposition to the Catalan independence movement and had peaked when Spanish voters felt the threat of Catalan independence in April 2018.

Now the party has almost vanished as Vox steals its anti-independence thunder. In the Nov. 10 election, Ciudadanos lost 47 of its 57 seats. Rivera resigned the next day. The party that had dreamed of winning the Spanish election a year and a half ago has fallen so far that it won fewer parliamentary seats than the Republican Left of Catalonia, a party that only competes seriously in that region.

Thanks to Ciudadanos’s former supporters, Vox more than doubled its seats. As euphoric Vox supporters called on Catalan government leaders to be sent to the dungeon on Sunday night, Abascal promised to use the party’s 50-plus seats to reconsider “all the freedom-killing laws” passed by other parties and attacked the “progressive dictatorship.” Two laws in particular seem to be in the crosshairs: the Gender Violence Law, which obliges the government to support victims of abuse and to create specific gender violence courts, and the Historical Memory Law, passed in 2007 by the previous Socialist government, to recognize the victims of the Spanish Civil War and start dealing with its legacy.

Abascal argues that the first discriminates against men. The right argues that the second runs contrary to the spirit of Spain’s transition to democracy, or the pact of forgetting—in other words, leave the Francisco Franco regime’s crimes alone and look to the future. The Spanish left has always talked about moving away from Spain’s history of fascism, and a few weeks ago the Socialist government finally moved Franco’s corpse from its mausoleum 44 years after his death. The right railed against the move, and the reburial became a TV spectacle, described by some as a free advertisement for Vox.

Predictably, Abascal also railed against immigrants and called for “securing the border”—a stock line for a politician who at a campaign event once read a list of people with Arabic-sounding surnames receiving social aid, implying that they were not Spaniards. All this in a country that until less than a year ago had been labeled as an exception in Europe for resisting the wave of the far-right. Spain is an exception no more. Indeed, far-right leaders from all over Europe rushed to congratulate Vox.

In the end, Sánchez’s gamble failed. The Socialists and Podemos both lost a handful of seats. Together with the small and new left-wing party Más País (“More Country”), they won 158 seats, while the three right-wing parties gained three, adding up to 151 seats. In the grand scheme of things, the right-left balance didn’t change much, but a center-right party was essentially supplanted by the far-right. The right is still short of a majority, and the left will need the support of at least one pro-independence Catalan party to govern.

On Monday, Socialist officials were unapologetic. One described Podemos and Ciudadanos as the losers of the election, even though the Socialists had lost more voters. Another argued with a journalist at a press conference, claiming to have stopped the far-right “because they didn’t get the majority.” Some were already talking about a possible third election.

But on Tuesday, news broke that Sánchez and Iglesias had met in secret to finalize a coalition deal. Minutes later, the draft of their agreement was published, and it was revealed that Iglesias would also be a deputy prime minister. They then held a joint press conference, announcing their agreement on forming a historic coalition government. This will be Spain’s first coalition government since Franco died, and the first time after the 1930s Spanish Republic that the radical-left will serve in the government.

Sánchez and Iglesias still need yes votes or abstentions from some pro-independence parties, and reports in the Spanish press suggest that Podemos is trying to bridge the surmountable gap between these parties and the Socialists.

The far-right threat is likely to make Sánchez’s job easier. Indeed, the coalition that could not come to exist for months was agreed on in less than 48 hours this time around. The far-right’s surge did what Socialist grassroots organizers’ chants had not been able to accomplish. With 52 far-right members of parliament, both Spanish left parties had decided it was time to heed Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau’s colorful warning: “Either the left makes a broad front or we will go to shit.”

Sohail Jannessari is a doctoral candidate in political science at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University and a contributor to BBC Persian TV and other Persian-language media. Twitter: @SoJannessari

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