A Spectacular election approaches in Spain

A Spectacular election approaches in Spain

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 18, February, 2019

AFTER THE RESTORATION of democracy in 1977, the first thirty years of competitive politics in Spain was a two-horse race. The Spanish Socialist Workers party (PSOE) under the moderate Felipe Gonzales and the centre-right Popular Party (PP) vied for supremacy. The prize was the large administrative state that had resulted from the decentralisation process begun within a short time of the dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975.

The left had the upper hand until key economic misjudgements made before the start of the 2008 Eurozone crisis tipped the country into a sharp recession. The PP then ruled for eight years until last summer. By then, three new parties had emerged which today receive around 35 per cent of the vote in the polls. This means a viable government can only be formed through intricate coalition building.

The first was Podemos, a far-left party that originally reached out to youth in the cities, over 30 per cent of whom are unemployed. The party’s vote rose to 21 per cent in 2015 but has fallen back substantially. Its close ties with the notorious Venezuelan regime (a source of party finance) are an embarrassment. A split has also occurred with one of the two founders, Inigo Errejon, renouncing the party’s hard-line ideology

Youth Unemployment Rate in Spain decreased to 32.70 per cent in December from 34.10 per cent in November of 2018. Youth Unemployment Rate in Spain averaged 34.70 per cent from 1986 until 2018, reaching an all time high of 55.90 per cent in February of 2013 and a record low of 17.20 per cent in February of 2007.

The second fresh challenger Ciudadanos (Citizens) had a slower rise. It is an economically liberal and pro-EU party. Historically, Spanish liberalism has been weak. The party’s real breakthrough only occurred recently. Founded by Catalans with a Spanish outlook, its strong stand against secessionism was the making of it. Albert Rivera, its leader, endorsed the crackdown by Madrid, followed by a temporary suspension of the autonomous government in 2017-18.

Ciudadanos benefits from exasperation and anger in much of the rest of Spain with Catalan separatism, a largely middle-class and small-town affair dominated by academics, journalists and NGOs. Two months ago, in a major upset, the party helped drive the Socialists from power in Andalucia that had been their unbroken fiefdom for 37 years.

But what focused world attention on the politics of southern Spain was the dramatic and unexpected revival of conservative Spanish nationalism. The Iberian Peninsula used to be the only part of the European continent where the populist right lacked an electoral foothold. That was until Vox erupted on the scene.

Vox was only founded in 2014, mainly as a reaction to secessionism. The ruling PP under Premier Mariano Rajoy was felt to have mishandled the Catalan challenge. But until Vox won 13 per cent of the vote in Andalucia it was not seen as a potential king-maker in Spanish politics.

The profile of Santiago Abascal, Vox’s stern but politically shrewd leader was boosted by the Andalucian result and it is polling 10 per cent nationwide. Ex-PP supporters and former abstentionists seem to comprise its core support. The new centre-right coalition in Andalucia is only possible because of Vox’s backing.

Vox’s appeal also grew due to its strenuous opposition to Premier Pedro Sanchez’s policy of allowing boats carrying African migrants to disembark in Spain, a policy quickly rescinded.

Sanchez led a minority government with less than one-quarter of the seats in parliament. It finally ran out of road last week when his budget was voted down by Catalan nationalists. This came after pressure from within his own party led Sanchez to abandon dialogue on Catalonia’s self-determination, a right that Spain’s constitution doesn’t allow.

Sanchez is a wily character prepared to be ruthless and unconventional in order to acquire and retain power. He sought to repair the left’s sagging fortunes by being radical on identity issues, especially women’s rights. Most of his cabinet are women but among working-class and rural voters the party’s fashionable urban image is provoking desertions. Sanchez will not go down without a fight and, in a challenge to the party’s barons he has decided to select the candidates for PSOe, naturally imposing his own loyalists.

Just before the election announcement, he ordered that General Franco’s remains be exhumed from their resting place at the Monument for the Fallen outside Madrid. Unless his descendants can stop him through the courts this is likely to happen in a piece of macabre theatre midway through the electoral campaign. Whether Sanchez gets an electoral boost is probably only likely if Spanish conservatives decide to mobilise against the decision.

Most Spaniards have no wish to see the revival of animosities from the 1936-39 civil war era. Until now Vox has not traded on nostalgia for the Francoist era. Instead it has taken a bold stance on contemporary issues. It has espoused men’s issues that it argues have been trampled upon by the law privileging the perspective of middle-class feminists. It is also demanding a shake up in the electronic media: during the Catalan crisis sympathies for the rebels were often barely disguised on some of the major channels.

The party is economically liberal (which makes it unusual for a right-wing populist force) while being firmly socially conservative. It’s leader’s acid attacks on the beneficiaries of multi-cultural policies means that a vivid new front in the culture wars is likely to be opened up in this election. Since it coincides with the trial for rebellion of 12 Catalan leaders in the Supreme Court, a memorable struggle lies in wait.

Sanchez will hope to use the fate of the remains of the dead dictator to strengthen the appeal of his party on the far-left and among nationalists, keeping alive the chance of a left-nationalist coalition. The centre and the right are ahead of them in the opinion polls, however, it remains to be seen if a viable governing formula involving the PP and two new parties can emerge. Spain has had three general elections in the past four years and a period of settled government is badly needed to deal with a backlog of economic and social problems. Whether the election on 28 April produces the numbers for such a government, the scene is set for a colourful election duel.

Tom Gallagher has written 14 books on European politics and contemporary history. His latest, a biography of the Portuguese autocrat António Salazar will be published next year. His twitter account is @cultfree54

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