“The Spanish don’t have a far right,” declared one of my Professors in late November last year. A British guy teaching International Relations to exchange students (including me ) in Madrid, my professor Jack was right at the time, the far right movements which had been springing up across Europe recently had until that point been notably absent in Spain.
A week later; however, with the 2018 regional Andalusian election (that’s a big chunk of the South of Spain), Jack was proven wrong. Vox, a party generally considered Spain’s answer to the ‘ultraderecha’ or far-right, which had until that point never had any success in a Spanish election, federal or regional, won 12 of the 109 seats on offer. Now, with a Spanish federal election slotted for the end of this month, Vox is hoping to continue this new wave of support at the national level, and solidify its place on the Spanish political landscape.
But if only the April 28 election was that simple. Ultimately, Spanish politics is shaping up to be arguably one of the messiest in the Western world (yes potentially even worse than Australia and Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison… Shorten?).
The Situation in Catalonia
You might remember this issue from stories about the controversial referendum in late 2017, but its recent absence from international headlines does not mean that it has gone away. A significant (but, based on polling, not majority) group of the Catalonian region to Spain’s North West still want to be independent. The referendum in 2017 was boycotted by those who oppose independence, who called it illegal and unconstitutional, and as a result the result was skewed heavily in favour of an independent Catalonia. The problem continues to be that the federal government, governed by Madrid-based major parties, maintains that any referendum for independence must have the approval of all provinces of the country, something which is, of course, near impossible.
But it doesn’t end there, the snap regional election in Catalonia at the end of 2017 was won by a coalition of separatist parties who currently constitute the government. There is also the issue of political prisoners, with 7 former leaders in exile and 9 in custody within Spain because of their involvement in the independence referendum. It is not just Catalonia either, nationalist parties from the Basque region (a small pocket to the north with a distinctive language) and the Canary Islands (Spanish territory off the coast of North West Africa) are also polling with support anywhere up to 3% of the national vote.
Why Does this Matter for the Election?
Basically, Pedro Sánchez, the incumbent Prime Minister who leads the Spanish Socialist Workers, Spain’s major centre-left party, (known as the PSOE due to its Spanish name), has never commanded a majority in the Spanish Lower House. He was not initially elected PM (sound familiar?) but took government from the major right-wing party, known as the PP (People’s Party), about a year ago in a vote of no confidence. To do this he relied on the support of a far-left socialist party known as Podemos (literally: ‘We can’) and, importantly, regional nationalist parties, including from Catalonia, who supported him because he initially promised to hold more open dialogues about the demands of Catalan secessionists. Now, a year later, he has disappointed his secessionist partners, refusing to budge on the issue, and they’ve gone ahead and withdrawn their support for him, forcing him to call an election about a year earlier than he would have had to.
The End of a 2-Party System
It’s not just nationalist parties which have found support in recent years, since the 2015 general election a tonne of other smaller parties have sprung up. While Spain was once a two-party system, with the PSOE and PP (the People’s Party) as the two major parties of the left and right respectively, they now only poll at between 20 and 30% of the vote each. Spain has transitioned to a system of multiple parties, one where it is almost certain no party will win the vote outright, and a necessary process of negotiation, compromise and coalition is taking hold.
On the left, Podemos is a self-branded socialist force that Pedro Sánchez and the PSOE counts as its closest ally. Their platform of social reform, basic income for all, environmental concern and renegotiation of trade agreements to become more protectionist are reminiscent of worldwide discussions occurring within the left in 2019 (think Bernie Sanders but Spanish). Currently, a PSOE-Podemos coalition with Sánchez at the helm looks to be a likely result, although many have criticised Sánchez/the PSOE for shifting too far to the left to meet Podemos.
There are also new forces contending with the PP for space on the right. The most notable is Ciudadanos (literally ‘Citizens’), a party that has its roots in Catalonia, opposing separatist movements, but has now gained popularity in its policies of social and economic liberalism (i.e. they want to legalise pot and simultaneously cut corporation tax). While Ciudadanos may sit in the centre-right, they have ruled out any prospect of coalition with the PSOE after the vote, and so their only hope of governing is in an alliance with the PP. And then there is the far-right Vox, who look set to make a dent for the first time in the national politics of Spain, and may be relied on to form a right-wing coalition should the PP and Ciudadanos gain a significant part of the vote, but not enough to form a majority together.
Present Party Polling
|Party||Rough polling atm|
|PSOE (major centre-left party)||25 to 30%|
|PP (major centre-right party)||17 to 23%|
|Podemos (left-wing, socialist)||11 to 15%|
|Ciudadanos (centre-left, liberalism)||13 to 18%|
|Vox (far-right, nationalist)||10 to 14%|
|Various separatist regional parties||6 or 7%|
What Does it Mean?
Ultimately, at the moment, things are looking good for Pedro Sánchez. Although his only real hope is to rely on the support of Podemos in forming a left-wing coalition now that his separatist friends have grown tired of him, the PSOE is still well ahead of the PP in most polls, and a Podemos-PSOE coalition the Spanish public’s preferred option when compared to PP-Ciudadanos and PP-Ciudadanos-Vox options. Sánchez has positioned himself as a sure alternative to the rise of the far-right, knowing that centre-right forces are unable to rule out siding with Vox, and making concessions to them, for fear of political fallout later on when they are forced to.
But the rise of Vox is significant, and, in a country which only returned to democracy in the 1970s from decades of authoritarian dictatorship, a big shift back towards favour for the right. Many analysts (the ones my professor Jack had my class read) have claimed Spanish citizens oppose far-right policies because of lived experiences with them in the past; the dictatorship of Franco was wide reaching and oppressive. While this may have held true for generations, it is possible the country,
which has now had democracy for over forty years, has finally forgotten this history just enough to give the far-right another try.
During my time here in Spain, I have personally been shocked at how national politics has translated into the views of my Spanish peers, in a very different way to back home. I’ve seen professors and other students become extremely animated and, seemingly, irrationally outraged at the slightest mention of Catalonians seeking independence. They yell and scream at each other, refusing to take in another viewpoint or entertain the idea that the people might have the right to a say. I’ve heard students talk of the horrors and pitfalls of the left-wing government, and indeed, celebrate the results of the Andalusian elections when Vox finally had success. The rise of alternative parties and division, both on the left and the right, in the political system, I feel, is reflective of a country tired of a path laid out for it in the 1970s. Young people seem to side with parties like Vox much more than young Australians side with One Nation and I don’t think this is a passing trend – Podemos, Vox, Ciudadanos and a general current of discontent is here to stay in Spain, but what that means for the country is yet to be seen.
Words by Luke Barber