The Left May Finally Govern in Spain

The Left May Finally Govern in Spain

A surge in support for the far-right Vox party induced the feuding left parties to unite—but the stalemate over Catalan separatism could torpedo their coalition.


Oohs and aahs filled the room. Some onlookers even whistled. Pedro Sánchez and Pablo Iglesias’s bear hug at the Palacio de las Cortes on November 12 sealed the progressive coalition deal they had just signed, less than 48 hours after Spain’s second parliamentary elections in seven months. All the resentment, intransigence, and bad faith that had built up over six months of fruitless negotiations over the summer and into the fall appeared to have dissolved in just two days. Their deal stunned many on the Spanish right, while most on the left breathed a sigh of relief.

But the deal was unexpected even on the left. Just eight days earlier, in a debate leading up to the election, Sánchez, the leader of the social democratic Socialist Party (PSOE) and Spain’s acting prime minister, had repeatedly rejected overtures from Iglesias, the leader of Unidas Podemos, the young anti-austerity party that was born after the 2011 indignados movement at the height of Spain’s economic crisis and that is ideologically to the left of the PSOE.

“You and I shouldn’t have to cower before this aggressive, ignorant right,” Iglesias told Sánchez, pointing to the three other participants. He urged Sánchez to resist the siren call of centrism—either acquiescing to particular right-wing demands in order to form a minority government or striking a deal for a grand coalition of the center-left and center-right. But Sánchez not only gave Iglesias the cold shoulder; he also tried to smear him by suggesting that Unidas Podemos had helped Catalan independence leaders flee justice. Weeks earlier, Sánchez had said in a television interview that having Iglesias in government would give him “sleepless nights.” That lack of trust, Sánchez said earlier this fall, was the reason why, following the April elections, he had failed to deliver on his campaign promise: a progressive coalition between his party and Podemos that would block the far right, strengthen workers’ rights, pursue fiscal justice, improve education and health care, and fight climate change.

The grins from Sánchez and Iglesias at their post-election press conference belie the fact that neither of their parties came out of the November elections unscathed. Compared to the April elections, Sánchez’s PSOE lost three seats; Iglesias’s Podemos lost seven. And, just as in April, the coalition arithmetic falls far short of the 176 seats needed for a majority. Yet the agreement might prevent a further hemorrhaging of votes on the left. Podemos’s support has shrunk for the third national election in a row, since entering Parliament in 2015 with a stunning 71 seats. That’s partly because of a major split in the party: Podemos cofounder Íñigo Errejón led a breakaway party for the November elections, which elected only three representatives. Another reason is voter fatigue: Spain has now had four general elections in as many years, and Iglesias, who has become a polarizing figure, has been unable to recapture his initial popularity. But for now, barring a grand coalition between the PSOE and PP—widely favored by the business community but now very unlikely—the Spanish right can look forward to four years in the opposition.

The big news from the November 10 elections was the near-total collapse of the neoliberal party Ciudadanos (Citizens), which lost 47 of its 57 seats, and the surge of the far-right Vox, a rabid Spanish nationalist party that rails against immigrants, feminists, the Catalan independence movement, and “the dictatorship of leftist morality.” In many respects, Vox and Ciudadanos were competing for the same constituency. Ciudadanos, which came into being as a party opposing Catalan nationalism, fully embraced the dyed-in-the-wool Spanish nationalism that has come to define Vox. Vox, for its part, campaigned on a series of economic policies that read as a handbook for neoliberalism. The result: Vox received disproportionately high support in the richest neighborhoods of Spain.

After entering Parliament for the first time this past April, with 24 deputies, Vox has now more than doubled that number, to 52, drawing close to 3.6 million voters, or about 15 percent. Its support ballooned thanks, in part, to the controversial exhumation of former dictator Francisco Franco, on October 24, and to the widespread outbreak of protests in Catalonia following the harsh prison sentences issued by Spain’s Supreme Court in early October to nine politicians and activists for their involvement in the 2017 referendum for independence. Vox has successfully tapped into millions of Spaniards’ anxiety over national unity, pride, and prestige. The party’s support is strongest in those areas where the population strongly identifies as Spanish, the political scientist Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca found, and weakest where alternative identities are available, such as in Catalonia and the Basque Country. To its base, which includes Spain’s neo-fascist fringe, Vox has successfully framed the exhumation of Franco as both unnecessary for the country and offensive to those who cherish his legacy.

Unlike the far right elsewhere in Europe, however, Vox has not made significant inroads into working-class constituencies that had previously voted for the left. The other major party on the Spanish right, the conservative Partido Popular (PP), shored up its support and retained its status as the second-largest party in Spain. Part of that support came from voters who, it appears, had lost confidence in Ciudadanos’s ability to govern. Following November’s massive electoral blow, party leader Albert Rivera stepped down.

The sudden surge of Vox recalls the US media’s compromised relationship with Trump. “The media have had a decisive role in Vox’s ascent,” Magda Bandera, editor of La Marea, told us, pointing to the public media but especially the commercial networks. “In their thirst for spectacle and audience ratings, they’ve helped whitewash Vox and provided an echo chamber for its controversial ideas about hot-button issues like gender violence.” In fact, Vox’s demonization of Catalan pro-independence parties allowed it to appear mainstream and “constitutionalist,” while its political program, which includes abolishing Spain’s quasi-federalist system of autonomous regions, proposes a frontal dismantling of large swaths of the Constitution. Two days before the elections, more than 2,500 scholars signed a manifesto denouncing Vox’s manipulation of social-scientific data. “From the first minute, the media have allowed a party that questions human rights to be acceptable in our democracy without holding it to account,” journalist Miquel Ramos told us. “The media have failed to point out what Vox really is: a spinoff from the right wing of the PP, conceived by PP hawks in an attempt to push the political center to the right,” he said. “And this plan has worked.”

Vox aside, many agree that it was reckless to allow this summer’s negotiations to fail, triggering a repeat election. “In a country where 40 percent of the population believes that its political system is one of the main problems,” Enric Juliana, a journalist for La Vanguardia, wrote, chastising Sánchez, “it doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that repeating elections can lead to ‘accidents.’” At the same time, he continued, Vox’s victory doesn’t mean that “there are 3.6 million fascists in Spain”; rather, “more than 3 million Spaniards have been drawn into the identitarian fold provided by right-wing authoritarianism”—a phenomenon that is not new to Spain. If the far right wasn’t visible before, he underscored, it was because it “hid from sight under the skirts of the PP.” What encouraged Vox and other extremists to show their faces now, he noted, was not only the Catalan crisis but also the success of foreign leaders such as Trump.

With the far right on the rise and the left losing votes, Sánchez and Iglesias might have seen this as their last chance to produce a stable governing coalition. Their November 12 coalition agreement—barely two pages long—lists 10 policy points that include job creation, anti-corruption measures, climate change, women’s rights, fiscal policy, and the need to “normalize political life” in Catalonia through “dialogue,” albeit “within the Constitution.” If Sánchez and Iglesias manage to gather enough support, a new progressive government—the first such coalition since the 1930s—could be in place by Christmas.

The explicit mention of Spain’s territorial challenge is a clear nod to nationalist parties in Galicia, the Basque Country, and Catalonia, with whom the PSOE and Podemos will have to negotiate in order to form a progressive government and maintain a stable majority to pass legislation. Chief among these is the pro-independence Catalan Left Republicans (ERC), whose 13 deputies will hold the keys to the formation of a new government in December. The ERC stands to gain a lot from a deal, Guillem Martínez, a Catalan journalist who writes for the magazine Contexto, told us. It may take advantage of the opportunity to distance itself from its alliance with the pro-independence Catalan center-right of current president Quim Torra and former president Carles Puigdemont, now exiled in Belgium.

After all, the allegiance between ERC and Puigdemont’s party, Together for Catalonia (Junts per Catalunya, an incarnation of the region’s main conservative party, Convergència), was one of momentary convenience. Historically, they have been on opposite sides of the aisle, struggling for power in the Catalan regional government, where elections are expected for next spring. Puigdemont’s party, which has been plagued with corruption scandals and jumped on the independence bandwagon only in 2012, is “fully focused on retaining control of the Catalan government” at all costs, Martínez said. “Their goal is to prevent the Left Republicans from winning the next Catalan elections.” If they cut loose from their right-wing bedfellows, the Left Republicans would be free to join a game-changing progressive Catalan alliance with the regional branches of Podemos and the PSOE.

Still, Martínez and others remain skeptical about the possibility of real progress in the stalemate around Catalonia. Given the political and practical difficulty of changing the Constitution—which requires large majorities in both the Parliament and the Senate—Sánchez and Iglesias will not go beyond adopting “a new tone,” he predicts, in an attempt to calm tensions. Recently, the advocate general at the European Court of Justice has said that Oriol Junqueras, the ERC leader who was sentenced to 13 years in jail, has the right to immunity as a member of the European Parliament. Such pressure from Europe may expedite this change of tone, which may “include a pardon or a fast track to probation for the nine Catalan leaders in prison,” Martínez told us. It could also include “staging some form of dialogue, but not one that will lead to actual constitutional reform,” such as allowing Catalonia a binding vote on independence—like the 2014 Scottish referendum—or moving Spain toward a stronger form of federalism, as in the United States.

Since the coalition agreement was made public, Sánchez has been busy negotiating with these regional parties and other smaller parties. For now, the Left Republicans are playing hard to get. Among their demands is a dialogue of the kind that Sánchez agreed to—controversially—with Catalan President Torra in December of last year. Then, both parties agreed on the “existence” of a Catalan conflict that could be solved only through an “effective dialogue” leading to a political solution “with broad support” among the Catalan citizenry. Good intentions, however, quickly gave way to political and judicial developments.

But memories of a different Sánchez are fresh in the minds of many pro-independence parties. During the campaign, Sánchez and the three right-wing parties all demonized these regional parties as “terrorists” and enemies of the state. Sánchez himself momentarily forgot about the separation of powers when, in a live debate, he promised to “go get” the exiled ex-president of Catalonia in Belgium and make sure he faces trial in Spain. Sánchez and the three right-wing parties made a point of ignoring the political nature of the Catalan conflict, reducing it instead to a question of law, public order, or a dispute among Catalans, not a conflict between Catalonia and the rest of Spain. Despite this demonizing tactic—or perhaps because of it—pro-independence regional parties managed to slightly increase their vote share. Tellingly, the three right-wing parties combined won a single deputy in the Basque Country, where sympathy for the Catalan independence movement is widespread. In Catalonia they drew about 20 percent combined, less than half of their share in the rest of Spain. And in Galicia, neither Vox nor Ciudadanos won enough votes to elect any deputies. For Sánchez, this negotiation is a reality check. Within a day of the November vote, he had already changed his tune, referring to the Catalan issue as a “political crisis.”

The PSOE’s position is further weakened, in the public eye if not in the ongoing negotiations, following a court ruling on November 19 that found 19 PSOE officials in Andalusia, including two former regional governors, guilty of corruption or corruption-related crimes. The so-called ERE case found that public money had been diverted illicitly from an unemployment fund, mostly to people with ties to the regional branch of the PSOE in Andalusia, where, until December, it had ruled for 36 years. The right has called for “accountability” not unlike that which swept Sánchez into power in 2018 following a no-confidence vote of the PP’s then–Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose party and party leaders had been found guilty of an elaborate scheme of kickbacks dating back decades. Sánchez, for his part, has underscored the regional and individual nature of the ruling, and that it concerns officials who are no longer in power (unlike the PP’s corruption scandal, this one does not implicate the PSOE as a party).

If this corruption scandal does not significantly affect the negotiations for a new government, economic developments in Europe might. Anticipating a possible recession in the eurozone, on November 20 Brussels indicated that Spain will have to implement structural reforms to the tune of 0.8 percent of GDP, or more than $10 billion. A future PSOE-Podemos government would thus have a limited margin for the kind of social spending many were hoping would result from such a coalition. Some think the Spanish left is digging its own grave.

“This coalition is a prelude to disaster,” the political scientist Albert Noguera wrote in the online newspaper For one, he wrote, the electoral math in Spain combined with the austerity-happy guidelines from the EU means that “any structural change” is off the table. Worse, if there actually is a recession in 2020, he says it will leave the left “buried,” thereby “clearing the way for the far right to harvest all social discontent.” Meanwhile, the fact that Vox has broken through the 50-deputy barrier in the Spanish Parliament means it can file appeals to the Constitutional Court. Such power in the hands of the far right will not only slow down any progressive reforms but also continue a nefarious trend of passing along political problems to the courts to resolve.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that three right-wing parties (PP, Ciudadanos, and Vox) did not win a single seat in the Basque Country. Although these were the results as reported on the day after the election, two days later the Electoral Board announced that after correcting the vote count and adding the foreign vote, the PP had won one seat.

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