In a Polarized Spain, Voters Give the Socialists Another Chance

In a Polarized Spain, Voters Give the Socialists Another Chance

In a Polarized Spain, Voters Give the Socialists Another Chance

They could form a government with Podemos—but the emergence of a strong far right has significantly shifted the political debate.


Hunched over the podium with her head in her hands, Irene Montero found herself in disbelief. Montero, the leading congressional candidate for Unidas Podemos, was participating in the first of several national debates in the run-up to Spain’s snap general elections, which took place on Sunday. She had just witnessed Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, a Spanish aristocrat and leading congressional candidate for the conservative Partido Popular (PP), pull out all the stops to criticize a law on gender violence and affirmative consent proposed by the Spanish left. The law, Álvarez said, “turned the cause for women into a confrontation between women and men.” She added, “Do you really go around saying, ‘yes, yes, yes’ all the way through till the end?”

Montero shot back moments later. “If the right wins, we know what they’ll say. When you’re raped, a woman like Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo will come and tell you, ‘Hey, it’s not that bad, I don’t say ‘yes’ every time, either.’” Montero’s frustration with the right’s inability to understand the reality of gender violence struck a chord with many Spaniards.

The image of Montero holding her head in frustration immediately became both a meme and a symbol of Spaniards’ exhaustion with the PP, which in this campaign made a hard-right turn in order to compete for votes with the emerging far-right extremist party Vox. On Friday, the competition morphed into courtship when Pablo Casado, the PP’s candidate for prime minister, opened the door to forming a coalition government with Vox and giving it significant power. He said, “They are going to have whatever influence they want in order to form a government.”

Casado’s tactics backfired. On Sunday, Spanish voters issued a sound rejection of the PP and its pandering to the far right. The PP lost more than half of its congressional representation, plummeting from 137 to 66 deputies in the 350-seat Spanish Parliament. The result was the worst in its history. Many right-wing voters, it turned out, preferred their extremism in unadulterated form and switched to Vox, the anti-immigrant Spanish nationalist party led by Santiago Abascal, a former Basque parliamentarian for the PP.

Vox, which had no representative in the Spanish Parliament, now has 24 deputies, after having won 10 percent of the vote, a result comparable to that of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland in Germany’s 2017 elections. “It’s a tremendous defeat for our social coexistence that an anti-democratic party like Vox has received more than 2 million votes,” Antonio Maestre, a journalist for the magazine La Marea and the television network La Sexta, told us. Still, he said, “it’s reasonable to celebrate that they won’t be able to impose their hate speech in government.” The takeaway: Despite what some polls predicted—and many on the left feared—Spain’s three main right-wing parties fell far short of a parliamentary majority.

The story of Sunday’s elections is instead the revival of the center-left Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE). High voter turnout fueled the party’s climb from 85 to 123 deputies in Parliament. Now, the ball is in the court of Pedro Sánchez, the incumbent PM and Socialist Party leader, who may form the first coalition government in Spain. He faces several options. Last night, two scenarios seemed likely: a coalition with Unidas Podemos and the support of nationalist parties in the Basque Country and Catalonia, or a coalition government with the surging center-right Ciudadanos. But today, after Ciudadanos ruled out the idea of a coalition government, PSOE has signaled that it might go into government alone, without a parliamentary majority, meaning it would have to walk on eggshells to reach its policy goals.

Regardless, the elections have been a thorough shakeup. “In the runaway train that the world is today, Spain has pulled the emergency brake twice,” the novelist Isaac Rosa tweeted on Sunday, recalling the 2011 indignados movement and the recent mass mobilizations on International Women’s Day. “Today,” he predicted, “will be the third time. Tomorrow’s international papers will say: Spain Stops Radical Right in Its Tracks.” “Although there haven’t been any big surprises when compared to the polls,” Sílvia Claveria, a political scientist at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, wrote in the aftermath of the election, “the composition of Parliament has taken a 180-degree turn.”

Sánchez was an unusual incumbent. He became prime minister last June after a vote of no confidence ousted Mariano Rajoy, the former PP leader, whose party was embroiled in a massive corruption scandal. This was the first time this had happened in Spain’s short democratic history. Since then, Sánchez has led a minority government that has been all but paralyzed in its ability to pass laws except by executive order. In February, after failing to win majority support for his budget, Sánchez called these elections in the hopes of strengthening his grip on Parliament.

Sánchez’s few legislative accomplishments during his ten-month stint as prime minister, which included a 22 percent minimum-wage hike, mostly happened thanks to the support of Unidas Podemos, the parliamentary alliance of Podemos and the United Left. “I want to be clear and express my gratitude,” Sánchez said, unprompted, in the middle of a debate last week. “Unidas Podemos and Mr. Iglesias have supported [these laws] and I want to thank them publicly.”

Unidas Podemos, which had made a strong entry into Parliament in 2015, with 71 deputies, lost 29 of them in this election. The past two years have seen Podemos torn apart by internal conflicts, often fought out in embarrassing public detail. In recent months, its poll numbers dropped from 20 to as low as 12 percent. Yet the party seemed poised for a recovery, helped by the revelation shortly before the election of a Watergate-like scandal involving high-ranking PP officials, the police, and the conservative media, who spread fake news targeting politicians from Podemos and the Catalan independence parties. Following Sunday’s relatively disappointing result, the saving grace for Podemos is its potential role as a coalition partner for the Socialists.

Ciudadanos (Citizens), led by Albert Rivera, was perhaps the biggest winner on the right on Sunday. It claimed some 57 deputies, up from 32 three years ago. The increase has much to do with the PP’s fall, which might be best summed up in the decision of Ángel Garrido, the former governor of the autonomous community of Madrid, to surprisingly switch from the PP to Ciudadanos just four days before the election. A centrist coalition comprising PSOE and Ciudadanos, which despite the rhetoric is still possible but now more unlikely, would undoubtedly satisfy the Ibex 35, the corporations that make up Spain’s benchmark stock-market index. But it wouldn’t satisfy many PSOE voters. On Sunday night, Socialist supporters gathered at the party’s headquarters following the election and broke into the chant “Not with Rivera! Not with Rivera!” The leader of Ciudadanos—who, like the PP, took a hard-right turn in the run-up to Sunday’s polling—had spent the campaign lambasting Sánchez for being supported by “golpistas” (coup leaders), his epithet for the Catalan nationalist parties that supported last summer’s no-confidence vote. “Rivera insults Sánchez every chance he gets,” Pedro Vallín, a journalist at La Vanguardia, told us.

If the PSOE decides that a minority government by themselves is too risky, Sánchez may decide to form a government not only with Unidas Podemos but also with the Catalan Left Republicans (ERC), who came in strong with a record 15 seats and whose leader, Oriol Junqueras, has been in preventive custody for over a year and is currently on trial at the Supreme Court for his role in the 2017 Catalan referendum. Such a coalition would surpass the threshold for an absolute majority; it would also push the Socialists to the left on economics and to a more conciliatory position on Catalan regional autonomy. “The result,” Noelia Adánez, a writer and radio commentator, told us, “expresses the electorate’s desire for a negotiated agreement over the Catalan question…rather than the unconditional application of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution.” Following the 2017 referendum, former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy used that article to revoke Catalonia’s regional autonomy and control the region from Madrid. Still, the last time the PSOE and ERC formed a coalition government was in 1936, on the precipice of the Spanish Civil War. Given the current sensitivity over the Catalan question, it’s unlikely the Popular Front politics of the 1930s will return anytime soon.

Despite the complicated road ahead, many on the left breathed a sigh of relief on Sunday when the final results came in. Their greatest fear was the return of a kind of reactionary politics that the country hasn’t seen since the death, in 1975, of fascist dictator Francisco Franco. A right-wing government formed by the PP, Ciudadanos, and Vox would have been poised to walk back decades’ worth of progressive gains on everything from labor law to protections for women and the LGBTQ community, animal rights, and cultural diversity—including immigration policy and the regional self-government enshrined in the 1978 Constitution. And the battle isn’t over yet. Like elsewhere in Europe, the emergence of a strong far-right in Spain has shifted the political debate significantly rightward, with a resurgence of the militant defense against perceived threats to national identity and the promise of a return to national glory.

 For now, however, the rise of Vox has served to fragment the conservative vote and cripple the right’s foothold in regions that don’t identify with Spanish nationalism. “With their nationalist turn, the three right-wing parties have erased any opportunity of being even minimally relevant in Catalonia and the Basque Country,” Vallín, at La Vanguardia, told us. The PP has all but disappeared in both regions, while Ciudadanos had a lackluster performance in Catalonia and remains unrepresented in the Basque Country. This is no surprise, given their jingoistic campaigns. The three parties on the right have spent months trying to outdo one another in calling for measures against “the enemies of Spain” who, they claimed, seek the country’s “destruction.”

Vox, which prides itself on its lack of “hang-ups” in its macho crusade against political correctness, expanded the list of “enemies of the fatherland” to include immigrants, feminists, animal-rights activists, left urban elites, and anyone who dares to doubt the greatness of Spain and its glorious history. The party claims to defend men against “feminazis” and the dangers of “gender ideology.” It celebrates hunting, bullfights, and—unprecedented for Spain—gun ownership. It also opposes gay marriage, which has been legal in Spain since 2005; wants to outlaw abortion, even in cases of rape; and calls for a return to strong centralist rule from Madrid. But if Vox’s culture war smacks of medievalism, its economic policy drinks from the neoliberal mainstream: lowering corporate tax rates and scrapping the inheritance tax and estate tax. “It would be a mystery if in the future they managed to consolidate themselves,” Vallín told us, “since they lack the protectionist focus on the working class of the rest of the European far-right.”

Sunday’s election results confirmed that Spain is more divided today than it has been in a long time. “Although we have moved from a two-party to a multi-party system, it turns out those parties still coalesce into two ideological blocs,” Adánez, the writer, told us. “We’ve been telling ourselves for 40 years that Spain is a centrist country. Well, it’s not. In fact, we’re deeply polarized.” While Vox has been filling stadiums with flag-waving Spanish nationalists, the left has mobilized around women’s rights and gender violence. For the past two years the country has seen massive marches on March 8, International Women’s Day. In Spain, it appears polarization has yielded mobilization. Adánez and many others felt heartened by the high voter turnout, which surpassed 75 percent, up nine points from 2016. “It’s good to see the electorate mobilized,” she told us, “especially because the quality of our political institutions has been under question of late.”

If Spain’s electorate has proven its ability to mobilize, it’s now up to the country’s political leadership to prove it is worthy of their voters’ trust. “The time of absolute majorities is over,” Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias said during the campaign. “From now on, we’ll have to govern in coalitions. The voters want us to sit down with each other and be able to come to agreements.” At a press conference following the election, Iglesias called for patience. “From here on out, we’ll have to work a lot, discreetly; have many meetings; and try to come up with a program for a progressive governing coalition.”

Whatever the end result of the negotiations, they will likely last beyond May 26, when Spain once again heads to the polls for city, regional, and European elections. At stake there, among other things, are the city halls of Madrid and Barcelona, where, respectively, progressive mayors Manuela Carmena and Ada Colau have been governing, with varying success, for four years. And if the PP’s collapse continues, the country can expect further administrative shake-ups at all levels.

Meanwhile, the new national government will have its work cut out. Spain faces major challenges in areas like education, health care, and the pension system. And the country is still reeling from the Great Recession. Although the unemployment rate has fallen from a peak of nearly 27 percent in 2013 to 14.7 percent today, those numbers are deceptive thanks to so-called “Kleenex contracts”—monthly, weekly, or even daily work contracts. In 2018, some 6 million contracts, or 26.6 percent of all those signed, lasted one week or less. The rise in support for the radical right in rural areas has also put a spotlight on the devastating results of decades of uneven development. Finally, Spain remains deeply divided over its territorial make-up, including the status of Catalonia—a problem that the polarizing election campaigns have only exacerbated. The solution, most analysts agree, will require dialogue and, eventually, changes to Spain’s Constitution. The good news is that Sunday’s election has also yielded a major reshuffle in Spain’s Senate, where the PP’s absolute majority has melted away overnight. For the first time, parties for whom constitutional reform is not anathema hold the two-thirds required for change.

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