Deep fractures appear in Spain after Sunday’s election

Deep fractures appear in Spain after Sunday’s election

by Tom Gallagher
article from Tuesday 30, April, 2019

JEREMY CORBYN OFFERED his ‘felicidades’ to Pedro Sanchez, the leaders of the Spanish Socialist workers Party (PSOE) after it was confirmed as the largest party in Sunday’s general election. But he has 14 fewer seats than his main rival on the right, the Popular Party had, until last week. In order to rule he will need to find coalition partners. The modern architect of his party, Felipe Gonzalez would have probably had no difficulty in reaching out to the liberal Ciudadanos (Citizens) party whose 57 seats would have given him a governing majority. But its leader Albert Rivera seeks to be the champion of moderate Spaniards in regular employment who are unhappy at making any more concessions to separatists.

Sanchez is a flamboyant, risk-taking politician who seems comfortable in the company of Pim Torra, the firebrand in charge of Catalonia’s regional government. It seems far likelier that he will seek the backing not just of the far-left Podemos party but of assorted nationalists and separatists in order to secure his majority. His separatist allies brought down his budget in February, precipitating the election and it unlikely that their support will come cheap.

Sanchez might not be looking forward to four years in office if it was not for the form of proportional representation, known as the d'Hondt system, that gives a generous bonus to the leading party. Thus its 7,388, 321 votes, 28.6 per cent of the total, earned it 123 seats in the 350-seat lower house of the Cortes. By contrast, the feisty conservative newcomer Vox only obtained 24 seats despite securing 2,641,231 votes, a very respectable performance for a party that had never previously come near winning a seat in a general election.

Three out of four Vox voters migrated from the Popular Party (PP). In government for seven years until 2018, it had failed to offer conservative policies and had sought to appease radical leftists from feminists to left-wing media folk in whose hands it carelessly placed the state television channels. A new more right-wing leader, Pablo Casado had sought to revive the PP’s conservative image but he failed to make much of an impact. A lot of voters had been traumatised by the attempted secession of Catalonia in 2017 when the PP was still in charge.

They were receptive to the uncomplicated patriotic message skilfully presented by Vox. It had not harped unduly on the fear factor in the campaign but had argued that Spain could be run more efficiently and fairly, benefiting not just well-placed clients of the establishment but Spaniards who had been overlooked because of where they lived or how they thought and behaved. Its appeal to common sense and hostility to further experimentation and assault on traditions even enabled it to reach out to the young (the elderly were least receptive to its nationalist message).

Much of the media was hostile to Vox, depicting it as a throwback to Franco’s days. Even though its poll ratings were never much below 10 per cent, it was barred on a technicality from taking part in the two election debates held in the campaign’s final stages.

Vox sought to reach out to forgotten communities that had been neglected by the urban modernisers in charge of Spain for the past forty years. Ironically, due to the voting system, it picked up most of its seats in Madrid (pictured), the Mediterranean coast and in Andalucia, the southern province where it had broken through in regional elections last December.

Its message of pride in Spain and resistance towards those prepared to risk breaking up the country, got through to medium earners and young people frozen out of the labour market. In alliance with the far-left and nationalists, it is likely that Sanchez will slap heavier taxes on the middle-class in order to finance expensive social programmes that benefit professional activists (which the EU will contribute to from its budget thanks to Britain’s continuing hefty contribution to the EU pot). 

Sanchez is also likely to solidify his backing in radical Spain by seeking to erode or overturn remaining traditional outposts of influence. Secular laws are in the pipeline designed to erode the country’s Catholic character, which was much on display in the Holy Week celebrations just prior to the election. As a middle-class atheist who enjoys the good life, Sanchez is comfortable in promoting radical secularism. Plans are also advanced to remove the remains of the dictator Franco from the mausoleum on the outskirts of Madrid where they were interred in 1975. Neither Sanchez nor his predecessor as party head, J.L. Zapatero, are afraid to revive memories of the destructive 1936-9 civil war if electoral capital can be derived from it. 

Catalonia, where the turn out was a very high 78 per cent, is the region where the Socialists made their strongest gains. In the separatist camp power swung away from Carles Puigdemont’s bourgeois nationalists towards the Republican Left (ERC) but the vote for pro-independence parties in the election did not exceed 39 per cent.

If Sanchez is prepared to whittle away Spanish sovereignty by making concessions to nationalists, perhaps seeking to free the 5 newly elected Catalan MPs currently on trial for rebellion in 2017, tensions will be unavoidable even within the ranks of his own party. Vox has made Spanish Unionist nationalism respectable and, under the capable leadership of Santiago Abascal, it looks set to be a prominent player in a fractured political landscape.

The rise of Vox offers lessons for Unionism in Scotland where Conservatives sponsor a timid and unimaginative brand of anti-separatism and appear ready to repeat the mistakes of the moderate right in Spain, that is if they ever get the chance to taste power again.

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University. His biography of the Portuguese autocrat, Oliveira Salazar will be published by Hurst and Co in 2020. (His twitter account is @cultfree54) 

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