Spain marches deeper into the unknown

Spain marches deeper into the unknown

One of Europe’s longest-serving prime ministers, Mariano Rajoy of Spain, has lost a no-confidence motion in parliament and, after seven years at the helm, has been forced to step down. This is further evidence of the new (old) realities of the continent, in which the combination of the words “political” and “stability” cannot be used when referring to politics.

General malaise tends to produce, with the odd exception, inconclusive election results, resulting in an inability to govern and leaderships that are mainly inclined to muddle along, with hardly any vision or strategy for getting their country, or the continent as a whole, out of the quagmire it has found itself in. There is no escape from recognizing that Europe is still in deep crisis, fueled by an inability to recover from the economic meltdown of a decade ago that has stoked social divisions, and in particular a strong and disturbing anti-immigration sentiment across the continent. It has given rise to nationalist-populist leaders who have very little to offer by way of solutions.

The irony of the forced resignation of Rajoy is that his position appeared to be one of the more secure among European leaders. However, he has been brought down by a corruption scandal that infested his conservative People’s Party. Rajoy’s defiance to the very end was in complete contrast to the reality of his corruption-mired tenure, which saw, among other things, an economic recovery that benefited the few at the expense of the many, and a constitutional crisis that featured Catalonia, one of Spain’s richest regions, declaring independence and attempting to secede.

How Spain’s prime minister thought he could survive a court ruling that saw one of his party’s former treasurers jailed for 33 years for fraud and money laundering, especially when the verdict declared that the party itself had profited from an illegal kickbacks-for-contracts scheme, is a mystery. It also speaks of a country and a political system in which corruption has become the norm.

Rajoy could count his blessings that he was still prime minister as late as last Thursday, considering that the scandal that finally brought him down has been going on for years, and has already claimed a number of scalps from his own party. Embezzlement, fraud, and misuse of corporate credit cards, accepting expensive holidays, luxury products, a Jaguar car and even children’s birthday parties at which clowns performed, all paid for by wealthy businessmen, became associated with high-ranking officials of the People’s Party. It is hardly a people’s party, rather a party that works to enrich its own senior people.

The irony of the forced resignation of Mariano Rajoy is that his position appeared to be one of the more secure among European leaders

Yossi Mekelberg

What worked in Rajoy’s and his government’s favor was an economy that has been doing rather well. It has outperformed the eurozone average by growing at above 3 percent for the past three years. According to the International Monetary Fund, which has raised its 2018 growth forecast for Spain from 2.4 percent to 2.8 percent, Spain will outperform countries such as Germany, Italy and France. This has resulted in the country’s debt ratings being upgraded, which in return has lowered borrowing costs.

Even more striking has been the sharp reduction in unemployment, from 26 percent only five years ago to today’s 16 percent. However, these impressive figures only give us a partial picture of what is, in reality, a troubled society and economy. More than a third of the unemployed are below the age of 25. Add to this the fact that there are substantial regional variations and that, according to Oxfam, the richest 1 percent of the Spanish population accounts for a quarter of the national wealth, more than a fifth of the population lives below the poverty line, and homelessness is on the increase, and it is no wonder that social and political instability is always knocking at the door of the political elite.

However, it was Rajoy’s heavy-handedness toward Catalonia’s bid for independence that attracted international attention to his methods of governing, and the way he cynically used his power and influence over the constitutional court to impose a legal “solution” to an issue that is essentially political. Arresting Catalonian leaders and forcing others into exile, turning them into fugitives, was a grave miscalculation. Unleashing police brutality against Catalan protesters demonstrated a severe lack of judgment by someone who preferred to resort to exploiting — some might argue abusing — his power rather than navigating a complex situation with diplomatic skills.

Rajoy has gone, but Catalonia’s search for a better deal within, or preferably — as last October’s referendum decisively showed — outside Spain, has not. It is for future governments to address this mess left by Rajoy, who merely exacerbated a crisis that could have been, if not easily resolved, at least diffused in its early stages when goodwill toward the government in Madrid still prevailed among Catalonians.

It eventually took the Basque Nationalist Party to back a no-confidence motion tabled by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party to oust Rajoy and replace him with Pedro Sanchez, the latter’s leader. Though Sanchez’s party commands less than a quarter of the seats in Congress, Spain’s constitution dictates that the party tabling such a motion, given the support of a majority in parliament, has the responsibility to take over from the ousted prime minister. Not much of a guarantee for a stable government.

But there is an element of a generational shift from the former prime minister to the 46-year-old former economics professor and basketball player Sanchez, combined with a policy agenda that is inclined toward reforms that are likely to be more socially inclusive and address the persistent unemployment and the gap between rich and poor.

Yet the difficulties of governing Spain remain, and have even been exacerbated. The ousted administration was a minority government and had to deal with a fragmented parliament. Sanchez’s position is no different, and any ambitious agenda is very unlikely to enjoy a majority in parliament, suggesting that the trend of muddling through, with mainly marginal changes, is most likely to continue. But if the new prime minister concentrates on ridding his country’s political system of corruption, and can secure the people’s approval at the ballot box, he might yet embark on a new and more long-term and strategically sound approach. 

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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