Divided Spain vulnerable as ultra-right Vox enters Parliament
Elections in Europe have rarely been boring in recent years and Sunday’s Spanish vote has not bucked the trend. Close, unpredictable, but also alarming, given the nature of the fragmentation, disagreement and even extremism. It appears the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) has won and can form a new coalition government with Unidas Podemos and the regional independence parties. But perhaps the real story is the rise of the far right and the decline of the traditional right-wing party, Partido Popular (PP).
The course of Spanish political history has historically veered between revolutionary and reactionary. Strong establishment and nationalist forces of the monarchy, church and landed classes faced off against the modernist reformist trends. This was most devastatingly witnessed in the civil war of 1936 to 1939, followed by Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship until 1975. All this still haunts Spanish politics today.
The fall of the dictator led to the reestablishment of Spanish democracy and, for many, what seemed to be the death of the far right in Spain. It was a bumpy road at times, with an attempted military coup in 1981.
Yet the right never quite died off, as some presumed or hoped. In part, this was because of a veil of oblivion in Spain over the Franco years and the civil war, as happens so often after painful civil wars and oppression. For decades, few in Spain even attempted to address the issues of the past. Despite all the 20,000-plus books on the civil war, many issues still remain raw. It was only in 2007 that the Historical Memory Law was passed, granting compensation to the victims of the Franco era. The massive monument to Franco at the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), built largely by political prisoners, attained a pilgrimage status for his ultra-right supporters. For years, competing political tribes have fought over this site, even at the Supreme Court, with the socialists keen to exhume the body of Franco and move him elsewhere.
The nationalist right has maintained its narratives. In the Franco decades, there was just one single permitted narrative that many still cling to even now. Franco worked hard to keep the divisions fresh, portraying his leftist opponents as part of a Bolshevik rebellion.
The big loser is the PP, squeezed from the extreme right and the center, as well as its own corruption entanglements.
This matters in 2019. European leaders are nervous about the rise of the far-right Vox party in the euro zone’s fourth-largest economy. It has become the first ultra-right party to enter Spain’s Parliament since the death of Franco, winning 24 seats. Vox only started in 2014 with its core base in the south. Having seen the far right progress elsewhere in Europe, the hope was that Spanish voters would reject this path. Like others of its ilk, Vox is deeply racist, anti-Muslim, anti-gay, male-dominated and misogynistic. It also wants to build a wall around Spain’s enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta in North Africa. Its anti-Muslim pitch included a video that depicted southern Spain under Sharia law, with women having to cover up.
The schisms of 2019 are getting deeper. Franco tried to eradicate all local nationalisms, but this issue is perhaps the single most divisive issue in Spain today. The far right and the separatists feed off each other. The failed Catalonian effort for independence in 2017, in the face of opposition from Spanish nationalists, has opened a gaping wound. Even now Catalonian independence leaders are awaiting trial in the Supreme Court for their role in the 2017 effort on charges of rebellion. Catalonia still pays more in taxes than it receives in services. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his PSOE party had to depend on the Catalan separatists during his first nine months in power. They will have to again. Sanchez’s chief rival — the right-wing PP of Pablo Casado — has slammed the left for risking the Balkanization of Spain, as has Ciudadanos. Vox had pledged to abolish the Catalan regional government and close the Catalan public television station TV3.
Uncertainty has been, in part, triggered by the economic uncertainties of the second half of the last decade. Unemployment has come down from the highs of nearly 27 percent in early 2013 to 14.7 percent in the first quarter of 2019. This still leaves 3.35 million out of a job, which remains the top priority for most voters. The socialists will have to deliver on this to stay in power.
What was once a duopoly between the PSOE and PP is now a five-party system with the separatists also playing a role. The big loser is the PP, squeezed from the extreme right and the center, as well as its own corruption entanglements. PP won 137 seats in 2016 but this time around looks like getting just 66, many lost to the center-right Ciudadanos, as well as Vox.
Spain is at risk of going the way of Italy in the second half of the 20th century. This was the third election in four years. Sanchez’s government was the shortest in Spanish history and who knows how long any new one will last. The results indicate a completely divided Spanish Parliament, with little chance of a government that can survive for long.
This does not augur well for Spanish politics. It could be highly vulnerable to the charismatic populist leaders that have fared well elsewhere.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech