When the leader of the opposition Spanish Socialists, Pedro Sánchez, strode on to the stage of a venue in central Madrid last weekend to confirm his candidacy in the upcoming general election, much was made of the American, presidential, style of his address to party members.
Sánchez (43) made a rousing speech that was big on sweeping ideas and light on policy specifics, before being joined on stage by his wife, Begoña Fernández.
But in recent days, the event has been pored over above all due to the decision to use a projection of a large Spanish flag as the backdrop to Sánchez's address. Echoing the United States's own ongoing controversy surrounding its Confederate flag, the political use of the red-and-yellow horizontal stripes of the Spanish Rojigualda has become the focus of fierce debate.
The Spanish flag is more heavily loaded with symbolism than that of most western European nations, because of the complex nature of the country’s political landscape.
A similar version of the modern flag was brandished by supporters of Francisco Franco during the 1936-39 civil war and before he became dictator, replacing that of the left-wing Republicans whom he defeated. Under Franco's oppressive rule a black eagle was superimposed on the existing red-and-yellow stripes. In the democratic era the Franco-ist eagle has been replaced by a shield of arms.
However, the modern-day version of the flag is still associated with the political right and the governing, conservative Popular Party (PP) has frequently used it at events and rallies. Many on the left are therefore uncomfortable with it.
While many senior figures in the
praised Sánchez’s use of the flag – the first time it had been seen in a public arena like this alongside one of their leaders since Felipe González in 1982 – others were more critical of what they see as a drift to the right.
“Goose bumps in the presence of so much Spanish nationalism,” tweeted José Antonio Pérez Tapias, a prominent figure on the left of the Socialist Party, who said the large flag was an “abuse”. Socialist congressional deputy Odón Elorza said he was surprised to see “a massive projection of the [Spanish] flag instead of the red one of commitment to the left.”
Writing in El País newspaper, essayist Juan Claudio de Ramón noted that such attitudes reflect how "a large portion of our political left mistakenly identify the constitutional flag with the banner of the dictatorship".
Sánchez appears to agree. Forced to defend his decision to use the Rojigualda, he told one interviewer that “what I wanted was for the Socialist Party to see this flag as its own – it’s as much ours as it is anyone else’s.”
The move has been seen as a political strategy ahead of what is expected to be a tightly fought general election which is likely to be held by the end of the year. In local elections in May, the Socialists lost votes but gained control of many city halls and several regions by forming partnerships with radical nationalist parties and the more stridently leftist Podemos party. Reclaiming the flag appears to be part of a bid to counter the notion that the Socialists have been dragged leftwards.
Sánchez’s opponents on the right have portrayed it as a cynical exercise in marketing, albeit a successful one, according to many observers.
"He's stolen the flag from the PP," noted Pablo Sapag, a professor of propaganda, in ABC newspaper. "You can criticise his opportunism but not his use of the flag."
Meanwhile, to the left of the Socialists, Podemos has also attacked the ploy.
“A patriot isn’t proud of the size of his flag, but of having the best healthcare, of taking his father to a hospital, of taking his kids to a public school,” said Podemos leader
The national flag is not the only one to provoke debate in Spain. In recent years the hanging of the Catalan pro-independence estelada and the Basque Country's ikurrina from public buildings has caused tensions between local authorities in those regions and the central government in Madrid.