A great deal was riding on last week’s vote in the Spanish parliament on a new labour reform.
The leftist government of Pedro Sánchez presented the legislation as a major gain for the country’s workers. It was also seen as a test of the resilience of the Socialist prime minister’s coalition administration, which had survived so far with the support of an array of smaller regional parties, including Basque and Catalan nationalists.
After months of negotiations, leading to an unusual consensus between employers and unions, the government believed it had enough votes to push the law through, even though some of its traditional allies had declared their resistance to it.The right-wing opposition, meanwhile, saw the vote as an opportunity to humiliate Sánchez and start unravelling his fragile coalition.
In the end, the reform was approved but only by one vote after a member of parliament for the conservative opposition Popular Party (PP), Alberto Casero, mistakenly voted in favour of the law.
“I feel terrible, I’m a wreck, I’ve really messed up,” Casero was reported as telling party colleagues after realising what he had done.
The incident-packed vote and its fallout have compounded the notion that Spanish politics is heading in an increasingly polarised direction which undermines the credentials of the country’s four-decades-old democracy.
The PP has said it is appealing to the constitutional court against the decision not to allow Casero to recast his vote, with party leader Pablo Casado describing the result as a "fraud". The Socialists argue that there is no precedent for repeating a vote because of a mistake. They have also claimed that that two conservative congressmen from the Navarre region were somehow bribed to vote against the reform.
The political commentator Fernando Vallespín noted that “hate, rather than difference of opinion, has become the driving principle that guides virtually all the political movements in our country”.
Citing Spain’s fragmentation and tribalism, he added: “Our parliament has become a hybrid of the Weimar [Republic] and the US Congress.”
Comparisons with Washington had been on many Spaniards' minds just three days earlier, when, in a small-scale emulation of the storming of Capitol Hill in January 2021, several dozen farmers burst through a police cordon in the southern city of Lorca and broke into the town hall. They interrupted a vote by local councillors on a new regulation to ensure that intensive livestock farms, which have been mushrooming across Spain, were not built too close to residential areas. A total of seven people were arrested.
Although the majority of those taking part appeared to be wearing Covid face masks and bodywarmers rather than military regalia and buffalo headdress, the incident has caused many to ask if Spain is moving in a Trumpian direction.
The farmers had been taking part in a peaceful demonstration. But an apparently co-ordinated spread of misinformation escalated the situation, triggering the melees.
“We were told things that weren’t true and the atmosphere got really heated,” said Pedro Giner, one man who took part in the assault, before regretting his actions. “Disinformation often makes you take decisions that make no sense and this was an example of that.”
While parties on the left have condemned the incident in Lorca, the parties on the right, which have been attacking the Sánchez government for its alleged mistreatment of the farming sector, appeared to support the violent protesters. Fulgencio Gil, a local PP politician, said the episode had been the result of “continuous attacks by the Socialists” on farming families.
The Lorca clashes appear to confirm an existing phenomenon. A 2019 study by US and Israeli academics found that Spain was the most polarised of 20 developed countries examined, which included Ireland, the UK and the United States. Spain, the report found, had "markedly more intense mass-level affective polarisation than the US". The study only looked at each country up until 2015, but developments in recent years – including the pandemic, Catalan separatism, a far-left party in government and a surging far right – appear to have intensified the trend.
This Sunday a key election will take place in the region of Castilla y León. With the PP looking likely to need the support of the far-right Vox in order to remain in power there, the vote in the agriculture-reliant region, Spain's largest, is seen as a litmus test ahead of a general election slated for 2023.
The grievances of rural regions, whose depopulation and lack of infrastructure have become a national issue, reflects the existence of a deep geographical schism in Spanish society. Along with the historic left-right cleavage, or its generational and wealth gaps, Spain’s rural-urban divide is yet another symptom of the country’s polarised and, many would say, eroded democracy.