Paddy Woodworth: Echoes of Franco as resurgent nationalism splits Spain
The Socialists have done well but will struggle to put together centrist coalition
Spain’s acting prime minister Pedro Sánchez: his Socialist Party (PSOE) is again the leading Spanish party, though still very shy of an absolute majority. Photograph: Juan Medina/Reuters
The Spanish political landscape has changed utterly in recent years, reshaped by the aftershocks of the economic crisis, and the eruption of the pro-independence movement in Catalonia.
That movement has in turn triggered a wave of aggressive Spanish nationalism, unmasking a troubling nostalgia for the traditionalist values of the Franco dictatorship.
At the height of the Catalan crisis, the Madrid establishment chastised foreign correspondents who suggested that a lingering neo-Francoism was part of the problem. Yet, in last month’s election campaign, Spain’s conservatives openly espoused a rhetoric that nakedly revealed their own roots in the dictatorship. Meanwhile, a new, explicitly far-right group has gained a high national profile.
In the end, Vox’s 24 seats, while a worryingly strong debut for such blatant neo-Francoism, were insufficient to propel the right to power
Last Sunday’s election results show that the political landscape is still shifting rapidly, and will not settle easily.
Three very different parties, Ciudadanos, Podemos and Vox, none of which had any MPs five years ago, took more than a third of the seats between them. The two-party system, in which the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the conservative Partido Popular (PP) alternated in government for decades, has definitively collapsed.
However, the PSOE, whose share of the vote had plummeted since 2011, bounced back, gaining nearly 40 seats. It is again the leading Spanish party, though still very shy of an absolute majority.
The PSOE comeback is the unlikely outcome of internal upheaval. Its leader, Pedro Sánchez, has refreshed the party’s image as a genuinely progressive centre-left force. He wrested control from party barons who had put power – and often personal wealth – before principle since the 1980s, like so many European social-democrat leaders.
The PP has also suffered great turbulence. Its long-term leader, Mariano Rajoy, lost a confidence vote tabled by Sánchez last June, following a court verdict linking the conservatives to corruption. An upstart leadership candidate, Pablo Casado, swept aside the party establishment. But his strident turn towards the far right has come at a high price.
Worst result ever
On Sunday, the PP suffered its worst result ever, losing more than half its seats, less than a percentage point ahead of Ciudadanos, its energetic rivals for centrist votes.
Ciudadanos’ performance was impressive, and it seems poised to overtake the PP. And indeed, it is now also perfectly positioned to reinvent Spanish politics in a constructive way. It could urge the PSOE to break with Spain’s long aversion to coalitions, and form a stable government of the centre. That makes good mathematical and political sense.
But it probably won’t happen, because Ciudadanos ruled out supporting any PSOE-led government during the campaign, and has since confirmed that stance.
The fact that a party claiming to uphold the values of the European centre-right may fail to seize such an opportunity to enter government points us back to the Catalan crisis.
Ciudadanos’ refusal to deal with Sánchez is based on the PSOE’s willingness to talk with the Catalan independence movement, though Sánchez has ruled out discussion of self-determination in such talks.
Ciudadanos is wedded to the dubious proposition, embraced more fervently by the PP, that the independence movement is guilty of attempting a “coup d’état”. Therefore, anyone who even talks to it is an enemy of Spain. They also suspect that Sánchez will pardon Catalan leaders, if they are convicted of the draconian charges they face in the ongoing trial over their illegal 2017 referendum.
Similar views are expressed most vehemently by the new far-right party Vox, which reframes Spanish politics as a binary battle between “Spain” (the traditionalist right) and its enemies (everyone else). This gambit directly echoes the narrative of the Franco dictatorship. Vox wants to suppress democratic Spain’s decentralised regional governments, a centre-piece of the constitution. It rails against gender equality. It resists long-overdue recognition for the thousands of leftist civil war victims still lying in unmarked graves.
Ciudadanos, and Casado’s PP much more so, appear to have been afraid that the new party was going to overtake them on the right. They eagerly beat many of the same angry drums.
Ironically, this mobilised centrist voters to support the PSOE, in fear of a hard right tripartite government.
In the end, Vox’s 24 seats, while a worryingly strong debut for such blatant neo-Francoism, were insufficient to propel the right to power.
Having failed to achieve a right-wing majority, Casado has spent this week racing back towards the centre with indecent haste, further damaging his credibility.
Meanwhile, Podemos, the radical leftist grouping that has attempted to overtake the PSOE from the left since 2014, saw its representation tumble, after several damaging internal squabbles.
Sánchez hopes to govern alone, with Podemos’ external support, while the leftists want him to pay the price of coalition, In either case, another dozen votes are needed to reach a majority for his investiture. Here Sánchez must tread very carefully. If he seeks support, or even abstention, from Catalan nationalists, this could give fresh impetus to the right.
He will wait until after local and autonomous elections later this month before negotiating. In the last two days, he has distanced himself from Podemos, perhaps in the hope that Ciudadanos might be more amenable to junior partnership as elections passion cool.
Whatever the outcome, he will be governing a deeply – and doubly – divided state. Due to the electoral system, the left has won significantly more seats than the right. But the two blocks are separated by less than 100,000 votes. That must make an alliance with Ciudadanos, shifting the national fulcrum to the centre-left, attractive to Sánchez, should the smaller party revise its position.
In Catalonia, voters are similarly split almost 50/50 on independence.
It will take courage and imagination to reconcile the fractured visions of Spain, and Catalonia, which were presented in these elections.
Paddy Woodworth is a journalist and commentator on Spain and author of Dirty War, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL and Spanish Democracy