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Madrid Letter: A divided Spain nervously watches turmoil unfolding in Brazil

Events taking place some 5,000 miles away are another battleground for Spain’s deeply divided politics

Pedro Sánchez: the Spanish prime minister described the invasion of buildings in Brasilia by opponents of newly elected president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as "repulsive". Photograph: Oscar Del Pozo/Getty Images

The fallout from the recent assault on government buildings by pro-Jair Bolsonaro protesters in Brazil has highlighted divisions in Spain, which is entering a crunch electoral year amid concerns about the stability of its own politics.

Spain’s close cultural and economic ties to Latin America mean that the country’s media have closely followed the invasion and vandalism of the buildings in Brasilia by opponents of newly-elected president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez, a socialist, described the extremism behind the assault as “repulsive”, and voiced his support for Lula “and the institutions freely and democratically elected by the Brazilian people”.

However, on Spain’s right, the response was less equivocal. The opposition has frequently portrayed Sánchez and his leftist government as radical populists cut from the same cloth as Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro. Although the Spanish right rarely mentions Lula, it has appeared reluctant to support the Brazilian president-elect, given his status as a prominent Latin American leftist.


While other right-of-centre leaders across Europe swiftly condemned the Brasilia rebels or backed Lula, the leader of Spain’s conservative Popular Party (PP), Alberto Núñez Feijóo, initially only expressed support for the Brazilian people and calling for the restoration of constitutional order.

Núñez Feijóo also used the episode to attack Sánchez, decrying the prime minister’s recent decision to remove the crime of sedition from the criminal code and modify the crime of misuse of public funds – changes which could benefit Catalan independence movement leaders.

In a radio interview, Núñez Feijóo appeared to draw a comparison between events in Brazil and the Catalan independence movement, which he suggested was being encouraged by Sánchez’s penal reform.

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A tweet about the situation in Brasilia, in which the conservative leader warned against “bowing to populism and radicalism, which can undermine institutions, democracy and public freedoms”, seemed to be aimed as much at Sánchez as it was at Lula.

Although Núñez Feijóo’s PP later rowed back, voicing support for Lula in the face of the assault, it was already clear that the disturbing events that took place 5,000 miles away were becoming yet another battleground for Spain’s deeply divided politics which are entering a crunch year.

In May, there will be elections in most of the country’s 17 regions and municipal elections in its towns and cities, while a general election is expected at the end of 2023. With polls showing support for parties on the left and the right evenly divided, the outcome of these ballots is still wide open.

Supporters of Brazilian former president Jair Bolsonaro invade the National Congress in Brasilia on January 8th. Responses to the attacks in Spain have highlighted political divisions there. Photograph: Sergio Lima/ Getty Images

The stakes, however, are all too clearly defined. The right warns that Sánchez’s coalition with the far-left Podemos and willingness to engage with Catalan and Basque nationalists are proof that he is a populist who threatens Spain’s territorial integrity; the left accuses the PP and the far-right Vox party – which may have to work together in order to govern – of straying into Trumpian extremism with their no-holds-barred opposition.

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In December, the polarisation reached a new level when Spain’s constitutional court, acting in response to an appeal by Núñez Feijóo’s conservatives, blocked a government reform which aimed to end a judicial appointment impasse before it had reached the senate. That unprecedented development triggered an institutional crisis which saw left and right accusing each other of undemocratic behaviour.

It has also led many to wonder if the tensions of the electorally charged months to come could boil over.

The responses to the events in Brazil have given a flavour of what to expect. Ione Belarra, Podemos’ minister of social rights, made a broad reading of the attack there, seeing it as “part of the same coup-mongering strategy of the right all over the world.” She added: “Let’s not forget that the PP has been keeping the judiciary hostage for the last four years.”

Vox, which has aligned itself with Brazil’s outgoing far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in the past, remained conspicuously quiet in the wake of the clashes. However, political commentator Pedro Vallín warned that such is the febrile atmosphere in Spain’s political arena that nothing can be ruled out.

“The true fear is that a setback for the political right in the general elections next December could see a response that questions the results,” he noted, suggesting that far-right extremists could ape those who attacked the US Capitol Building in Washington DC two years ago and Brasilia last week.

“Spanish politics fears Brazil because it fears itself,” he said.