Understanding Spain, part I

Not everyone’s elections are as quiet as Australia’s. Spain goes to the polls on Sunday, in its third election in three and a half years, with a great deal at stake. I’m going to preview it in two parts: today covering mostly the background, and tomorrow looking at what the polls say about what’s going to happen.

The immediate story starts in December 2015, when the government of Mariano Rajoy, from the centre-right People’s Party, sought re-election. My preview of that election explains a bit about how things got to that point and how the system works.

As expected, the Rajoy government lost its majority. The new parliament was divided between five groups: the People’s Party, the opposition Socialists (centre-left), the far-left Podemos, the centrist but nationalist Citizens, and an assortment of regionalist parties (Basques and Catalans, left and centre, but for present purposes able to be treated as a single group).

Neither Podemos nor the regionalists were willing to deal with the centre-right, and Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez rejected Rajoy’s offer of a grand coalition. A centre-left coalition looked the most likely option; as I said at the time, “Spain is heading for a left-wing government of some sort.”

And so it did, but it took two and a half years and another election to get there.

Sánchez’s negotiations with Podemos went nowhere, and with parliament deadlocked a fresh election was held in June 2016. The balance of groups failed to shift (although the centre-right made gains), and negotiations again failed to construct a majority coalition. But this time the Socialist Party took things into its own hands, deposed Sánchez as leader and instructed its MPs to abstain on a vote of confidence, allowing Rajoy to return to power in October 2016 at the head of a minority government.

Centre-left voters were unhappy with this surrender, and in mid-2017 they returned Sánchez to the party leadership. He set about building bridges with the other opposition parties, and in June 2018 he overthrew the Rajoy government on a vote of no confidence.

In the meantime, the Catalan push for independence had resulted in violent clashes with the central government over the unauthorised referendum in October 2017. That produced a nationalist reaction in the rest of the country, driving Citizens (who had co-operated with Sánchez back in early 2016) closer to the People’s Party and contributing to the rise of a new far right party, Vox.

Rajoy retired after losing office, and in his place the People’s Party chose a right-winger, Pablo Casado, who escalated the rhetoric against the left and the regionalists. Last December, elections in Andalusia led to a three-way collaboration between Citizens, the centre-right and Vox.

With Vox now set to enter the national parliament, Spain has joined the likes of France, Germany and Italy in having a far-right party with a significant share of the vote (it’s tracking just over 10% in the opinion polls).

But Spain is importantly different from those countries: its experience of fascism is thirty years more recent. There’s a reason why I said earlier that the “immediate” story starts in 2015; the back story involves Spain’s 20th-century experience of civil war and dictatorship. Mainstream Spanish parties that dally with the far right are demonstrably playing with fire in a way that isn’t true elsewhere.

The Catalan crisis also made the regionalist parties more suspicious of the Socialists, who, although they were generally more conciliatory, had backed Rajoy’s intervention in 2017. So Sánchez’s dependence on them in parliament was always likely to end badly – and it did, two months ago, when the Catalan parties joined the opposition in voting down the government’s budget, 191 to 158. Sánchez immediately called an election.

So despite the increased fragmentation, with the impending entry of Vox leading to six substantial parliamentary groups (again taking the regionalists as one), Spaniards face a more clear-cut choice this time. Either Sánchez’s fractious alliance will retain (or, he hopes, increase) its slender majority, or it will give way to an equally fractious but more dangerous alliance of centre-right, centre and far right.

It would be unduly melodramatic to compare it to the election of 1936, which narrowly brought the Popular Front to power and ultimately led to the outbreak of civil war. But there is something of the same atmosphere of people choosing sides and the middle ground being squeezed out.

Tomorrow we’ll look at what the polls say about their prospects, and how the electoral system will translate votes into parliamentary strength.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Spain, part I

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