Santiago Abascal Santiago Abascal, 2019. Photo: Contando Estrelas / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Chris Bambery analyses the polarisation of politics in Spain, following the results of its general election

The outcome of Sunday’s Spanish general election came as a surprise. Polls had predicted a victory for the right-wing Popular Party (PP), though requiring agreement with the far-right Vox party to be able to form a government. In the event, the PP won 136 and Vox 33 (a loss of 19 seats), giving them together 169 seats in the Spanish parliament, less than polls had predicted, and short of the 176 needed for a majority.

It seems clear that, as polling day neared, growing numbers were concerned about the prospect of Vox entering government, particularly its growing emphasis in driving back legislation on women’s and LGBT rights.

This snap general election had been called by Spanish premier, Pedro Sánchez, after his Socialist Party (PSOE) and its coalition partner, Podemos, had lost in May’s regional and municipal elections to the right. Vox polled well and entered regional governments with the PP in the Valencian Region, the Balearic Islands and Extremadura.

Sánchez hoped that fear of the far right returning to government for the first time since the death of General Francisco Franco, victor of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War, a mass killer and dictator of Spain for three and a half decades, until his life-support machine was switched off in November 1975.

That gamble seems to have paid off, with PSOE doing much better than expected, and Vox taking a hit. The Socialists won 122 seats on Sunday, and its new coalition partner Sumar (Unity) won 31, more on Sumar later. That combined total of just 153 seats (representing just under eleven million votes) leaves them short of the 176 needed to form a government.

It is hard to see either of the two biggest parties, the PP and PSOE, being able to form a government. The smaller parties in the Spanish parliament after Sunday represent Catalonia, the Basque Country (Euskadi), Galicia and the Canary Islands. The bulk of these are pro-independence and are not going to back a PP-Vox government. Vox wants to abolish their autonomy and to ban pro-independence parties. When last in government, the PP sent in the security forces physically to stop voting in the October 2017 Catalan independence referendum (declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court, made up of political appointed judges) by smashing their way into polling stations and battering those waiting to vote.

Socialist Party divisions

If Sánchez wants to form a government, he will need the support of all those parties (or possible abstentions). But first, the PSOE is itself divided. Back in 2016, after a general election in which the PP emerged as the biggest party but did not have sufficient seats to form a government, Sánchez refused demands from those within his party associated with the previous leader, Felipe González, and the party’s old guard, to have the PSOE abstain and allow the PP to take office.

They forced Sánchez’s removal as leader and got the party’s deputies to abstain. But the rank and file of the party rebelled and re-elected Sánchez. In 2018, he then forced a no confidence vote in the PP government of Mariano Rajoy, after his party was involved in a high-profile court case. Sánchez won that and became Prime Minister.

In office after a subsequent general election, he needed to form a coalition with Podemos, once of the radical left. But to get his budget and other key legislation through, he needed to secure the support of two pro-independence parties, EH Bildu in Euskadi and the Catalan Left Republicans.

That sent the PP and Vox into orbit. But Sánchez also faced opposition from González and his supporters. This election campaign saw the right attack Sánchez for supposedly blocking with Basque terrorists and for granting a pardon (though not an amnesty) to nine Catalan political and civic leaders jailed for their role in the 2017 referendum.

During this election campaign, Sánchez went out of his way to stress his support for maintaining the unity of the Spanish state. On the last day of campaigning before polling, Sánchez told supporters that the pro-independence movement is an outdated ideology’, ridiculed Catalan and Basque hopes for greater devolution of powers, and boasted of not having fulfilled the Catalan demands for amnesty to be granted to political prisoners, pointing out he had opted instead for a ‘partial pardon’.

You might have thought if he was looking for an ‘outdated ideology’ to attack he might have chosen that of Vox. But no, instead, he joined in attacks on the Catalans, despite knowing full well that if voters want to pursue that agenda, they will plump for the PP or Vox, not PSOE. On the second last day of campaigning, Sánchez stated regarding the Catalan pro-independence movement: ‘They asked for amnesty and referendum, and they have not had nor will they ever have either of the two things.’

Parliamentary arithmetic

Such statements are not going to help win the support of Basque and Catalan pro-independence parties. One of those, Junts per Catalunya, with seven seats in the Spanish parliament, needs to at least abstain in a vote on whether Sánchez can form a government. That’s a big ask. One of its key leaders, Carles Puigdemont, has been in exile in Brussels since 2017, and Spanish courts continue to pursue his extradition despite losing in several attempts to secure it.

The smaller left party, Sumar (unity) is supposedly to the left of PSOE, and is led by the outgoing Labour Minister, Yolanda Díaz. It absorbed Podemos, but represents a shift rightwards. Many believe Sánchez encouraged its formation because he did not want former Podemos voters abstaining. Díaz too made it clear she would not permit the Catalans to hold an independence referendum. That would probably be Junts’ asking price for allowing Sánchez to form a government.

Both the PP and Vox built much of their support by attacking Basque and Catalan nationalism, something structured into the DNA of Spanish nationalism. They will pursue Sánchez with a vengeance if he makes deals with those parties. In the election campaign, they attacked the left-wing Basque pro-independence party, EH Bildu, portraying it as simply being the continuation of the old Basque terrorist group, ETA.

Its success in winning six seats, overtaking the moderate Basque National Party (PNV), which has been in government in Euskadi almost continuously since it achieved autonomy in 1979, means the right will not drop that particular bone. Spanish politics has become more polarised, in part by the rise of Vox, but also by the violent attacks of the PP on Sánchez and his supposed nationalist allies.

The PP’s current leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, will be weakened by the failure to get enough seats to take office. He faces an almost constant challenge from his right-wing rival, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, President of the Madrid Region.

The threat of the far right

What of Vox? The election represents a setback for them, but they will not be going away. As the third biggest party, just ahead of Sumar, they will continue to gain respectability. Yet their central themes echo those of the Franco dictatorship. A Vox campaign poster in Madrid shows a hand that is throwing symbols that represent communism, women’s and LGBT liberation, the Catalan flag and laws providing some rights for workers, into the dustbin.

Vox’s message centres on Spanish nationalism; the need to celebrate Spain’s ‘golden age’ in the sixteenth century, when its Empire was the greatest in the world and it was the dominant power in Europe; the need to prioritise the needs of Spaniards over migrants by promoting things like bullfighting; a return to ‘tradition’ on social issues by banning gay marriage, scrapping measures to promote gender equality, and outlawing abortion.

Santiago Abascal has made the same claims as Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, and other far-right and fascist leaders, that Spain and Europe are being taken over by migrants, Muslims in particular. He accompanies this with calls for a second ‘Reconquista’, or reconquest of Spain, a reference to the long medieval Christian war which destroyed the Muslim civilisation of Al-Andalus that once encompassed all but a northern slither of the Iberian Peninsula.

The call for ‘Reconquista’, the stress on Vox’s Catholicism, the violent attacks on pro-independence Catalans and Basques, strident support for the unity of Spain, and the need for Castilian to be the one language of the Spanish state is another message it shares with Franco. Vox is not a fascist party, but it contains fascist groups and Franco nostalgists who will gather confidence as it continues to gain a high political profile.

The outcome of this election is to create deep political instability within Spain. It seems set to face another general election soon, the sixth in eight years. As in much of Europe, the radical left is weak, less so in Euskadi and Catalonia. But what exists needs to mobilise against attacks on women’s and LGBT rights, in defence of migrants and against the pro-business policies both the PP and Vox will pursue, as they have in regional governments. That will also require an understanding of the need to defend national and linguistic rights in Catalonia and Euskadi, and to break with Sánchez and Díaz over their defence of Spanish unity.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

Tagged under: