On April 28th, the people of Spain and all her regions will head to the polls for the third time in just over three years. Corruption killed the PP last year, but the right has found new success through the momentum of Ciudadanos and, as evident in the recent Andalucia election, the far-right Vox party. Meanwhile, the rise of Unidos Podemos appears to have turned into a decline, with PSOE counting on a relatively stable 8 months under Prime Minister Sanchez.
Catalonia and the political prisoner fiasco looms large, as does the xenophobia brought to the table by the growing popularity of Vox. But the country, like is mostly the case with others, has not truly recovered from the financial crash, the ‘deshaucios’ and the unemployment crisis. Couple that with the exacerbated regional divides, and it’s fair to say that Spain has been in a political crisis at least as far back as 2015.
Corruption killed the PP last year, but the right has found new success
Corruption scandals and the ongoing economic crisis from the decade prior plagued the nation’s politics, leading to a hung parliament. Weeks and months passed and the two major parties were unable to negotiate to form a coalition. The result was another election in 2016, which put the PP and Prime Minister Rajoy’s tenure on life support. Twenty months later, Rajoy’s house of cards fell as he became the first Prime Minister to succumb to a no-confidence vote since Spain’s transition to democracy.
Leading a minority government is the worst scenario for most politicians. In Spain especially so, with the regional interests as well as the diverse strata of parties and their interests pulling the parliament in every direction. In this situation, one can’t really hope for much better than stasis – the best case scenario is damage limitation until the next election. But this is where Sanchez benefits from his flexibility. Not expressly ideological, Sanchez is in some ways the very cause of the crisis that Spain and many nations are facing.
A fundamental reason why populist parties have found popularity to the left like Podemos, and indeed to the right like Vox, are because they provided answers. ‘Moderate’ or ‘centrist’ characters with a liberal or indifferent social posturing but with a commitment to the interests of capitalism are the ones that have alienated and pushed people away to polar extremes. They are not the prime causes of crisis, but crisis has made them impotent. Whether it’s the immigrants or capitalism, whether they’re correct or abhorrent, answers are provided and narratives are told. In this case, Sanchez appears to be an exception. It is hard to paint him with the reckless idealist brush if you’re his opponent. It is also hard to convey him as weak on Catalonia and regional conflicts, but he outperformed expectations in that regard.
His patience and pragmatism has allowed him to be a chameleon. In a time where political survival is the priority, Sanchez has played a blinder. He’s had to keep all sides happy enough, across the spectrum of interests. Even when it comes to Gibraltar, he is capable of grandstanding on the reclamations or incursions. Brexit also has meant that Sanchez has the opportunity to show his detractors that he won’t be an embarrassment to Spain, which they surely would have attempted if he had shown more weakness or sympathy on Gibraltar. If he wins a workable majority in April, he’ll be better placed to strive for his vision for Spain as opposed to the balancing act he’s had to master so far.
Sanchez won’t be so vulnerable to the PP and Casado as the two party domination used to make obvious. Instead, Ciudadanos will likely be the main competitor. Both parties have opted to communicate a basically pro-EU platform, but Ciudadanos have targeted national pride more than PSOE, particularly with their success in Catalonia as the biggest anti-secession party. The liberal credentials of Ciudadanos has justifiably come under question since their agreement to cooperate with the PP and Vox in Andalucia. It is plausible then, to argue that Ciudadanos are sliding back into effectively what the PP was under Rajoy, instead of a dead centre liberal party. With the tripartite force on the right, PSOE would need to rely on Unidos Podemos to the left of them, even if PSOE get the biggest share of the vote.
In a time where political survival is the priority, Sanchez has played a blinder.
Like in Andalucia recently, half the battle in Spanish politics is ‘pactos’, or alliances. For Sanchez, the goal is to alienate as few potential partners as possible. Over the past eight months, he seems to have done that. In the position he was in after the removal of Rajoy, it was always a test of strategy in terms of waiting for the perfect time to call an election and form a stable government. Stability is perhaps the absolute best one can hope for with Spanish politics existing as it has the past decade. His threat to the right and far-right could be useful foil, as they can be charged as increasing instability and PP and Ciudadanos facilitating that with a smaller party of extremists in Vox. But extremism thrives on instability. The story of America, Hungary, and Brexit too, has not been replicated in Spain.
This April, however, will be the greatest chance yet for the international nationalist wave to reach the Iberian Peninsula.