Six Spanish steps towards political paralysis

Published by UnHerd (12th November, 2019)

Poor old Spain. Four elections in four years — and for what? The government moved General Franco from his gloomy mausoleum near Madrid, jailed Catalan independence leaders, and sent voters back to the polls for the second time in seven months. Yet the nation remains in limbo. The same party is likely to stay in power, but left slightly weakened after faltering in the polls amid clear signs of voter fatigue.

Pedro Sanchez, the incumbent Socialist prime minister, is putting on a brave face and proclaiming victory. ‘We’ve won the election and we’re going to work for a progressive government,’ he told party supporters in Madrid as results arrived on Sunday night. But his position has been corroded in a country that looks even more polarised and politically-paralysed than before. So what are the wider lessons of this latest election debacle?

1. Election gambles are high-risk in volatile political climates

Theresa May might have warned Sanchez to be wary of rolling the dice to break political deadlock after her election debacle in 2017. However, like Boris Johnson in this country, Sanchez felt he had little choice but to chance his luck at the polls. He remains the most likely candidate for prime minister. But he has failed to resolve the crisis of government in the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy after a ballot that left several losers but one big winner —  Vox, the far-right force that has more than doubled its seats in parliament to become the nation’s third-biggest party.

If you play with fire, you are liable to get burned — especially when raising the ghost of Franco by exhuming his remains and the spectre of separatism stalks a land still badly scarred by the financial crash a decade ago.

2. Traditional two-party politics is breaking down

The Socialists topped the poll for the second time this year — but fell short of winning a workable majority. Sanchez’s party slid back three seats, leaving it 56 short of a majority in parliament, while the conservative Popular Party closed the gap after gaining 22 seats on their historic low in April. Nonetheless it still has less than half the number needed to rule on its own.

These dismal results show how traditional parties of Left and Right, which dominated Spanish politics for four decades after the restoration of democracy in the mid-seventies, are floundering as new parties rise around them. The two parties which used to routinely scoop up eight in 10 votes at elections collected less than half the total vote on Sunday. Three parties were fighting for votes on the Right and three more on the Left.

Spain is far from unique. Political duopolies are being ripped apart across Europe as traditional parties struggle to retain power. We saw this in Britain two years ago when May threw away the Tory majority, leaving her forced to bribe the Democratic Unionist Party to stay in Downing Street, and then a few months later in Germany, when the main parties suffered their worst results for almost seven decades. These historic coalitions are struggling as nationalism rises on the right, identity politics consumes much of the Left and technology exerts its disruptive power. Austerity and environmental issues are also reshaping political landscapes. In Germany, political fragmentation means 13 different coalitions govern its 16 federal states.

3. Polarised political systems can be left paralysed

Spain’s election has simply fuelled uncertainty. Parties on the Left won 158 seats, while the Right took a combined 150 seats, leaving both significantly short of a majority. Sanchez looks the most likely prime minister but creating a functioning coalition appears harder than before. ‘Forming a government looked complicated in April – now it is an inscrutable hieroglyph,’ was the El Pais verdict.

It may take months to sort a coalition deal, yet this is becoming commonplace in European democracies. Belgium famously went 541 days without a government after an election in June 2010. More recently, Holland and Sweden have endured months of stasis after inconclusive elections. Two elections in Israel this year failed to deliver stability. Meanwhile Britain’s election is intended to break a Brexit logjam that has stymied parliament, reflecting the divisions in the country inflamed by the 2016 referendum — although some fear it could prove as inconclusive the Spanish contest.

4. Populism remains a powerful force

There were some hopeful suggestions recently Europe had reached peak populism after liberal lawyer Zuzana Caputova became Slovakia’s first female president, the Austrian far-right crashed after being snared in a corruption scandal, and the ultra-nationalist League in Italy, led by selfie-loving Matteo Salvini, was thrown out of government. But in recent weeks we have seen the anti-immigrant Alternative fur Deutschland chalk up some of its best results in German state elections and now this astonishing surge by Vox in Spain.

Many analysts used to argue Spain was the ‘European exception’ —  immune to such populism since nationalist dictatorship was such a recent and painful memory in the country. But Santiago Abascal has managed to establish Vox as a significant force in Spain after winning more than 15% of the vote, ensuring a party only six years old that entered parliament for the first time in April now breathes down the neck of the PP.

Vox exploited the tensions over Catalonia with calls for a tough response, appealing to young male voters, while polling showed a rise in support when Franco’s remains were finally exhumed last month. Vox is an ultra-conservative force, defending bull-fighting while attacking political correctness, but like other populist parties, it ramps up hostility to migration as seen in its calls for a wall around Spanish enclaves in north Africa. ‘We have managed to open up all the prohibited debates,’ said Abascal.

And just like far-right counterparts across the continent, its rise is dragging other parties on the Right away from the centre as it presents existential challenges for traditional conservatives. ‘Vox’s rise creates a serious dilemma for PP: facilitate a Socialist-led government, which would leave the centre-right party vulnerable to Vox‘s attacks, or going to another election with Vox on the rise,’ tweeted analyst Antonio Barroso.

5. But populists suffer when confronted by political reality

There were two big losers in Sunday’s election. Ironically, they were the two parties that sparked the country’s political crisis with their rise in 2015, which reshaped Spanish politics by challenging the long hegemony of traditional parties. But now the hard-left Podemos, much admired by Jeremy Corbyn, has fewer than half of the 71 seats it held at the start of the year while its centre-right rival, Ciudadanos, has collapsed from 57 to 10 seats, forcing its leader to quit.

They show the difficulties of sustaining a democratic insurgency, especially when based on politics of resentment. The fall of Podemos is especially fascinating, demonstrating what happens when ideological purity confronts pragmatism of everyday politics. This party emerged five-years ago from huge anti-austerity protests in a nation badly wounded by the financial meltdown and bursting of a housing bubble, which still suffers very high youth unemployment. Pablo Iglesias, its charismatic pony-tailed leader, promised to transform politics and came close to stealing the crown of Spain’s left from Sanchez. Then came infighting, fragmentation and bitter rows over compromises in local government. Now it looks significantly diminished.

Pro-business Ciudadanos could not be more different ideologically, but it also hoped to exploit the country’s discredited old politics. Instead it has been humiliated after crumbling from third place to sixth. This group began as a regional party in Catalonia, founded by anti-independence activists, then sought to capitalise on huge corruption staining the PP. Ciudadanosrose rapidly, winning one in seven voters in 2015 but has now shrunk back to be smaller than the Catalan Republican Left in parliament after a disastrous few months. First it refused to negotiate with Sanchez over a governing agreement, then foolishly tried to compete with Vox by tacking hard Right, triggering a spate of resignations from senior officials. Its leader, Albert Rivera, who once posed naked in a campaign poster, has resigned.

New politics does not take long to look like old politics.

6. Democracy is left looking dysfunctional

In June 2015 — after the first of this recent quartet of elections — exit polls predicted Podemos had broken the mould and beaten the Socialists. Then the results came in and crushed their hopes. After this latest verdict of Spanish voters, Iglesias insisted that ‘the only way to stop the far-right in Spain is to have a stable government’.

He is right. Yet this concept of strong and stable government (to coin a familiar phrase) looks further off then ever in Spain after a result that leaves democracy looking dysfunctional again as it struggles to adapt to a fast-changing world. Studies have shown dwindling support in Western nations for the world’s most successful form of government as populists in various hues exploit electoral and economic dissatisfaction. Spain is just one more nation on our polarised continent struggling to find a path through these tempestuous political storms.

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