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Ahead of the Spanish national elections on April 28, Open Europe’s Zoe Alipranti provides an overview of the Spanish political landscape through the thorny issue of Catalan separatism and the recent rise of ultraconservative party Vox.
5 April 2019
The Spanish general election on April 28 will be the third since 2015. It follows Pedro Sanchez’s centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE) toppling the outgoing centre-right Popular Party (PP) Mariano Rajoy government in a no confidence vote last June with the support of Catalan and Basque parties. Spanish political instability does not seem to be ending anytime soon. Indeed, pre-election polls reveal an intensely polarised environment in Spain.
The 2015 and 2016 elections disrupted Spain’s traditional two-party system that had seen the centre-right PP and centre-left PSOE alternating positions of power, due to the emergence of two new parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos. Podemos, founded in January 2014, resonated with left-wing voters through anti-elite and anti-austerity slogans, whilst Ciudadanos emerged as a centrist force that aimed at tackling corruption and was opposed to Catalan independence.
As a result, the last two elections transformed the Spanish political landscape into a multi-polar one; the two establishment centre-right and centre-left parties now struggle to reach a combined 50% of the vote. The 2019 national election is set to further strengthen the trend of fragmentation, with the ultraconservative Vox party poised to enter national parliament for the first time.
Polls for the 2019 elections indicate that PSOE will be the most popular party, forecasted to win around 28%. Although PSOE would be strengthened compared to their results in 2015 and 2016, the votes seem to be coming at the expense of Podemos who would be their most natural coalition partner. This would make a centre-left coalition fall short of a majority.
PP’s numbers have plummeted compared to previous elections, reaching 20-21% and placing PP on the path to receive its worst electoral result since its creation in 1989. It seems to have ceded significant chunks of votes to Ciudadanos and Vox. Together these parties could potentially form a majority coalition government, but polls currently show this is not a probable scenario. Importantly, Ciudadanos have ruled out a coalition government with PSOE, citing their opposition to PSOE holding talks with Catalan independentists. Some Spanish commentators have attributed this to Ciudadanos’ desire to replace PP as the main centre-right party in Spain.
Ultimately, both the centre right and centre left will struggle to garner an absolute majority needed to form a coalition, making the role of regional parties such as Catalan nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) pivotal in the formation of the next Spanish government. This is advantageous for the centre-left due to their softer take on independentists, but is likely to make the next government rest on shaky foundations from the outset. Illustrating this point is that the talks Sanchez held with separatists in February broke down because of demands for a referendum.
Catalan independence remains a major bone of contention in Spanish politics. An independence referendum is legally impossible without altering the Spanish constitution. Sanchez has promised to engage in talks with Catalan nationalists but has ruled out holding a referendum for Catalan independence because of “respecting the framework of the constitution.” The centre-right PP and Ciudadanos and ultra-conservative Vox are united by calls for a tougher stance against Catalan separatists, with PP leader Pablo Casado accusing Sanchez of being a “traitor” and defending intervention in Catalonia. Vox is the most vociferous opponent of Catalan independence and denounces the PP as being too soft.
Moreover, corruption remains a long standing problem with PP.
Vox was founded in 2013 and initially struggled to make an impact in Spanish politics. Since the Francoist dictatorship, Spain was until recently one of the few European countries with no insurgent right-wing nationalist party. However, migration and the Catalan crisis were critical in propelling the Vox movement, with their entry into the Andalusian regional parliament after the December 2018 regional elections sending shockwaves across Europe. Effective use of social media has allowed Vox to capitalise on voters disgruntled with PP and disillusioned with Catalan separatism. The party is now trying to expand its appeal to low-income towns with high levels of immigration. It is also extremely socially conservative.
Deporting illegal immigrants to their country of origin is one of their key policies. Vox is also committed to the unity of the Spanish state and it has pledged to make separatist parties illegal and suspend Catalan autonomy. Vox is therefore just as concerned with Spanish sovereignty being threatened from within, as by the EU.
The strongest Eurosceptic policy of Vox revolves around rejecting immigration. A post in their official Twitter account said, “There is no Europe without the citizenship that originates from the nation” and “the patriotic movements that are triumphing across the continent are a reaction to the technocratic moves imposed by Brussels from the French and German elite”. They have also recently adopted another trope of the Eurosceptic right, attacking “Merkel, Macron and Soros globalism”.
Europe factors in other party campaigns, with PSOE primarily capitalising on strong pro-EU credentials, while Ciudadanos and PP also voice their support for the European project. Sanchez emphasises EU allegiance as a way to attract forward looking and metropolitan liberals, highlighting the opportunity for Spain to boost its profile in the EU as a main French partner after Brexit. Ultimately, both centre-left and centre-right governments would advocate similar positions on the future European direction, favouring the French camp in economic reforms of the Eurozone that is currently unpopular among many member states. Yet, even if the more Europhile PSOE was in power, domestic turmoil would hamper movement on a European level; French President Emmanuel Macron is already coming to terms with that and has watered down his European vision.
Spanish regional, municipal and European elections will be held on May 26, less than a month after the national elections. Election “fatigue” could lower turnout compared to the national elections, benefitting the smaller parties such as Vox. Ciudadanos are also expected to enter the European parliament for the first time while the PSOE and PP results are expected to reflect their performance in the national election.
The bipartisan system in Spain has been reconfigured into a five party system, following the trend of fragmentation that has taken hold in European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands. The Catalan issue and corruption will remain at the heart of Spanish politics. However, with both the centre-left and centre-right bloc forecasted to fall short of a majority, the balance of power in the next Spanish government will likely be held by the separatist parties. This is likely to perpetuate instability in Spanish politics and lead to further polarisation between parties strongly opposed to Catalan independence and Catalan independentists.
Vox has altered the terms of the Spanish debate, reinvigorating far right discourse that was long absent in Spanish politics. It can thus best be described as the Spanish variant of populism that includes some Eurosceptic tropes, but the next Spanish government will probably lead a predictable path in Europe, in contrast to domestic instability that is set to persist.