So this is where we are; despite six months of insisting that he wouldn't trigger a general election, Spain's beleaguered Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, then called one barely seven months after the last (and spent over 130 million euros on campaigning later). Sánchez then formed a pact between his centre-left PSOE and the far-left Unidas Podemos (UP) within 48 hours of the results being declared on the 10th November. His decision, met with warmth by some, and incredulity by many, is not an insignificant one, considering both PSOE and UP lost seats compared to the previous election on the 28th April meaning they are now further away from the majority required to form a government.
This agreement, if confirmed, will see self-declared communists from UP holding positions in government for the first time since Spain’s bloody civil war of 1936-1939. Not only that, but due to the numerical impossibility of a partisan coalition on either the left or the right, the PSOE-UP coalition will be reliant on the support of Basque and Catalan nationalists. This being especially problematic as both groups are intent on the destruction of the Spanish state to get their legislative agenda approved.
Spain is certainly not a country free of crisis. The country has faced violent and anti-democratic Catalan separatists. During the two election campaigns of 2019 these separatists have been seen attacking people for the crime of speaking Spanish and have frequently intimidated anti-separatist supporters at polling stations. Furthermore, there is the problematic substantial rise into third place of the far-right Vox, a gruesome tribute act to the 36 year fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco. It has pledged bans on abortion and immigrant healthcare, repealing anti-gender violence legislation and criminalising regional parties, bringing back memories, that to many Spaniards are too painful for discussion.
The return of political extremism and regional separatism to the mainstream of Spanish politics presents a typical situation of cause and effect. As one extreme grows stronger, so does its polar opposite in response, with the solutions to the crisis from each side becoming more simplistic and unfeasible as time progresses. UP for example has proposed concessions to the violent Catalan separatists. This has been met with outrage by a majority of Spaniards who see the Catalan crisis as created by the separatists who, firstly, broke the law to call an independence referendum in 2017 and subsequently cried persecution once the Spanish state took the necessary measures to re-establish order. The lack of decisive action towards Catalonia, caused by Spain’s political deadlock has driven many voters into the arms of Vox, attracted to their counter-productive and dangerous, but uncompromising policy of banning all pro-independence parties.
Aside from the Catalan question, Spain is faced with other highly complex domestic issues. Years of economic stagnation since the financial crash of 2008 have left a gaping hole in the public finances. Impractical austerity measures, partly enforced by the European Central Bank, and many businesses employing people on precarious temporary contracts as a strategy to cope with market uncertainty, have left the average Spaniard feeling the squeeze. As well as this, Spaniards face a complex and outdated tax code, supported by a severely bloated, restrictive bureaucracy that wouldn’t be out of place in the former Soviet Union. This tax system allows large corporations with armies of lawyers and accountants to thrive, and leaves the self-employed/small business owner struggling to survive. Such problems have left Spain without the necessary innovation and job creation provided by small businesses, nor the consumer power to drive the country forward as a successful, developed economy. The proposed remedies from UP, include further expanding the bureaucracy and huge increases in tax and spending that risk killing growth. On the opposite side of the spectrum, those from Vox are generally centred around scapegoating immigrants, social progress and now Catalans for all the ills of Spain. These should attract well deserved yawns and ire for their outdated and generic nature.
Although extremism is rising in Spain, it is by no means ascendant over the moderate parties. Between them, the PSOE, the liberal Ciudananos and the centre-right PP, hold 219 out of 350 seats in parliament. This is compared to the 87 seats of Vox and UP. The rest of the seats are held by fringe and nationalist parties from across the political spectrum. Therefore, with a comfortable working majority, the moderate factions of Spanish politics could devise an agenda that offers a solution to the Catalan problem, bridging the divide between appeasement and Francoist confrontation. Furthermore, they would be able to implement a sensible economic programme designed to tackle Spain’s stagnation, empower innovation and increase the availability of opportunity to as many citizens as possible.
The good news is, understanding the severity of the times, both Ciudadanos and PP have extended a hand to Sánchez with an offer of coalition. While the bad news is that Sánchez, under pressure from his party base and worried, selfishly, about the electoral consequences of embracing the centre, will most likely pursue his agreement with UP. As a result, Spain will continue with political instability, economic decline and the prospect of Catalan Independence becoming a damaging reality.
Ultimately, Spaniards can only hope that with his premiership wobbling on the edge of a cliff, Spain’s PM and gambler in chief will hold his nose, be bold and reach out to grab the hand from the middle to pull his country away from the extremist abyss.