Spain’s Troubled Spring

Unable to pass its budget, Spain’s Socialist government is calling snap elections. But reactionary forces are on the rise in the country.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez attends the reading of the Spanish Constitution for the 40th anniversary of its approval by the Congress at the Cervantes Institute on October 31, 2018 in Madrid, Spain. Carlos Alvarez / Getty Images

It’s been a rough ride. On June 2, 2018, the Socialist Party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sánchez was sworn in as the twelfth head of the Spanish government since the end of the dictatorship. Yet the temporary allies who voted him into office were far more united in kicking out right-wing premier Mariano Rajoy than in supporting the new administration. Sánchez was backed by Unidos Podemos and its regional allies, almost without conditions but also by parties of both left and right from the Basque Country and Catalonia.

From the outset, both Rajoy’s Partido Popular (PP) and Albert Rivera’s Ciudadanos sharply criticized Sánchez’s alliance with these pro-independence and nationalist forces. Their attacks whipped up the traditional specters of the Spanish right, not just the fight for independence but also terrorist outrages by ETA (which dissolved two years ago) and the “far left” supposedly represented by Podemos. Thus from the start of its spell in office the PSOE faced a difficult balancing act, and a majority that was sure to be hard to maintain.

Sánchez responded to this difficult situation by forming a diverse cabinet, seeking to satisfy everyone (albeit at the risk of leaving everyone unhappy). His government was based on total gender parity, as well as the inclusion of several open gay ministers. Yet it also included figures who took a hardline anti-independence stance, from Interior Minister Grande Marlaska to Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, a figurehead of the unionist marches in Barcelona together with the Spanish-nationalist PP and Ciudadanos and the far-right Vox.

Today, Sánchez’s government is at the end of the line. And again the issue at the center of Spanish politics is the national question. With Spanish nationalists on the rise and the Catalan and Basque independentists withdrawing support for Sánchez’s budget, fresh elections are now set for April 28. The result of the campaign is uncertain. But things are not looking promising for the forces of social transformation. With the Catalan independentists lacking a strategy for a way forward, the Left is once again buried in in-fighting.

The Rise of Vox

There were bad signs for the PSOE already at the start of December, with the regional elections in Andalucía striking a hard blow at Sánchez’s party. Spain’s most populous region has always been a PSOE fiefdom, with the party governing there ever since the first democratic elections. It has built up an infamous clientelist network by means of corruption.

Disgust over this, as well as the prospect of “change” in the region’s government, were key factors in the campaign. Meanwhile, the right-wing parties’ use of a tough anti-Catalan line made this fertile terrain for a far-right party, Vox, to win representation in Andalucía’s institutions — a success without precedent since the transition to democracy.

Vox’s breakthrough and the rise of Ciudadanos (with the PP also holding firm) meant that there were enough right-wing MPs to hand the presidency of the Andalucían region to the PP for the first time. This union of the three right-wing forces is key to the reconstruction of the political camp so dear to former conservative premier José María Aznar; the absolute majority he won in 2000 may indeed repeat itself in the April 28 contest. Though they act separately, these forces today make up a three-headed beast, with the conservative soul of the PP in concert with the liberal soul of Ciudadanos and the ultra-right Vox.

The Catalan Factor

Such are the forces of Spanish nationalism. Yet from the outset the Catalan independentists had been decisive in getting Sánchez into office. They unconditionally backed his bid to oust Rajoy in June 2018, in the hope that a PSOE government would make gestures toward dialogue with the Catalan autonomous government and some kind of solution for the Catalan political prisoners. This contrasted with the right-wing Basque nationalists of the PNV, who played their hand best, selling support for Sánchez in exchange for greater economic powers for the Basque Autonomous Community.

As a result of the “Catalan autumn” — the bid for independence in September-October 2017 — there are today nine people in preventative detention, seven in exile and another twenty-four accused, among other things, of sedition, rebellion, misuse of public funds, disobedience, and belonging to a criminal organization, all on account of having helped organize the independence referendum of October 1, 2017. Added to these are hundreds of mayors and thousands of other citizens who face police investigation or trial. All of them are members of the then-Catalan government or the two main civil society pro-independence organizations.

One of the key things the pro-independence parties (both the center-right PDECAT and the social-democratic Esquerra Republicana) had hoped for from the Sánchez government was the beginning of some sort of negotiation with Catalonia’s own government. Yet the only move that the Spanish government made was to take the prisoners from jails elsewhere in Spain to ones within Catalonia itself — a move that most of the pro-independence sector of Catalan society, and most of its parties, saw as far from sufficient.

The Test of the Budget

The problem for Sánchez was that, just as in the initial vote that brought him to office, if he wanted to pass his budget this would again require the support of not just Unidos Podemos but also the Basque nationalists and Catalan independentists. For their part Unidos Podemos negotiated a whole series of social policies, some of which were symbolic but others of which were very important, from a rise in the general minimum wage from €700 to €900 a month to the feminist measure of lowering VAT on sanitary products (tampons etc.) from 21 percent to 4 percent.

The Catalan independentist parties called for the release of the political prisoners and the beginning of an open process to discuss the question of Catalan sovereignty. This relied on a twenty-one-point document proposed by the Catalan government led by Quim Torria. PSOE and Podemos signed a deal to approve the budget, thus offloading the pressure to support the deal onto the Catalan independentists.

This was the context in which the Spanish cabinet decided to meet in Barcelona on December 21 — a move perceived by the more radical wing of the independence movement as a provocation, although the government itself sought to portray this as a bid to ease tensions. This meeting took place on the anniversary of the elections that the Rajoy government had imposed the previous year with Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, suspending Catalan autonomy.

In response to the holding of the cabinet meeting in Barcelona, pro-independence forces called a demonstration to surround the building where it was being held. The protests ended with police charges, leaving many wounded. But within the cabinet the ministers approved the minimum wage rise, which was here unbound from the general budget plan. Social policy was thus used to pile the pressure on the pro-independence parties.

At the same time, last week the trial began against nine pro-independence leaders, together with eighteen connected figures, for their role in the October 1, 2017 referendum. The prosecution criticized by international observers on account of the lack of guarantees for the defendants, will continue until late April, and could lead to them being sentenced to decades of prison time. This naturally made it very difficult for the pro-independence parties to support the budget, not least Esquerra Republicana, whose general secretary (and former Catalan vice president) Oriol Junqueras is himself on trial.

The Most Progressive Budget Ever?

Throughout these events, Unidos Podemos stoutly defended the measures it had managed to win from the PSOE, even if Sánchez’s government itself made statements that left room for doubt that they would all be fulfilled. The independentist parties held firm to their demands, and faced with the impasse, the government promised to create a dialogue in which an independent speaker would moderate a debate between the Spanish and Catalan executives. PP leader Pablo Casado, Ciudadanos’s Albert Rivera, but also once-leading PSOE figures like former premier Felipe González and former minister Alfonso Guerra however spoke out in total opposition to any negotiation or dialogue.

The PP and Ciudadanos then called a demonstration in Madrid for February 10 which was then joined by Vox. In numerical terms the mobilization was nothing special, but it was quite a success in terms of the results, as the PSOE abandoned the planned dialogue and then decided to call fresh elections, faced with not just the right-wing parties but also PDECAT and Esquerra Republicana’s opposition to its budget.

Unidos Podemos leaders Pablo Iglesias and Alberto Garzón, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, and others spoke out in sharp tones against the Catalan independence parties for not letting the budget pass. Their arguments essentially amounted to the insistence that they had passed up the opportunity to approve the “most socially-minded budget in Spanish history,” in turn hurting the interests of the Catalan population.

Three Scenarios

The general election will take place on April 28, though Sánchez will not call it officially until March 5. In fact, according to Spanish law if the budget cannot be passed (something which has happened only twice in the country’s democratic history) the previous one is extended, without there being any obligation to call elections. So is Sánchez’s move a strategy to help out the PSOE itself?

With this question we get to the most tangled knot in the current situation. The PSOE can hope to bind the left-wing electorate behind itself on the basis of two main developments, namely the fragmentation of Unidos Podemos (with divisions at the regional level, but especially the bad image resulting from Iñigo Errejón and Manuela Carmena’s plan to stand separately of the party in the Madrid local elections) and the danger represented by the far-right Vox, which the polls predict to be on the brink of a historic breakthrough. Calling the elections so soon will leave all of its right-wing rivals relatively unprepared, and also exploit a moment in which Unidos Podemos is internally divided and lacks a strategic perspective.

All this could give rise to multiple possibilities. The first is the prospect of the three forces on the Right claiming victory in a similar manner to Andalucía, where Vox united with the PP and Ciudadanos’ efforts to kick out the PSOE. This new edition of former right-wing premier Aznar’s approach would be a disaster for the working and popular classes and also for the Catalan and Basque populations; in effect, any prospect of dialogue over (and a resolution of) the Catalan conflict would be ditched. The polls do not suggest these parties will win a majority, though there is much to play for before the end of April.

The second possibility is a government along the Portuguese model, a left-wing alliance centered on the PSOE but including both Unidos Podemos and the Basque nationalists and Catalan independentists. However, this would be difficult especially on account of the PSOE’s own internal balance, making it difficult to reconcile the interests of all these forces. Unidos Podemos’s weakened polling position in particular makes such a majority an only faint possibility.

The final possibility is the one that has been most built up by media discussion in recent days, an administration seeking to calm the markets and generate confidence in Brussels by uniting the social-liberals of the PSOE with the liberals of Ciudadanos. This is the only solution which the opinion polls credit with being able to achieve an absolute majority in parliament, able to govern. These parties also agree on several key questions like the public debt and indeed the Catalan issue, though the PSOE is much less hardline.

The general election will not be the only vote this spring: the European contest in May will also be combined with local elections in some areas. At the same time, the feminist strike on March 8 (following the general strike in Catalonia on February 21) and the rise in the far right could pitch Spain into even deeper social conflicts. Yet with reactionary forces in the ascendancy and harsh sentences on the horizon in the Catalan trials, the turbulence ahead does not look promising for progressives.