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Where is Spain going after the elections? A debate between the extremes and the center

Before last night’s electoral surprise, it was estimated that the conservatives of the Popular Party could resort to their allies in the political periphery to govern and that that fact would bring to power the first far-right party from Franco.

The potential rise of that far-right party, Vox, who has a nationalist spirit imbued with the ghost of Franco, it would bring Spain into the growing ranks of European nations where the main conservative parties have associated themselves with forces that were previously taboo by electoral necessity.

It is an important marker for a politically changing continent and a moment of gestation for a country that has long grappled with the legacy of its dictatorship.

Even before Spaniards cast a single vote, the issue raised questions about where the country’s political heart really lies: whether its painful past and transition to democracy just four decades ago have turned Spain into a largely moderate, inclusive and centrist country, or if it could veer to the extremes once more.




Santiago Abascal, leader of the far-right Vox. Photo Reuters

​Bipartisanship

The centrist parties of the establishment – both the conservative PP and the PSOE socialists led by President Pedro Sánchez – have long dominated the country’s politicsand most of the electorate appears to be moving away from the extremes toward the center, experts say.

But none of Spain’s main parties have enough support to govern alone. Since neither the PP nor the PSOE obtained an absolute majority in the 350-seat Parliament, a policy of alliances is imperative. Vox, from the extreme right, is a likely partner, but not the only one because several center-left parties that the PSOE could associate with are now appearing on the scene.

The paradox is that even as Vox seemed on the verge of reaching the height of its power since it was founded a decade ago, its support may be waning as its stances against abortion rights, climate change policies and the LGBTQ community have turned away many voters.

The notion that the country is becoming more extremist is “a mirage”said Sergio del Molino, an analyst who has written a lot about Spain and its transformations.

Pedro Sanchez, leader of the PSOE and head of government of Spain.  AFP photo


Pedro Sanchez, leader of the PSOE and head of government of Spain. AFP photo

The election, he said, more reflected the political fragmentation of establishment parties, brought about by the radicalizing events of the 2008 financial crisis and Catalonia’s near-secession in 2017. That has now made alliances, even sometimes with parties on the political peripheryare a necessity.

He pointed out “a gap” between the country’s political leadership, which needed to seek electoral support at the extremes to govern, and a “society that wants to return to the center again”.

José Ignacio Torreblanca, Spain expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the messy process of coalition building in Spain’s relatively new era of post-two-party system gave fringe parties more influence and visibility than their actual support. “This is not a blue and red country, not at all”said.

Others were less convinced. Paula Suárez, 29, a doctor and left-wing candidate for local office in Barcelona with the Sumar coalition, said polarization in the country was entrenched. “It has to do with the civil war, it is an inheritance. Half of Spain is on the left and half on the right,” she said.

But those who see a mostly centrist Spain use the same historical reference point for their argument. The traditional rejection of the Spanish electorate to extremessome experts said, is based precisely on his memory of the deadly polarization of the Franco era.

Later, through the shared traumas of decades of assassination by Basque terrorists seeking to break with Spain, the two main establishment parties, the PP and PSOE, carved out a political center and provided a spacious home for most voters.

But recent events have tested the strength of Spain’s immunity to appeals from political extremes. Even if it is centrist, Spanish politics today, if it is not polarized, it is certainly lying on the margins.

A PP corruption scandal caused Vox to split in 2013. Then, Catalonia’s near-secession in 2017 fueled nationalists at a time when populist anger against globalization, the European Union and gender-based identity politics were taking off across Europe.

The financial crisis

On the other side of the spectrum, the financial crisis led to the creation of a hard left in 2015, which forced Sánchez to form a government with that group and cross a red line for him and the country.

Perhaps more important for this election, the PSOE has also relied on votes from Basque groups filled with ex-terrorists, giving conservative voters the green light to become more permissive of Vox, Torreblanca said. “This is what made politics in Spain quite toxic”said.

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, leader of the Popular Party.  AFP photo


Alberto Núñez Feijóo, leader of the Popular Party. AFP photo

After the local elections in May, which dealt a heavy blow to Pedro Sánchez and prompted him to call early elections this Sunday, the Conservatives and Vox have already formed alliances across the country, confirming the fears of the Liberals.

At a rally for Yolanda Díaz, the candidate of the leftist Sumar, an alignment of women spoke about maternity leave, the defense of the right to abortion and the protection of women against abuse. The crowd erupted as Diaz proclaimed: “Only if we are strong will we send Vox to the opposition.”

“The paradox now,” said the analyst Torreblanca, “is that just as when the PSOE came to government with its left-wing partners weakening, the same is happening now with a PP that seemed ready to govern while social support for its eventual Vox partners seems to be falling.”

Source: AFP, AP and Clarín

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