Spain dodges a far-right bullet
26 Jul 2023|

‘Spain is different’ is a phrase that has often been used as a substitute for nuanced analysis of developments in the country. But Spain truly was different in its peaceful transition to democracy after the end of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship—which coined the cliché—and the sweeping modernisation that followed. It was also different for not having a far-right party contending for political power—a status it seemed to be losing but has now managed to reclaim.

While many European countries—including Austria, France, Germany and most of Scandinavia—have long struggled to contain their respective proto-fascist parties, Spain’s centre-right People’s Party (PP) succeeded in integrating remaining Francoist forces, thereby diluting their influence. That changed in 2014, when Santiago Abascal founded the Vox party, whose neo-Francoist agenda quickly drew significant support: five years later, Vox won 52 seats in Spain’s parliament.

A few days ago, Vox appeared to be on the cusp of another milestone: becoming the first far-right party in Spain’s government since the end of Franco’s regime. Polls suggested that, in last Sunday’s snap election, voters would reject Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s fractious left-wing coalition in favour of the PP—Spain’s main conservative opposition party—which would surely need Vox’s support to take office.

Instead, the PP gained fewer seats than expected, leaving it with 136 total, and Vox lost 19 seats. Together, the two parties didn’t secure the 176 seats needed to form a majority, and the PP has no natural allies beyond Vox to augment a potential coalition.

To be sure, Sánchez’s Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and its coalition partner Sumar also fell short—the current governing alliance, which also includes Podemos, now holds only 153 seats—leaving Spain with a hung parliament. But the PSOE may well be able to regain power by securing the support of the regional nationalist parties of the Basque country and Catalonia. In other words, the PP appears to be out of options, and the PSOE does not.

How did Sánchez manage to eke out another chance at leading Spain? For starters, he has a relatively strong economic record. Despite its lavish social policies, the outgoing government managed to tame inflation, bring down endemically high unemployment and foster steady growth. GDP expanded by 5.5% in both 2021 and 2022, making Spain one of the eurozone’s best-performing economies. While lower growth can be expected this year, due largely to the effects of the Ukraine war, Spain still appears to be on track to outperform most of its European counterparts, with the Bank of Spain predicting 2.3% growth.

Of course, Spain’s economic situation is not all rosy. Unemployment remains at 12.7%—one of the highest rates in the European Union—though real unemployment is probably lower, since many workers may be making a living in the undeclared economy. Moreover, like in the rest of Europe, homebuyers and owners with mortgages are under severe pressure, owing to high interest rates.

The second reason why Sánchez is in a stronger position than his opponents is more fundamental. The snap election was framed as a kind of Kulturkampf, a war of values between Catholic conservatism and progressive laicism.

The right mobilised support by accusing Sánchez of attacking the traditions and values they hold dear, such as by expanding abortion rights, introducing progressive laws upholding transgender rights and passing the ‘only yes means yes’ law on sexual consent. Vox, by contrast, denies the very existence of gender-based violence.

The right also condemned Sánchez’s efforts to purge Spain of the remnants of Franco’s legacy. Sánchez’s government ordered the transfer of Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen mausoleum to a humbler location, and enacted a law to deliver ‘justice, reparation and dignity’ to Franco’s victims.

Sánchez’s camp, for its part, warned that a PP–Vox coalition would lead Spain into a new era of darkness and division reminiscent of 1936–1939, when the country was torn apart by a civil war triggered by Catalan and Basque separatism. It is telling that the party that has built a better relationship with separatist forces now has a better chance of governing.

In fact, Sánchez’s government actively sought to restore the central government’s relationship with Catalonia’s separatists, which had been severely damaged during the PP-led government in 2011–2018. To this end, Sánchez pardoned Catalan independence leaders who had been jailed for conducting an illegal referendum on independence in 2014 and downgraded the crime of secession of which they had been accused.

Sánchez also worked with Catalan and Basque separatist parties to pass key reforms. Much to the conservatives’ anger, he even made deals with Bildu, whose leader Arnaldo Otegi was jailed in 2010 for complicity in the crimes of ETA, the now-dissolved Basque terrorist organization.

Nonetheless, these parties won’t back a new Sánchez government for free. Their demands—for example, a binding referendum on self-determination in Catalonia—might even turn out to be prohibitive. They would certainly infuriate Spain’s right. A new Sánchez-led government with the support of these parties would thus be highly controversial, and could open a new, volatile and dangerous chapter in Spanish politics.

Spain’s leaders should consider pursuing a grand coalition and a broad political agreement to update some of the constitutional premises upon which the country’s quasi-federal system was built. Rather than flirting with the division of the civil war period, such a coalition would embody the spirit of conciliation, consensus and statesmanship that characterised the early years of Spain’s transition to democracy.

Whatever happens next, Spain can be trusted to navigate it. The philosopher José Ortega y Gasset once wrote, ‘Spain is the problem; Europe is the solution.’ The Spanish have taken that to heart, acting as some of the most ardent defenders of the European project since joining the then European Communities in 1986. A deeply held belief in European values continues to unite Spaniards of most political persuasions. The illiberal model that has taken root in Hungary and Poland has few buyers in Spain.