Spain nears polarized elections: What's at stake?

Far-right politics has been rising across Europe. Could Spain be next?

Yayınlanma: 26.07.2023 - 14:36
Spain nears polarized elections: What's at stake?
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Spanish voters will vote in a summer election on Sunday in what parties say will determine the fate of the country.

Days before the vote, polls suggest a possible drastic shift for Spain, moving from its current status as one of the most progressive European countries toward a political environment where a far-right party may be part of the coalition government – a first in Spain’s modern democratic history.

“What’s at stake isn’t alternating power [between the left and right], but democracy,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has said throughout the campaign.

Meanwhile, the front-runner, Alberto Nunez Feijoo of the Popular Party, says putting an end to the “failures of Sanchism” is urgently needed. He says if the left-wing bloc stays in government with the continued support of separatist Catalan and Basque Parties, national unity is at risk.

Feijoo is hoping for an absolute majority, but the polls suggest that is highly unlikely. Instead, they point to the need for the Popular Party to join forces with the far-right Vox, which even Feijoo has said is an undesired outcome.

“We don’t want an abrupt change, a change that comes with desires for revenge… most Spaniards want a change without rage, and that’s why I’m asking for the vote to make it possible,” he said, referring to being able to govern alone without the need to rely on the Vox.

The rise of the far-right: Is Spain next?

Far-right politics have been rising across Europe. At first, Spain considered itself the exception, with no hard-right party in the mix until Vox was spun off the Popular Party in 2013. But it wasn’t until after the Catalan government held an illegal independence referendum in 2017 that the party surged in support.

In Spain’s last national elections in 2019, Vox’s support had skyrocketed to 15% of the general vote. Today, polls suggest its popularity has declined slightly, but the Popular Party’s success buoys the party’s chances to enter government.

It wasn’t until 2022 that Vox first entered into a regional government as a coalition partner of the Popular Party in Castile and Leon. There, Vox leadership famously announced new hurdles and restrictions for abortions, which the Popular Party rejected. But despite the tension, the number of coalition agreements between the Popular Party and Vox grew after the right-wing swept regional and local elections held in May. Vox is now in government in the regions of Extremadura and Valencia, as well as several important cities.

In Valencia, the right-wing coalition government has already laid out its plans for the next four years. More telling parts of the governing pact include promises to remove “ideology” from schools; swap the concept of “gendered violence” for “domestic violence;” fight against illegal squatting; lower taxes; and repeal laws related to protecting the victims of the Franco-ist regime.

At a national level, a governing coalition could look similar. Santiago Abascal, Vox’s leader, vows that it will defend Spain against migration, preserve cultural traditions and revoke feminist and LGBT-friendly laws passed by Spain’s progressive government.

Under Spain’s last Popular Party government, led by Mariano Rajoy, the Catalonia issue reached a breaking point in 2017, with violent police crackdowns on the illegal referendum, the Catalan government’s unilateral declaration of independence and then Madrid temporarily suspending home rule. The leaders who didn’t flee were arrested and sentenced to years behind bars.

Last week, Abascal vowed to take an even harder stance against Catalan separatists. “When a coup d’état occurs, you cannot limit your intervention to just a few months,” he said on the campaign trail. “It is absolutely necessary that there be a sustained, lasting intervention, and that all the resources of the state be used to convince the population of Catalonia.”

In response, the moderate Feijoo of the Popular Party responded in an interview with La Sexta that he will aim to “reduce tensions” with Catalonia, without “submitting to minorities that want to break the laws.”

Indeed, one of the most basic points uniting Vox and the Popular Party is a commitment to rule for the majority of Spaniards, not minorities, which they accuse the left-wing government of having done for the last four years.

Right-wing government is not inevitable

While the odds and polls favor a right-wing coalition government, it is far from guaranteed.

Just days before the vote, Sanchez told Spanish broadcaster La Sexta that he is convinced the left-wing bloc could remain in power.

“I’m enthusiastic, I’m excited and I’m grateful because I’m seeing Spain’s progressive voters mobilize in a way I haven’t seen for years. They understand what’s at stake for the country,” he said.

On Thursday, the Socialist Party also published a manifesto signed by world leaders, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Portugal’s Antonio Costa and Brazil’s Luiz Ignacio Lula Da Silva, urging voters to support Sanchez.

“The importance of these elections is undeniable… Reactionary forces are fueling rhetoric of tension and delegitimization of institutions that could have serious consequences for global stability,” reads the manifesto that suggests the far-right wave jeopardizes everything from diversity to feminist rights to fighting climate change.

The final days of the campaign have also included more personal attacks on Feijoo, including his relationship with convicted Galician narco-trafficker and money launderer Marcial Dorado. In notorious photos from 1995, Feijoo is seen sunbathing on the criminal’s yacht.

Another wildcard, less removed from democratic conversation, is the fact that Spaniards are voting at the peak of the summer holiday season. A record number of citizens have opted to vote by mail, but the delays in delivering some ballots prompted Feijoo to vow he would fire the head of Spain’s postal service for “incompetence.” On Thursday, the post office even extended the final day of voting by mail until Friday. This could signal that abstention rates could be higher than normal, which could sway the vote in an unexpected direction.

Meanwhile, if the two right-wing parties fall short of a majority government, which several polls suggest, Vox and the Popular Party will need to court the support of smaller regional parties. While some of those parties embrace conservative values, the largest regional parties tend to favor supporting the left-wing bloc, which has proved softer on separatists. For example, in 2021, Sanchez’s government issued pardons for the imprisoned Catalan leaders to open a new era of dialogue.

Do the results pose an existential risk for Spain?

The political rhetoric makes Sunday’s polls seem like a matter of life or death for the Spanish project. The right-wing accuses the progressive bloc of aligning itself with enemies like separatists and totalitarian left-wing regimes in Latin America. The left thinks the far-right’s first presence in the central government since the 1970s could mean a “time machine” back to Spain’s fascist past, as Sanchez put it in his debate with Feijoo.

But cooler-headed analysts predict that however the vote falls, Spain will remain a thriving democracy committed to upholding the laws of the European Union. Feijoo, president of his home region of Galicia for more than a decade, has a track record of moderation.

Even if the far-right party does form part of a governing coalition, it could see the same fate as the hard left. When radical anti-austerity party Unidas Podemos joined Spain’s coalition government for the first time in 2019, members of the right warned that Spain would become “the next Venezuela.”

The far-left bloc did spearhead controversial legislation, particularly bills surrounding trans rights and sexual consent. Yet, those moves acted to erode support for Podemos; less than five years later, the party dropped out of the national elections, subsumed by the more practical Sumar party led by Yolanda Diaz.

And in the end, Spain did not become a left-wing dictatorship but instead a leading progressive voice in Europe. Despite the fear that the hard-left would destroy Spain’s democracy, Freedom House still rates Spain among the most advanced democracies in the world, ahead of countries including France, Greece, and the United States.

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