“They do not represent us”: the previous years
In the period between 1982-2011, Spain had one of the most stable party systems in the world (Rodríguez-Teruel et al. 2019) : a moderate electoral volatility, two strong mainstream parties on the centre-left (PSOE-Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) and on the centre-right (PP-People’s Party) which alternated in power and concentrated most of the vote, reaching a peak of 83,81% in the elections of 2008, and a certain level of cooperation with peripheral nationalist parties. The Great Recession blew up all those certainties.
The results of 2011 sent the PSOE to the opposition, with the worst electoral defeat in their history. The absolute majority of the PP inaugurated a legislative term characterized by efforts to cut public spending, reduce the deficit and approve heavily criticized measures regarding civil rights. With the unemployment rate reaching a peak of 27% in 2013 (Fernández-Albertos and Kuo, 2016, p. 877) and the cooperative stance of nationalist parties in Catalonia coming to an end – triggered the embarking of the latter on a self-denominated “process of independence”–, the political crisis was inevitable. Two parties were born from the ashes of the Great Recession: first, Podemos, self-proclaimed as inheritor of the spirit of the Indignados--a movement which had started in Madrid in 2011 to protest against the situation of the country--, and whose rhetoric was inspired by the anti-elites and anti-establishment movement of the M5S in Italy (Ramiro and Gómez, 2017). Second, Ciudadanos, the national expansion of an anti-nationalist party in Catalonia (Rodríguez-Teruel and Barrio, 2016) , who offered a “Third Way” kind of politics, presenting themselves as “centrist” and “evidence-based” against the populist rhetoric of Podemos and the failing bipartidism.
The entrance of these parties in Congress and their support to governments of PP and PSOE across various regions resulted in the biggest change of the Spanish party system since 1982: the time for absolute majorities was over, and agreements would have to be reached in order to govern. After a failing attempt by Ciudadanos and the PSOE to form a government in March of 2016, new elections ensued in June, and a government of the PP, supported by Ciudadanos and the abstention of part of the socialist party, took the reins of the country. However, this event represented a turning point in the PSOE. Pedro Sánchez, its Secretary General and candidate, resigned, stating that he could not give the government to Rajoy, for he had been rejecting that possibility during the campaign. He would return one year later, winning a process of primaries against the president of Andalusia and candidate of the socialist establishment, Susana Díaz.
At the same time, tensions in Catalonia were at an all-time high after the illegal referendum of the 1stof October of 2017 and the unilateral declaration of independence of the Region. The government used the Article 155 of the Constitution (‘the Federal Coercion clause’) to impose direct rule in Catalonia, due to their renounce to accept the Constitutional framework. Several independentist leaders were put on trial, and the president of the region, Carles Puigdemont, fled to Brussels. His substitute, Quim Torra, who had written xenophobic articles regarding Spaniards years ago, was the proof of the radicalization of a process which culminated on another Catalan election –he third in five years–, and the reinforcement of the perspectives of the most radical elements of the independentism at a regional level. Also of Ciudadanos, who could brag about their anti-nationalist credentials, in the national polls.
However, their rise on the polls came up against an unexpected obstacle when, in May 2018, several members of the PP were condemned to prison, with charges of misuse of public funds and corruption. This was another nail in the coffin of a government which had already been besieged by scandals of this type since 2011, and the first successful motion of no-confidence in the democratic history of the country. Pedro Sánchez became Prime Minister with the votes of PSOE, Podemos and the nationalist and independentist parties of the Basque Country and Catalonia. His term, however, would be short, and after falling to approve a budget for the year 2019, he called for elections.
From two parties to two blocs: polarized pluralism
Spain was one of the few countries in Europe that had not experienced the scourge of extreme right parties. Explanations regarding this phenomenon ranged from the dictatorial past of the country till the ability of the PP to be a true catch-all in the right. Although both Podemos and some sectors of the Catalan independentist movement could be deemed as populists, the extreme right did not have any power in the country. However, in the regional elections of Andalusia, December 2018, Vox, born in 2014 but unsuccessful until this point, got 12 out of the 109 seats. Spain had been expelled from a paradise where few countries remained.
Looking for more?: ¿Por qué no hay un partido exitoso de extrema derecha en España? por Jorge Galindo en Politikon.
Vox’s manifesto combines a traditional approach in cultural terms with free market economies. They support the recentralization of the State, the illegalization of independentist parties, the exclusion of abortion and operations of change of sex from the free public services of the health system, the rejection of illegal immigration (including a reinforcement of the fences and walls in Ceuta and Melilla) and the protection of the ‘rural world’ and ‘traditions’. Alongside these measures, they aim to recognize the family as an institution which precedes the state, abolish the current Law against Gendered Violence and bring back a sense of ‘Spanish pride’. Right now, the polls place them at around 11/13% of the vote, but the huge uncertainty regarding the transfers of vote and possible hidden voters can end up with Vox reaching the third place. A year ago, they did not have any representation in any regional, European or national chamber.
How did this happen? Vox profited from the special circumstances of Andalusia to obtain representation in the regional parliament. The region had been governed by the PSOE for almost 40 years, and the combination of protest-vote and abstention of traditional voters of the socialists created the perfect mix for the rise of the new party. Through their support to the new government of PP and Ciudadanos in the region, they were also credited as a party able to expel the socialists from power, and not a mere wasted vote or sidekick to the two centre-right parties. The regional elections were used as a platform to project the party nationally, the same way as the European elections of 2014 provided the momentum for both Podemos and Ciudadanos.
Other factors seem to have combined to open up a window of opportunity for the radical right formation. The first one was the more accommodative stance towards the right from both the PP and Ciudadanos. The former chose Pablo Casado, former leader of the young branch of the party, as their leader in a process of primaries. He rejected the ‘managerial’ style of Rajoy, and promised to bring back a more ‘ideological’ centre-right for the elections. Ciudadanos, on the other hand, hardened their position towards Catalan independentism and increased the aggressiveness of its attacks against the Prime Minister, who was accused of having reached an agreement with those who seek to ‘destroy Spain’ to remain in power. The accommodative position towards more right-wing ideas by the two parties of the centre-right lowered the costs of the transition of voters from either of them to Vox.
The second reason was the strategy of the PSOE. Against a radical right-wing party whose economic discourse does not appeal to working class voters, it was easy for the party of the centre-left to start an ‘adversarial’ campaign against Vox even before the start of the campaign in Andalusia. Statements by the PM saying that ‘Ciudadanos is like Vox’ or making equivalences between the ‘three parties of the right’ were combined with constant mentions of the radical right party during the campaign. This strategy has been clearly visible during the last week, when the PM did not want to attend a debate if Vox did not participate in it. The newfound visibility of the party, acknowledged as a viable contender by the main rival in the centre-left, alongside with the greater acceptance of their demands by part of the right, opened up the gates of representation for them.
While the campaign of 2015 saw a competition for the centre amongst the four parties (even Podemos abandoned its more Eurosceptic and anti-establishment narrative to present themselves as the true alternative to the PP), the contest of 2019 has become the most polarized campaign of the recent history of the country. And not only in terms of ideological drifting, but also in the radicalization of the discourses (Sartori, 1982, p. 304). There are two clear blocs: one formed by the PSOE and Podemos on the left; and one formed by Ciudadanos, PP and VOX on the right. Albert Rivera, leader of Ciudadanos, has already offered a coalition government to the PP, while the main hypothesis on the left is a re-edition of the governing coalition of 2018-2019, with PSOE and Podemos reaching an agreement, probably supported by the independentist parties.
Yesterday, in a final strategic move, Pablo Casado admitted the possibility of Vox not only supporting a government, but actually forming part of a coalition. This situation represents a new step in the reinforcement of the polarizing dynamic, and a poisoned present to Ciudadanos. The liberal party has always stated that accepting the votes of Vox to change the government in Andalusia was not the same as reaching an agreement with them, and that they wouldn’t strike any deal with the radical right. The move of the PP, finally legitimizing Vox as a potential ally, would mean that a centre-right government would need the necessary cooperation of its most radical elements.
Still, there is a small ray of hope for the possibility of an inter-bloc agreement. One of the main suspicions of the most leftist sectors of PSOE and Podemos has been the possibility of a post-electoral agreement of the socialists with Ciudadanos, in an attempt to build a more centrist coalition. In a recent electoral debate, Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos, claimed that, due to this possibility, the only ‘safe’ vote for a progressist government would be his party. Although Ciudadanos denies it vehemently, it represents one of its weaker spots in the campaign, as both Vox and PP have reminded them of their failed agreement with the socialists in 2016. A bad result for the liberal formation and a possible government of the PSOE with independentists could, however, make this scenario more plausible.
Apart from that remote possibility, the panorama of polarization does not seem to be fading away any time soon. The two recent electoral debates have shown an outbidding in the right-wing camp regarding who is more able to stop the fragmentation of the country at the hands of the socialist and their allies, and the attempt of Sánchez to frame the three parties in the right as equivalents, with the PSOE as the only possibility to avoid the participation of Vox in any government. After the elections of April, the 26thof May will see Local, Regional and European elections across the country, which could foster the radicalized rhetoric of the parties in order to avoid any sign of weakness or compromise with the other ideological bloc until the electoral period is over.
Yet another party system? After the elections
The breakthrough of Vox will have consequences in the party system. Barely four months ago, I wrote an article regarding its reconfiguration after their entrance in the parliament of Andalusia. As expected, I was absolutely wrong. Ciudadanos did not move to the centre, leaving the PP and Vox in a competition for the right, and, instead, chose its more national soul rather than the most liberal one to compete for being the most voted party in the centre-right. Something similar has happened with the PSOE, which, despite presenting itself as the only force able to bring ‘dialogue’, ‘moderation’ and ‘the Spain that you want’ has also increased the aggressiveness of its attacks towards the PP and Ciudadanos, presenting the elections as a contest between the ‘trio of fascists’ and them. Surprisingly, it has been Podemos the one party which has moderated its tone the most, presenting itself as the true defenders of the Constitution that they considered a ‘lock against change’ barely four years ago.
In such a polarized context, the centre, currently disputed between PSOE and Ciudadanos but barely mentioned during the campaign, has lost its electoral appeal. A stalemate in the elections, with similar results for both ideological blocs, could result in a reinforcement of these maximalist positions, on the face of the European, Regional and Local elections of May. This dynamic, in my opinion, would be harmful for the country, with a ‘centrifugal opportunity’ that would render any inter-bloc agreement impossible, reducing the opportunities for parliamentary debate and consensual reforms in a country which has not solved its most relevant problems in the last years: a failing job market and its educational system. The decrease of the quality of the debate both in TV, speeches and social networks amongst leaders and members of parties is also a worrying sign for Spanish democracy.
However, as previously noted, this dynamic will be dependent on the results of these elections, and the ‘second round’ of May. A failure on the strategy of accommodation of Vox by the right could result in a change of positions, moving towards a ‘Cordon sanitaire’ against the new formation, which could also be expanded to those independentist parties who refuse to abide by the Constitutional framework and the rule of law. Despite the contradictory literature regarding how to effectively deal with radical right parties, it seems clear that the combination of adversarial and accommodative tactics (Meguid, 2005) is the best recipe for their success, and, once into the institutions, it will be more difficult to simply ignore them.
Uncertainty on the result of the elections is still high. More than 30% of voters declared that they did not know yet for whom they were voting for. A small change in seats could result in a significant change in the correlation of forces. While no one knows what will happen on the evening of the 28th, it seems clear that it is necessary to scape from this polarizing rhetoric. Rebuilding the bridges of dialogue between different ideologies and constructing a framework of multi-level cooperation and discussion that can limit the influence of the radical right and reconvene, through legality, the situation in Catalonia. However, what is normatively desirable rarely overlaps with what is strategically rational for parties to do. Will Spain regain its blissful seat in paradise?
Rodríguez-Teruel et al. (2019) ‘From stability to change? The evolution of the party system in Spain’ in Lisi, M. (Ed.) Party system change, the European crisis and the state of democracy.. New York: Routledge, pp. 252-270
Fernández-Albertos, J., and Kuo, A. (2016). ‘Economic hardship and policy preferences in the Eurozone periphery: evidence from Spain’. Comparative Political Studies, 49(7), 874-906.
Ramiro, L., and Gomez, R. (2017). ‘Radical-left populism during the great recession: Podemos and its competition with the established radical left’. Political Studies, 65, 108-126.
Rodríguez-Teruel, J., and Barrio, A. (2016). ‘Going National: Ciudadanos from Catalonia to Spain’. South European Society and Politics, 21(4), 587-607.
Sartori, G. (1982). Teoria dei partiti e caso italiano. Milano: Sugarco.
Meguid, B. (2005). ‘Competition between unequals: The role of mainstream party strategy in niche party success’. American Political Science Review, 99(3), 347-359.