Fiorella Beccaglia Opinion Editor
Spain’s governing Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) have won the country’s third election in four years on April 27, 2019, but are short of a majority. Voter turnout was 75.8%, the highest for several years and 9% more than the previous election in 2016. This election reflected the familiar European model: the new surge of a far-right party (in Spain’s case it is called Vox), no party with enough seats in Parliament to form a government on its own, and increasing polarization that is ripping the country apart. However, this came with a distinctly Spanish twist.
The difference was that the main point of disagreement is not immigration, social change or globalization, but Catalonia’s various attempts for independence. Nationalist sentiment in Spain has been especially strong since separatist leaders in Catalonia held an independence referendum in October 2017, which Spanish courts declared unconstitutional. In the ensuing crackdown, several Catalan leaders were arrested or fled the country. Currently, 12 are on trial on charges of sedition and rebellion.
Right wing parties criticize Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, calling him a traitor for including Catalan parties in his coalition and trying to negotiate with separatist politicians. However, the talks went nowhere, and it was the Catalan parties that pulled the plug on his Socialist government in February, 2019. I applaud Sánchez for trying to negotiate with the separatists. I strongly believe there is no absolute truth to the issue. As with all political conflicts, the solution is real diplomacy, dialogue, and finding a middle ground. Like Sánchez has attempted to do, Spain must eliminate the grievances that exist and are real, and explain those that are not. They must generate a movement of empathy and mutual complicity to recreate bonds that have slowly been breaking for years, but that requires a lot of time and capability.
The anger on the right actually seemed to benefit Prime Minister Sánchez, who recognized that most voters do not fully share the anti-Catalonia fervor of the politicians and sensed a danger in the rise of the far-right. Though the far-right Vox became the first party of its kind to enter the national parliament since Spain’s transition to democracy in the 70’s, it also drew off votes and seats from the mainstream conservative Popular Party (PP), which won 66 seats compared to the 137 seats it won in 2016. In the end, Mr. Sánchez, who called for the early general election after his coalition government collapsed, came out stronger than before and established him as the comeback champion of European politics.
Almost three years ago, Pedro Sánchez was removed from leadership after leading the Socialists to their two worst election results. He somehow climbed back and in June 2019 became the first Spanish politician to take office by orchestrating a no-confidence vote in Parliament against the Popular Party. The government Mr. Sánchez then formed, however, depended on the support of a party of Catalan nationalists. That might not be necessary this time. The Socialist gains were very impressive. They increased the number of seats in Parliament to from 85 to 123. However, they are still short of a majority in the 350-seat legislature, so Sánchez will again need to form an alliance with another party, but he may be able to do it without Catalan parties.
In any case, the most positive aspects of the election are that Spain’s strong pro-European Union stance was never in question, and that a stronger central government under Pedro Sánchez should be able to tackle the country’s economic challenges. The election also demonstrated that extreme nationalism of the sort that has surfaced elsewhere in Europe is not a dominant force in Spain and that the deep divide over Catalonia is not likely to end anytime soon, especially as the trials of the separatists continue to be everywhere in the Spanish media. Mr. Sánchez was right to try to reason with Catalan separatists, and the election showed that this need not be politically fatal for him.
However, I still think the rise of a far-right party is always a cause of concern. For those of you who do not know, Spain suffered a military dictatorship under Francisco Franco from 1939, after the fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War, until his death in 1975. It has only been 44 years since democracy returned to Spain and fascism is still alive and well. Seeing right-wing parties like Vox rise up to power in my country is devastating. Vox opposes LGBTQ+ rights, and endorses anti-Islam as well as criticism of multiculturalism and criticizing immigration from Muslim countries. They are anti-feminist, hold a pro-life philosophy on abortion, and want to repeal the gender violence law, which they see as discriminatory against men. In addition, they have an ultranationalist stance on Spain’s role in the European Union (EU). Their view of the EU is that of weak Euroscepticism, arguing that Spain should make no sovereignty concessions to the EU because they consider Spanish sovereignty to reside in the Spanish nation alone. They propose to eliminate Spain’s autonomous communities (which would be the equivalent of getting rid of states in the US). In addition, they seek the return of Gibraltar to full Spanish sovereignty.
I still have confidence in the socialist leadership under Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and I believe PSOE’s values accurately portray most of the Spanish population despite the big surge of the ultra-right. I was scared Spain would experience the same veer to the right as many other European countries or the US after the 2016 election when Trump got elected. Today, the Spanish flag represents me again; the far-right kidnapped it and masked it with fascism and intolerance for other groups, but now my country has shown that our flag represents respect, plurality, tolerance, and equality.