Spain’s Coming Election Will Determine the Next Phase of Its Constitutional Crisis

by Javier Moreno Zacarés

5 November 2019

ItalianLasagna /Flickr

On Sunday 10 November, Spain will hold its fourth general election in as many years, in what is essentially a re-run of April’s vote.

The streets of Barcelona may now be clear of the barricades that followed the recent sentencing of the organisers of 2017’s illegal independence referendum – for the time being – but the Catalan crisis is itself a symptom of a broader malaise: a crisis of the state inaugurated by the post-crisis revolts of 2011 which, in the absence of decisive constitutional reform, keeps flaring up in different forms: from the indignados and Podemos to the Catalan revolt, to the emergence of the far-right party Vox.

Back in 2015, this crisis managed to erode the two-party system that had defined Spain’s modern democracy post-dictatorship. Since then, a consistently unstable balance of forces has manifested at the parliamentary level, with the proliferation of new parties reflecting the increasing polarisation of Spain’s main political axes: left/right and centralist/federalist.

In this election, voters will decide how the next phase of Spain’s constitutional crisis will unfold. Will it be presided over by a centrist restoration, a dying old order finding life-support in Spanish nationalism? Or will it be steered by a left-wing government in alliance with the Catalan left, a new order hinted at in recent years but which so far struggles to be born? Or will events take Spain down an alternative, more morbid path of a hard-right coalition with authoritarian features?

The Catalan question.

The politics surrounding Spain’s national minorities divide the Spanish left. Correspondingly, for the past 20 years the Spanish right has adopted an aggressive rhetoric along these lines as a strategy to galvanise the conservative electorate, while simultaneously dividing the working class. In the wake of the mass anti-austerity protests of 2011, the Catalan right began to reciprocate this strategy and both sides became locked in a process of escalation that culminated in the unilateral referendum of 2017, which was dramatically repressed by the Spanish state.

The Catalan issue was at the heart of the failed government negotiations of 2015-6, when the two largest parties on the left, the centre-left PSOE and radical left Podemos, couldn’t reach agreement on the issue of Catalan self-determination. Though harbouring broad federalist sympathies, PSOE is a firmly unionist party that won’t contemplate the idea of an independent Catalonia. Podemos, by contrast, is the only Spanish party open to the idea of holding a Scotland-style referendum in order to find a route out of the crisis.

Following the most recent general election in April, the problem arose again. The parliamentary arithmetic created the possibility of a PSOE-Podemos government pact, yet PSOE insisted a coalition was impossible due to insurmountable differences over the Catalan question. Short of a PSOE landslide majority in Sunday’s election – an option that simply isn’t on the cards – the potential formation of a left-leaning government seems bound to keep running into this obstacle.

PSOE’s balancing act.

Over the course of government negotiations this summer, Podemos kept calling PSOE’s bluff on demands ranging from ensuring the absence of Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias from a potential coalition government to a joint position on Catalonia along PSOE’s party line. Over time, PSOE’s excuses made it evident the party was motivated by a reluctance to acquiesce to Podemos’s key demand for ministries with competences over social policy, particularly with the prospect of a recession looming.

PSOE figureheads were occasionally afflicted with bouts of honesty, such as publicly admitting to additional reservations including Podemos’s housing policies and the pressure exerted by nervous employers’ associations. Rather than a full-on government coalition, PSOE’s preference was a confidence-and-supply agreement, presumably so it could break an agreement more easily should the government deem austerity measures necessary. Podemos stuck to its guns, leading to this month’s re-election.

Podemos bore the brunt of the electorate’s anger over the 2016 re-election, when the party was perceived to have been too intransigent following the initial election in 2015. This time, however, it seems the tables have turned. When negotiations broke down over the summer, PSOE had a widening majority in the polls; something that has only fed the perception that fresh elections are to be blamed on PSOE’s opportunism. Moreover, the party’s reluctance to join forces with Podemos will likely come as a disappointment to the party’s more left-leaning membership, which propped up Pedro Sánchez as party leader back in 2017 amid promises of a left-wing turn and talk of recognising Spain’s ‘plurinationality’.

PSOE is determined to govern alone rather than as part of a coalition, which has led to it pursuing a delicate balancing act to court potential confidence-and-supply arrangements. On one hand, the Sánchez administration has decided to exhume Francisco Franco’s remains from his sinister mausoleum and relocate them to a less ‘honourable’ place – a timely gesture to the left on a symbolic issue which has prompted far-right outrage.

On the other hand, the election has been timed to happen in the wake of the imprisonment of the Catalan leaders, the Sánchez administration having quickly ruled out a pardon in an attempt to disable right-wing accusations that PSOE is weak on the national question, which have persisted nonetheless. One problem remains: the scale of the uprising in the streets of Barcelona, which seems to have caught the government off-guard, may well end up throwing the party’s strategy off balance if it turns out to have galvanised the Spanish right and Catalan nationalist parties instead.

More of the same?

After a decisive defeat in the 2016 re-election, Podemos broke ranks and descended into infighting. The party split along two main factions. On one side, the supporters of the party leader, Pablo Iglesias, who had pushed for a hard line against PSOE in favour of an electoral pact with the old far-left party Izquierda Unida (United Left). On the other side, supporters of Íñigo Errejón, the party’s chief strategist, who advocated for a more collaborative stance with PSOE in order to capture a greater share of centre-left votes.

Iglesias won a decisive victory at Podemos’s 2017 party congress, but it did little to halt factional struggles. In response, Iglesias’s leadership style accentuated its Bonapartist features: banking on his charisma, he sought to quell internal dissent through all-or-nothing membership votes. Since then, and in the absence of effective channels of deliberation, internal crises quickly escalated into high-profile desertions, including that of Errejón himself. With internal democracy reduced to confirmationist exercises in ‘clicktivism’, the grassroots lost its dynamism. Subsequently, the party has lost its charm for many former supporters and voters have continued to drift away.

Earlier this year, Errejón founded a new political party – becoming what is now standing as Más País (‘More Country’) – taking prominent members of his former faction with him. His electoral strategy seeks to re-energise a section of the electorate to the left of PSOE but disenchanted with Podemos. His supporters argue that far from dividing the left, it is a strategy that will attract voters who might otherwise have abstained, thereby compounding the left’s electoral share.

But it is unclear whether Errejón is really offering anything new. So far, his party has largely been centred around his own charisma and that of other figureheads and experts, somewhat mirroring the cult of personality he has criticised in others. The role of the grassroots for Más País remains unclear, as does the distinctiveness of its electoral programme, which essentially resembles that of Podemos. More importantly, perhaps, it is equally unclear whether his strategy might actually work. When it was trialled earlier this year during the Madrid regional election, Errejón’s party vastly overtook Podemos, but failed to produce a left majority – the city and region of Madrid falling to a hard-right coalition instead.

Plausible scenarios.

While all polls predict a PSOE victory, the question remains whether a parliamentary left bloc will be able to stack up. Even if the arithmetic allows it, it remains likely that PSOE and Podemos will nonetheless get locked into battle over a potential coalition once again. One variant of this scenario is if the Catalan nationalist left ends up acting as kingmaker; a scenario in which it will predictably demand a pardon for secessionist leaders in return.

One alternative is the formation of an untested ‘centrist bloc’, with PSOE turning to its right and striking a government deal with the neoliberal centrist party Ciudadanos (Citizens), currently plummeting in the polls. More drastic yet would be if PSOE reached even further right to the conservative Partido Popular (Popular party). In 2016, PSOE abstained in a crucial parliamentary vote which allowed Mariano Rajoy’s PP to form a minority government with something just short of a confidence-and-supply agreement. Although both parties are officially denying the possibility that a similar arrangement could be repeated, various Spanish news outlets have referred to off-the-record conversations about it with government officials.

Though less likely at the moment, it is nonetheless possible that a perfect storm of fragmentation and demoralisation on the left, coupled with tactical voting and high turnout on the right, could lead to an upset like the one dealt in Madrid earlier this year. Indeed, if the combustion of nationalist fervour around the Catalan question continues apace, a disastrous scenario in which a radical right-wing coalition ascends to government (likely combining PP, Ciudadanos and the far-right Vox) will become more likely. Several polls are now predicting a considerable surge for Vox, which is advocating the declaration of a state of exception in Catalonia, with some projecting a vote share which surpasses Ciudadanos and potentially even Podemos.

Whatever the result, it will determine the next phase of Spain’s unfolding constitutional crisis.

Javier Moreno Zacarés is a research fellow at the University of Warwick.

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