- Interview by
- Eoghan Gilmartin
Spain holds its second general election in six months today, after Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE) walked away from a possible left-wing coalition with the radical-left Unidas Podemos. The center-left PSOE is set to remain the largest party, but last-minute polling shows its support down nearly two points on its 28.7 percent result in the April 2019 election.
The vote comes just three weeks after Sánchez’s government finally made good on its promise to disinter fascist dictator Francisco Franco, previously housed in a grandiose mausoleum at the Valley of the Fallen outside Madrid. The monument had been a stain on Spanish democracy for decades. Yet by calling unnecessary repeat elections under conditions well-suited to the far right, Sánchez looks to have handed Franco-nostalgists a historic opportunity to become a major political force.
Indeed, while the Socialists are expected to suffer at least small losses, the far-right Vox is likely to become the country’s third-largest party. The last polls forecast that this extremist outfit would take between 12 and 14 percent of the vote — meaning that it could win as many as fifty of the 350 seats in the Spanish Congress.
The upsurge in the far-right vote is in large part fueled by the ongoing crisis in Catalonia. After pro-independence leaders were sentenced to punitive jail terms for their part in the outlawed 2017 referendum, in late October the region was gripped by a wave of protests, including a week of heavy rioting much-dramatized by the national media.
In an atmosphere of heightened nationalist sentiment, the margin separating Spain’s broader left and right blocs has narrowed to as little as five seats. While the weight of regionalist-nationalist parties makes a right-wing majority unlikely, there is also a radicalization within this right-wing bloc, as Vox surges to unprecedented heights.
In this context, Sánchez’s decision to opt for fresh elections, instead of accepting a coalition deal with Unidas Podemos in July, looks increasingly like an error. But with Sánchez ruling out a potential left-wing coalition, the most likely alternative is some sort of pact with the conservative Partido Popular (PP).
Ahead of Sunday’s election, Eoghan Gilmartin sat down with the journalist Antonio Maestre. Author of the recently published Franquismo S.A. — a study of the economic legacy of Spain’s dictatorship — Maestre told Jacobin about how Vox has built its power and the wider turmoil that has fed nationalist tensions across Spain.
The previous general election in April was centered on the confrontation between two polarized left and right-wing blocs. Could we say that this has given way to a new dynamic, with both the Socialists and a revived PP now vying over which can best position itself as the “party of order”?
Yes, the strategy of the two major parties has changed. In April, the PP competed with the extreme right in the waging of a series of culture wars, as it sought to minimize potential losses on its right-wing flank. At the same time, the PSOE positioned itself as the only option for progressive voters seeking to block Vox’s breakthrough into institutional politics, and indeed prevent a right-wing coalition.
This dynamic, which heightened the confrontation between the Left and Right, has broken down in recent months. After suffering heavy losses in April, with its number of seats reduced practically in half from 135 seats to sixty-six, the PP is now trying to pivot to the center, with its leader Pablo Casado seeking to project a more presidential image. He needs to reconstitute his party’s electorate, in particular by taking advantage of the collapse in support for [liberal-rightist] Ciudadanos. Meanwhile, the Socialists also believe there is more room to grow in the center, as Podemos’s vote share is holding firm.
Beyond such party tactics, there has also been a major shift in the focus of public debate. Fears of the far right have now given way to an agenda dominated by the conflict in Catalonia.
The Catalan question has always been a weak spot for the Left electorally. However, normally moments of major public unrest benefit those in power, and so Sánchez’s pivot to the center is also about turning the protests in Catalonia to his advantage. He wants to project an image of the PSOE as the only party that can guarantee order and constitutional stability in this moment of crisis.
I’m not so certain this will work — not least because his victory in April had a lot to do with his promise of dialogue and seeking agreement on the territorial dispute.
When in July Sanchez chose to abandon negotiations with Unidas Podemos over a left-wing coalition, the Socialists were riding high in the polls; some estimations had them as much as eight points up on their result in April. But these potential gains have evaporated. The last El País poll before Sunday’s vote had PSOE losing two seats while El Diario’s had them down five. Is it fair to say it was a major error to force new elections, particularly knowing the sentence in the Catalan leaders’ trial was imminent?
Yes, Sanchez seems to have fundamentally misread the sociological makeup of Spain’s progressive vote. The Left has always struggled when elections are fought around issues of public order or around the clash of national identities that the territorial dispute entails. When Catalonia dominates the agenda, the Left’s vote either stagnates or falls, and we are seeing that in the polls at the moment.
As things stand, I think the most the Socialists can hope for is to get a similar result to what the party got in April. To maintain its vote share would now be seen as a real success.
Beyond that, the polls also suggest further difficulties for PSOE in terms of the new electoral balance of forces. Vox looks certain to advance further, and for Sánchez this represents a real failure given that in April he based his appeal on blocking the far right’s progress. At the same time, Ciudadanos’s collapse also reduces his ability to govern through “variable alliances.” This was always his preferred option — to be able to pivot back and forth for his majority, between seeking the support of Ciudadanos and that of Podemos, depending on the issue. But with polls putting Albert Rivera’s party on less than twenty seats, this possibility will be off the table.
And so, in the best possible scenario for PSOE, it will only be left with two options after Sunday’s vote. It can govern with Unidas Podemos and the independentists, which it clearly does not want, or through some form of grand coalition with a strengthened PP. But this second option would be a real opening for Unidas Podemos. Mounting an aggressive opposition from the left, you could reasonably expect it to regain much of the support it had in 2014 to 2015.
A Divided Left
In this sense, how would you explain Sánchez’s decision to reject a left coalition over the summer? The programmatic agreement reached with Unidas Podemos was not exactly revolutionary, and its rival’s demands for cabinet representation was rather limited.
Ultimately, the Socialists did not want to create the perception that Unidas Podemos, or any party to its left, was a viable governing force. Since the 1970s, PSOE has been the only viable left-wing party of government, however centrist and social-liberal it is in reality. It was not going to risk this monopoly. To allow Unidas Podemos to enter cabinet would be to imbue it with a new legitimacy — potentially setting it up as an alternative party of government.
PSOE’s monopoly on office has always been integral to its electoral position, not least in terms of its ability to attract all those tactical voters who want to avoid the greater evil of a right-wing government.
I think it was primarily this, rather than any concern over Unidas Podemos’s influence on governmental policy, that was behind its decision. As the smaller partner in a coalition, Podemos’s control of the Labour Ministry, for example, would not have counted for much when the prime minister is opposed to repealing Spain’s neoliberal labor reforms. Iglesias and co would not have had the power to impose such fundamental policies.
Unidas Podemos went from 20 percent of the vote in 2016 to 14.3 in April 2019 — and the vast majority of the votes it lost went to PSOE. Part of Sánchez’s electoral calculation also seemed to be that a fresh poll would reduce Podemos’s parliamentary weight yet further, particularly as its vote would be split with its former deputy leader Íñigo Errejón, who is now running on a rival platform, Más País. Yet its numbers now look like they will hold up. How do you see its chances?
Yes, many in the media predicted its demise after the coalition talks failed over the summer. Repeat elections were meant to finish it off as a major political force. Yet it is clear Unidas Podemos has withstood this — further consolidating its electorate of around 13–14 percent of the vote.
The party’s campaign has focused on communicating the idea that Sánchez does not want to look to the left to reach an agreement and that it now remains the only option with a clear left-wing message. The leaders’ debate confirmed this strategy — Sánchez made clear that he has no interest in forming a progressive government after Sunday’s election. Unidas Podemos are effective campaigners, and this discourse seems to be working to mobilize its electorate.
The question, though, is how this translates into seats. Having another rival competing on the left creates complications. Más País probably won’t win more than four or five seats, but the votes it takes off Podemos could see Pablo Iglesias’s formation lose out on the final seat in certain districts.
This is difficult to calculate, however, as there are many other variables. One of the reasons Unidas Podemos lost so many seats in the last elections was that it went from being the third to the fourth largest party in many districts. Even fifth, in some areas. In our electoral system, this makes a big difference. Now, with Ciudadanos having lost so much ground, its vote share could in fact translate into more seats in a number of areas.
The feud between Pablo Iglesias and his former deputy Errejón stretches back more than three years now. But it looks like Errejón’s decision to compete against his former party on the national stage will end in humiliation. What was his initial intention behind launching Más País? It seemed a strange move from someone who has always had a reputation as being a very cautious operator.
He could not resist the siren call coming from those around him who were saying he should stand. I don’t think his intention was to hurt Podemos, but rather he seems to have believed the early polling that said he could win up to twenty seats. In this sense, he did not evaluate the risks of presenting in elections that were going to be largely defined by Catalonia. This was always going to leave his position untenable, as what [Madrid-based] Íñigo Errejón has to say on events in Catalonia is of little public consequence. He has been left stranded on the issue — in part because of the unanswered question of what exactly the name of his Más País party [“More Country”] means in this context.
Outside of Madrid, too, his electoral lists are headed by people who are practically unknown, including in Barcelona. He has not managed to secure big names like ex-Madrid mayor Manuela Carmena, and having failed to spark debate over some high-profile measure or point of contention he is headed toward a complete failure.
The fear is that this could damage the overall result of the Left — capturing votes from Podemos and the PSOE but without being enough to translate this into MPs. Even if it means only losing three or four seats because of his candidacy, this could be decisive.
The Right in Flux
On the right, one major development has been the polling collapse of the liberal-to-right-wing Ciudadanos. In April, it secured 15.9 percent, less than one point behind the PP, and won fifty-seven seats. Yet now it’s on 8.5 percent, and El País’s poll had it on only fourteen seats. What has happened to Albert Rivera’s party? In the past, its hard line on Catalonia has always played well with right-wing voters.
There is a growing sense that voting for Ciudadanos is pointless. Voters now have no idea what the party stands for or what it will do with their votes. It is a lottery. Depending on how Albert Rivera feels in the morning, he could back a PSOE government or not. He stood in April categorically ruling out supporting Sanchez, maintained this throughout the summer as major figures from his party resigned over his position, as well as over its cooperation with Vox, and now suddenly has signaled his willingness to work with the PSOE leader again.
This has created confusion. You cannot position yourself as willing to work with the extreme right and, at the same time, with the Socialists. Also, the major centrist media groups like Prisa and Mediaset have turned against Rivera. They had wanted a centrist pact between PSOE and Ciudadanos, who together had an absolute majority after April’s elections. This would have been the perfect government for the elites — stable, unproblematic — and they are not going to forgive throwing away such an opportunity.
With the tensions in Catalonia and Franco’s removal from the Valley of the Fallen last month, Vox has recovered its support, after months in which it had been trailing in the polls. While in April’s election it fell short of expectations, this time it is likely to be at least the fourth-largest party in Spain, and it will probably overtake Podemos in terms of seat numbers. How do you view its prospects?
Well, one of the keys will be if the PP has succeeded in convincing right-wing voters that it can win these elections — i.e. that it could overtake the Socialists. This has been Casado’s strategy, with the PP hoping that part of Vox’s electorate would opt to vote tactically for it instead.
Even if this is the case in Sunday’s election, and its vote is somewhat down on what the polls are saying, Vox has space in which it can grow — particularly if Ciudadanos disappears. I can imagine Vox — in the future, if not in these elections — reaching 15 percent, no problem. This is very troubling.
Luckily, it has yet to integrate the economic populism that characterizes far-right populists like Marine Le Pen or Matteo Salvini. If instead of basing its appeal solely on xenophobic, identitarian, and cultural elements, Vox also brought in a protectionist-workerist discourse, it could broaden its base. This is what Le Pen has succeeded in doing — winning over voters in the old Communist heartlands.
But Vox’s current leadership does not believe in such ideas. When they attempt such a line, it just backfires. In the local elections, they tried to visit a number of factories and workshops, but it just looked like a bunch of posh boys posing with workers. Even the way they walked made them look aristocratic and out of place.
Vox is an extreme-right party that you could nearly describe as pro-European. It attacks the EU on immigration, but it is in favor of the single market and the euro.
Yes, they are ultra-liberals in economic terms.
One of the grotesque moments in the campaign was when Vox’s parliamentary spokesperson was caught laughing incredulously when Podemos’s Irene Montero was talking about the victims of Francoism and the remains of more than a hundred thousand people still buried in unmarked graves. What does that image say about Vox as a party?
Vox has always positioned itself as the only alternative to the existing social consensus on human rights. They call it the liberal-progressive consensus. This is why they need to make a display of the fact that they’re being cruel to Franco’s victims. It is even necessary to laugh at them.
This is not something its electorate will punish it for — actually, it reinforces its support. Vox is a post-fascist party, in the sense that Enzo Traverso uses the term, and it has no qualms about demonstrating its character in the most aggressive and brutal forms. What makes it such a threat in Spain is that the conservative and liberal right have no problem sharing power with it, whereas in France or Germany the far right would need an absolute majority to govern.
Digging Up Franco
In the context of Franco’s remains being exhumed last month, you described the PSOE’s approach to historical memory as cowardly. Can you explain this?
The Historical Memory Law the Socialists brought in back in 2007 lacked substance. It allows the families of Franco’s victims to recover the remains of their loved ones from mass graves — a necessary measure. But beyond that, it leaves a great deal unaddressed. For example, public displays of support for fascism and celebrating Franco’s legacy remain legal.
Any question of reparations or stripping the Franco family’s assets was off the table. This included what is rightfully public property — such as the two medieval statues taken from the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, to adorn their palace in Galicia.
Then with Sánchez’s decision to remove Franco’s remains from the basilica at the Valley of the Fallen, this highly symbolic measure was carried out in a way that did not meet a basic level of respect for his victims. It allowed the family to act out a solemn ceremony before the media and drape political symbols on the coffin. The Franco family was even allowed to break the Historical Memory Law. The only place in Spain where it is illegal to shout “Vivo, Franco!” is at the Valley of the Fallen. All apologies to Franco and fascism acts are banned there.
Then you have PSOE’s U-turn on also removing the remains of Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falangist Party, from the basilica. Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo justified this by saying he was a victim of the Spanish Civil War, since he was executed by the Republicans. That is like saying Reinhard Heydrich or Rudolf Hess were victims of World War II. We are talking about a fascist coup-plotter who was responsible for gaining the economic and military support of Benito Mussolini during the war.
What is behind the PSOE’s lack of courage in this respect?
There is a cultural perception in large parts of Spanish society that has normalized what happened here in 1936 and after. Many people rationalize it in terms of “yes, Franco was a dictator and was guilty of crimes — but in wartime atrocities were committed on both sides.” Many people believe he can’t be compared to other forms of European fascism like those of Adolf Hitler and Mussolini.
Such an opinion has quite an extensive hold. And the idea that “the past is the past” and we should not reopen old wounds is in the majority. In many ways, the PSOE’s policy reflects this.