It hasn’t happened in any of the four general elections held since 2015. For a long time, I didn’t think it could ever happen. But now I think it’s possible. The Partido Popular and Vox could get more than 175 MPs — a majority in the Spanish Congress.
Following the collapse of Ciudadanos, the Right will enter the next general election running as just two tickets. Leaving aside the credibility of the polls currently saying the Right and extreme right could win, this fact alone makes such a victory more feasible.
But there’s also another factor — one that I think is the crucial one, which has shifted the ideological bases of a considerable part of Spanish society. And that factor is the balance of forces in the media. Outside of the Basque and Catalan media ecosystems, the right-wing media based in Madrid enjoys absolute cultural dominance. And it has an enormous capacity to determine and condition what millions of citizens think.
Will Vox enter the cabinet? I guarantee you it will. This extreme-right party can save itself the trouble of participating in local governments or the autonomous administrations [in the regions and nations within Spanish borders]. But for a force that is itself the child of power, financed by big firms and foreign groups (including the political arm of an Iranian terrorist organization), and that has many recruits within state structures, the prospect of entering Spain’s government is irresistible.
What would happen, then? The Right and far right know the rules of the culture war only too well; they probably won’t let themselves be dragged onto the battlefields of social policy or the economy. The condition of possibility for the rise of the Right and extreme right has been the most reactionary españolismo [Spanish nationalism, directed against minority nationalities]. And this is also what will allow these right-wing forces to hold on to power. Reactionary españolismo will, then, seek out its natural ideological enemy: plurinationalism.
Without a doubt, Vox’s main demand would be an offensive against the powers of the autonomous administrations. And the Partido Popular would find this irresistible. For this demand would arouse the passions of the entire right’s cultural base, fueled by big conservative media outlets that have spent years insisting Catalonia’s classrooms are “accomplices” of the pro-independence cause, “indoctrinating” the nation’s children. And you can guess what would come next.
Faced with a right-wing government determined to take back powers over, say, education, the parties that stand for plurinationalism, the Catalan and Basque governments, educational communities, as well as wide layers of citizens, would have no option other than to put up opposition and mobilize. And this would be precisely the terrain a Partido Popular/Vox government would choose for heightening tensions and finally moving to ban the Basque Country’s Euskal Herria Bildu (EH Bildu) party and Catalan pro-independence forces. Vox’s leader, Santiago Abascal, made this crystal clear in his censure motion against the incumbent government.
The far right not only finds 26 million citizens to be too much of a burden, but also many of their electoral options. Exceptional measures to ban such parties would be a shock for some people; and such a move would raise the indignation of any democrat. But these measures could count on major bases of support in the dominant sectors of the judicial authorities, many powerful economic groups, and, in the main, Madrid media forces. Whatever the European legal bodies may eventually say about such a move, that will do nothing to stop the reactionary bloc’s preferred strategy of rolling back democracy. Indeed, this regression may also happen in other European countries, starting with Italy.
This sounds extreme, but it’s not so difficult to imagine. Bans on parties are hardly unknown in our state. Finding new justifications for such a move (the threat to the unity of Spain, or the challenge to the monarchy, for example) is viable enough, and dozens of jurists would be prepared to justify it. The experience of the clash with the Catalan pro-independence forces was a positive one for the Right and will provide a reference point. This clash gave them an enemy they could constantly refer back to in their speeches, normalized the presence of political prisoners who had not (even remotely) committed any violent act, politicized and politically implicated the most reactionary sectors of the judiciary, and even drew the monarchy into an unprecedented position, starting with October 3, 2017 [when King Felipe VI declared the Catalan institutions outside the law, following the disputed independence referendum].
From that day onward, the Partido Popular and Vox have claimed Felipe VI as their own like never before, in a clear contrast with his predecessor, who maintained his tact when dealing with the PSOE and [its 1982–1996 prime minister] Felipe González. Whereas in the political system that resulted from the post-Franco transition, the monarchy was able to seduce the PSOE and even Santiago Carillo’s Communist Party and some sectors of Catalan and Basque nationalism, under Felipe VI’s conservative perestroika, the monarchy is a political point of reference for the Spanish-nationalist right alone.
I believe that, with things having gone as far as they have, there’s no doubt how the elements the Right has placed in the Constitutional Court and the judicial authorities would behave. Banning EH Bildu and Catalan independentists would moreover be away of guaranteeing the Right permanent electoral victories. With Bildu as well as Catalonia’s Junts and Esquerra Republicana parties out of the electoral picture, the Right could guarantee itself victory over the PSOE while also maintaining its usual pressure on Unidas Podemos through underhanded media scandal raising and politically motivated judges, without needing to find excuses to ban it.
How did we get to this point? From the Spanish transition to democracy that ended with the February 23, 1981, coup attempt and Felipe González’s crushing victory in 1982, a party system emerged that was decisive for assuring the stability of our political system, pacifying the conflicts stemming from plurinationalism, and organizing the modernization of the Spanish economy within the framework of the European division of labor.
This system centered on two great parties of state: PSOE, aligned with the German Social Democrats, which soon abandoned its verbal radicalism, the Marxism of its party statutes, and, in particular, any ambition of heading up a socialist project for southern Europe together with the Portuguese Socialists; and the Alianza Popular [a short-lived forerunner to the Partido Popular], which, having absorbed the Union of the Democratic Center, had no problem distancing itself from its Francoite origins and aligning itself with the Christian-democratic traditions of its European counterparts. Lest we forget, PP prime minister José María Aznar went as far as to claim the legacy of Manuel Azaña [center-left president of the Spanish republic during the Civil War of 1936–1939].
Added to the two main parties of the Spanish system were the two dominant parties of the Basque and Catalan subsystems. One was the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the only recognized option for managing the Basque Country’s particular path to self-government — a role in which [armed Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna] ETA’s actions further entrenched it. The hegemonic force in Catalonia was Jordi Pujol’s [center-right] Convergència i Unió, while the Catalan Socialist Party soon put an end to the enormous initial expectations of the [Communist] PSUC.
Clearly, the solution [which 1977–1979 assistant minister for the regions Manuel Clavero called] “coffees all round” was hardly consistent with the realities of a plurinational state, especially when it came to the ambiguities of Article 8 of the Constitution [on the Spain-wide supermajority required for constitutional reform]. But it is undeniable that this solution did serve to provide stability, organize a considerable administrative decentralization, and give room for Catalans and Basques to negotiate prerogatives of their own, such as their autonomous police forces.
The foundation of this “two plus two” party system was that all four parties agreed on the key economic policy axes that Spain would have to follow within the European framework; all four took up the NATO umbrella as the best possible option; and all four accepted — albeit clearly with varying levels of enthusiasm — the monarchy. The consensuses undergirding this regime would, for over three decades, allow the powers parallel to the party system (economic oligarchies, powerful media forces, the ever-more-conservative judicial authorities, and the most intransigent sections of the old repressive apparatuses, recycled under the pretext of the fight against terrorism) to be less visible in the political sphere than they are today.
So, what’s happened in these last ten years, to put us in such a dangerous situation if the Right returns to government together with the extreme right? Well, these years have seen the Catalan independence movement and Podemos. These two actors blew up the Spanish party system: that is, the only power structure citizens can change by voting. For proof of that, you need only take a look at one of the parliamentary sessions where the government responds to questions. You’ll see an unprecedented coalition government including Podemos and Communist ministers, supported by Basque and Catalan independent forces, which now confronts a potential alternative government of the Partido Popular plus Vox.
The question today in Spain is: Who will lead the reform of the state? Powers that have not submitted to democratic control — including the elites of the judicial authorities, who have already spent more than a thousand days facilitating the power of Partido Popular and blocking the renewal of the General Council of the Judiciary — are conscious of this conflict and have taken their positions. And now there is also a monarchy that has given up on progressive and plurinational Spain and continually made gestures toward the most reactionary forces (the latest being the ostentation with which they presented a princess heading to an extremely expensive private college in Britain). This power bloc represents the reaction to the democratic impulse that followed the great crisis of 2008.
What is to be done? As I see it, the left-wing forces apart from the PSOE, across the state, should increase their collaboration and create shared spaces of strategic reflection. I think they should accept that a governmental alliance with the PSOE is, at this conjuncture, necessary to protect democracy and implement social-justice measures through public policy. The pandemic has strengthened a feeling of pride in the public sector, cutting across party divides. The (up to a certain point) Keynesian turn that the European Union has been compelled to make is an opportunity with few precedents. At the same time, we are faced with a reactionary project that, upon reaching government, will combine the most ferocious neoliberalism with an assault on the autonomous governments’ powers and the persecution of pro-independence activists. Faced with this threat, the Left must explore avenues for the confederal reorganization of a shared state, more in tune with plurinationalism and the wishes of the various peoples within the state.
While some of these forces may be electoral competitors, I think that today they should agree on a shared road map in their negotiations with the Socialists. The collapse of Ciudadanos killed off the dream of a Spanish-style Third Way. Meanwhile, the unviability of the grand coalition — guaranteeing Vox’s power — left the PSOE with no option other than to negotiate and reach an agreement to govern together with Unidas Podemos and with the whole bloc that has sustained the present legislature.
This bloc’s important tactical position is also the product of a hard truth that has become obvious in recent years. Namely, it is highly unlikely that the PSOE would have facilitated a government headed by Unidas Podemos if the latter had surpassed it electorally in 2016 (as all the polls suggested it would). And if the PSOE had facilitated this hypothetical government, it’s clear that the big powers in Spanish society would have put together a concerted reaction to bring it down within days. History has demonstrated that, in order to govern, winning in vote tallies isn’t enough — you also need the advantage in a few other balances of forces, too.
Furthermore, I believe the Left needs to accept that the terrain of culture and ideology is just as decisive as the field of social mobilization and institutions. You only need to turn on the TV or read the editorials in most of the Madrid dailies to realize that the Right has already understood this. The lesson from this May’s elections in Madrid — with the victory of the most extreme Partido Popular we’ve ever seen — should put all democrats and the whole Left on alert, given the potential that this example has to spread elsewhere. For many years in Madrid, we haven’t just been losing elections but a cultural and ideological battle, too.