Spanish elections: Relieved? Yes. Happy? Not so much

, by Fernando Bajo

Spanish elections: Relieved? Yes. Happy? Not so much

The recent spanish elections are being hailed everywhere as a win for Europe and for liberalism everywhere. And celebrate we must, since a majority of the population chose to align themselves with an unabashedly anti-fascist position. But we shouldn’t be dazzled by the good numbers of the social democrats. This elections showed some worrying trends that should make people pause and think, Fernando Bajo writes.

Is there anything more annoying that the always-angry liberal trope? Maybe. Yet here I am, pouting at last weekend’s results. Yes, last Sunday’s elections are a win for the democratic forces, a testament on how averse to extremes Spanish electorate still is, and causing half of Europe to take a deep breath and rejoice – any good news feeling like a breath of fresh air when we are so getting used to living in a permanent dump of bad news.

Yet Vox, the extreme right party supported both by Steve Bannon, Iran and (briefly) by Israel (talk about politics making strange bedfellows, right?), and that promotes taking away civil rights, giving the right to bear arms to all, and to impose a military solution to the Catalan crisis, still managed to lure over 10% of the electorate, on a night where participation rose 9 points over the national average.

Compare this to other places where similarly racist, filo-fascist parties are thriving in Europe. We all looked in fear when the AfD won 12.6% of the vote in Germany (a mere 2.5% more than in Spain), with nobody celebrating then. Additionally, volumes have been written about Golden Dawn in Greece, despite them having just a 7% of the votes. Again, nobody called that a victory for Europe.

Sure, the key factor of what we celebrate today is that, unlike in other places (such as Italy, Norway, or Austria) the extreme right is not needed to form government, and also that it performed so poorly in comparison with what it was expected.

I will, however, present a few points that I believe we should consider – after celebrating and rejoicing a bit.

Let’s form a government first

First, we do not have a government yet. PSOE is signaling they wish to rule alone, a bold move that has, however, worked for Pedro Sánchez in the past. They are, more than likely, trying to avoid being lumped in with the pro-independentist regional parties they would need to win – or with Ciudadanos, a nominally a centrist party that has however run a campaign so tightly knit with that of Partido Popular and Vox (based on attacking the sitting prime minister) that it has blown away any real chance of creating a coalition with PSOE without alienating both their electorates.

But despite having worked in the past, a four-year government without a coalition is unlikely, and will probably cause unrest in the markets. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, skilled as he is, will run into problems when trying to play every other party in Congress. If they align with Podemos and the separatists, they will anger Spanish nationalist. If they align with Ciudadanos, they will anger Catalan nationalists and progressive voters. If they align with nobody, they will eventually fail.

Additionally, PSOE has a checkered past. Corruption, mismanagement, and a tendency to avoid actual changes in the status quo leave many to wonder if the same party that was slowly haemorrhaging voters will manage to turn this support – that has been the result of a high participation and that is therefore difficult to replicate – into something more permanent. The social democratic party now has to show they actually represent something other than business as usual, something that has not worked for any other governing party anywhere else.

Spain needs the conservatives

Second, a weak conservative party signals problems for Spain. Partido Popular has been a key party in the recent democratic history of Spain. Their recent campaign, based on fear of immigration and the unity of Spain, has not been enough to avoid a big chunk of their electorate flocking to Vox and Ciudadanos. For the first time in Spanish history, the right-leaning electorate has a choice in Spain, and they seem to be choosing not to trust PP, a party marred with corruption scandals and burned out from several years of ruling the country.

This is not good news. Going from ruling party to losing over half of their seats in parliament is a receipt for inner struggles, backstabbing, defections, etc... Which will of course cost them as they will appear weak in front of their voters. With a former ruling party struggling like this, the extreme-right will undoubtedly feed on their problems and grow even bigger.

Partido Popular was, up until 6–8 years ago, the big tent of the right: a weird Frankenstein’s monster gathering together Christian democrats, neocon economists, pro-European conservatives, all with a dash of economic liberalism, Spanish nationalism, and sometimes a touch of extreme-right positions (such as their refusal to address the fascist past of Spain). With many of those roles being taken over by Ciudadanos and Vox, Partido Popular is now faced with the difficult task of reinventing itself. During this past election they chose to hijack the extremist language of Vox – failing miserably. Will they recant and try to reclaim the centre? Their decision will undoubtedly affect all of Spain – and Europe.

Nobody spoke about Europe

Third, Europe could not have been more absent from this last elections. No party has shown even a modicum of interest in talking about Europe or European issues. The whole campaign has revolved around Catalonia, immigration, and economic and social issues. While it is true that not having any overtly anti-European party is good, it is also sad that for one of the largest European countries, Europe could play such a little role. There is much work to be done for pro-Europeans in Spain.

Catalonia still presents problems

Fourth, the issue with Catalunya is far from over. Yes, overtly pro-independence parties managed to score less than 40% of the Catalan vote, but with the threat of Vox on the horizon, those results are far from conclusive. The winning party, PSOE, has the difficult task of navigating the Catalan independentist movement: the social democrats need their votes to rule but at the same time they have to avoid enraging the large percentage of the Spanish population to whom this is a big issue. Indeed, the debate over Catalonia is directly credited to be the cause of Vox’s ascent to the main stage of politics in Spain.

This means that the challenges that are feeding the fears and anxieties that have made the extreme-right thrive are far from solved. Faced with a problem that has no good solution, Pedro Sánchez’s decisions on the matter will cause unrest – either among Catalan nationalists, Spanish nationalists, or, more likely than not, both.

The far-right is now a force to be reckoned with

Fifth, doing worse than expected is still not doing “bad”. With local elections right around the corner, we will see how Vox performs then. Local elections allow for less of a “win or die” scenario that has helped PSOE. Also, local elections traditionally have a low turnout, which usually improves right-wing parties’ chances. We will see then if Vox was a one-trick pony running on a campaign of bashing Catalonia, or if they are something else – the heir to the Spanish nationalist spirit that was, until now, hidden in other parties’ programmes.

All of this is not meant to scare or depress people. A victory is a victory, and any victory against those who seek to dehumanise people, to promote violence against minorities, to weaken public institutions and to undermine democratic principles needs to be cherished and celebrated. But let’s not try to confuse that with thinking that Spain is safe and that nationalism is “other people’s problem”. Any and all countries are faced with this very real problem, that needs to be addressed not only with electoral victories, but also by changing an system that has allowed for the disenfranchised to be manipulated by some into seeking shelter in such parties.

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