Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Blog

Why Spanish Politics is Becoming More Polarised

Jonathan Parker


Florencia Potter

| 8 mins read

In Spain, left and right stand far apart, questioning each other’s legitimacy to govern as the extreme right gains. Secessionist forces in Catalonia challenge the state. The population is increasingly divided into two hostile groupings.

This scene of deepening polarisation is Spain in the 1930s, but also increasingly Spain in the 2020s. Nearly a century on, after civil war, authoritarian rule and democracy, the things that divide Spaniards remain strikingly similar. There is a right that defends the monarchy, the church, private property and the unity of Spain. And then there is a left seeking to address Spain’s inequalities and the forces of regions seeking greater autonomy. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the divisions that had been uneasily tolerated since 1977 have been progressively deepening.

A country divided

The current government of President Pedro Sanchez’s Socialists (PSOE) and the leftist Unidas Podemos governs on a knife edge. So tight is the parliamentary arithmetic that recently a new labour law passed by a single vote after a deputy from the rightwing People’s Party (PP) pressed the wrong button. The PP, hitherto the mainstay of the Spanish right, has fallen on hard times challenged by the far-right Vox. Embattled leader Pablo Casado and Madrid President Isabel Díaz Ayuso fought for control of the party after poor results in a regional election in February. Neither emerged victorious, with the party choosing instead Galician President Alberto Núñez Feijóo; a moderate who may reverse the path Casado had pursued of aping Vox. Whether this will moderate the political climate is another matter, given the gulfs that now divide the country.

One such gulf is how to define Spain. Is it a single nation or a multinational state? There is a tendency amongst many to view Spain as a Mediterranean UK, with constituent nations in a plural union. But comparisons of independence movements in Scotland and Catalonia are a false equivalence. British unionism accepts that the UK is a union of nations­ – that a separate Scottish nation exists and has collective rights.

This is not the case in Spain, where the right (and much of the left) declares that there is only one nation – the Spanish – and that Catalans are deluding themselves. The territorial question became ever more salient throughout the 2010s as parties in Catalonia pushed for a referendum on independence which the government refused to grant. The PP has opposed them constantly, jailing pro-independence leaders and suspending Catalan autonomy in 2017 after an abortive referendum attempt.

The left-right divide

In addition, there is the fierce left-right divide. A two-bloc party system has emerged, where the two traditional parties are flanked by more extreme forces. For the right, this is Vox, which capitalised on opposition to the Catalan crisis to catapult itself to prominence (as of April 2022 it polls at around 20 percent). Vox represents the Spanish right’s unabashed id. Vox demands the abolishment of regional autonomies, cries out against traitorous regional minorities and immigrants, calls for LGBTQ Spanish people and women to be stripped of rights and lauds bullfighting. It glorifies the Spanish empire and seeks the annexation of Gibraltar. The party’s supporters are unlike those of other European radical right parties- they are bourgeois, urban and economically liberal. They represent a radicalisation of the existing right, not a new force.

The blame for polarisation can be placed partly on the Spanish transition to democracy, previously lauded as the prime example of a ‘pacted transition.’ After Franco’s death in 1975 his successor Adolfo Suárez negotiated with the opposition to reform the Francoist system from within, facilitating a smooth transition from Francoism to democracy. The political system produced was seen as an admirable exercise in compromise which allowed the rapid establishment of a stable democracy. An electoral system marked by small districts meant a two-party system and stable governments. The system of autonomies led to the creation of self-governing regions across Spain, including those of the historic national minorities persecuted under the regime, while guaranteeing the unity of the state.

But for the left and the minorities democracy and autonomy came at a price. The left had to accept the so-called ‘pact of forgetting,’ undertaking not to disturb the ghosts of the civil war. Franco’s massive mausoleum remained untouched while leftists lay in unmarked graves. Catalans, Basques and Galicians got some self-government but within a constitution which labelled Spain one indivisible nation. In the long run these compromises were storing up trouble for later. The PP-PSOE duopoly that emerged was a logical extension of the electoral system, and while it certainly meant long-lived governments it also meant no incentives for consensus or compromise. And unlike other systems, the regions were given no role in the government of the state.

The PP, originating from conservative elements of the regime, moderated enough to be an accepted part of the two-party system, but never shed its Francoist legacy entirely. In power it campaigned against regional languages and autonomy. When it was voted out of in 2004 the new PSOE president Zapatero cautiously moved to address the civil war and agreed a new autonomy statute for Catalonia. In response the PP re-embraced Spanish nationalism, successfully challenging the Catalan statute in the courts and sparking a mass movement for independence, with many Catalans feeling there was no chance of making a multinational Spain work anymore. This coincided with the 2008 financial crisis, which sharpened divisions between the PP controlled centre and the regions and launched a radical left movement in the form of Podemos.

Looking to the future

With these divisions will Felijoo’s election make any difference? He is certainly popular in his native Galicia, winning 48 percent of the vote in 2020. The fact that he is from the one PP branch to truly show any sympathy for regional minorities, as well as his friendship with Basque leader Iñigo Urkullu are also good signs. But the logic of competition under the electoral system is towards uniting one side of the spectrum, and moderation may not be the best route to winning back Vox support. And that party isn’t going anywhere – any future PP government will need their support. A solution for the Catalan question also seems distant. Attempts by Sanchez and some of the pro-independence bloc at dialogue are resisted by the right and more fervent secessionists. At the end of the day a fully-autonomous Catalonia runs up against the twin problems of rightist refusal to consider a multinational Spain and the importance of Catalan revenue to central coffers. Spain is a long way from consensus.

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    Jonathan Parker

    Jonathan Parker is a political scientist focusing on regionalism, nationalism and Spanish politics. He holds a PhD from the University of Sussex and his work has been published in the Financial Times and Nationalities Papers.

    Articles by Jonathan Parker