Much attention has been paid in the international media to the electoral problems taking place in Israel. As the New York Times has reported, Israel has had to hold three elections in less than a year’s time, as the results of each of the first two have failed to produce a conclusive result. It is not the only nation having these issues. Spanish politics have also become strongly divided, resulting in electoral problems.. In the past few years, Spain has also struggled with electoral woes, resulting in the holding of four general elections in as many years. In the summer of 2018, the government of Mariano Rajoy’s center-right People’s Party (PP) was ousted in a vote of no confidence. Pedro Sánchez then became Prime Minister at the head of a minority government led by the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). Following the most recent general election in 2019, however, the PSOE proved unable to form a coalition with other left-leaning parties, leaving Spain without a government for nine months.
According to the Associated Press, however, as of January 2020 Spain has finally managed to form a coalition government by a mere two votes, seeing the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the left-wing Unidos Podemos (United We Can) come to an agreement to rule jointly. This does not put an end to the divisions in the country, however; far-right populism in the country is on the rise, and nationalist movements (such as in Catalonia) persist. Where do these issues, unique as they are to the Spanish moment, stem from, and what significance do they hold for the present situation? What has caused such steep divisions within Spain?
Roots in Dictatorship and the Transition to Democracy
The roots of Spain’s modern electoral woes can be traced back to the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who came to power following the bloody civil war that saw the overthrow of the democratically elected Second Spanish Republic in 1939. He ruled with an iron fist until his death in 1975, when power passed to King Juan Carlos de Borbón who Franco had named his successor in 1969. Then began a long, convoluted process of democratization, when the government of King Juan Carlos had to convince both the Francoist-led legislature and also pro-democracy opposition groups that were skeptical of the monarch’s intentions to support the Transition. The king and Adolfo Suárez, his chosen prime minister, eventually worked through the extant legal processes to bring about the implementation of the constitution of the newly democratic Spain in 1978, working carefully to appease all parties involved in the process in order to facilitate a peaceful democratic process.
The apparent success of this process, marked as it was by economic growth and a decrease in unemployment rates over the next celebrated by the new government. Indeed, the economy grew steadily in this way until the early 2000s. This resulted in what has come to be known as the Culture of the Transition (or the CT), which hails Spanish exceptionalism and upholds the new democratic system and neoliberal economic policy as a beacon of modernity. However, stark divisions in the country lurked underneath the surface, as did multiple looming crises. in an effort to appease the dictatorship hardliners, many of the Francoist institutions and political servants were left in place through the transition, some of whom would try to overthrow the government again in the early 1980s, failing only because the king refused to support them and ordered the military to put down the rebellion. In addition, the explosive economic growth so hailed as a story of success came at the service of liquid capital and global markets, encouraging lending agents to focus their attentions on a wider array of customers. The falling mortgage rates, real estate prices, and unemployment rates expanded the demand for housing and housing credit exponentially. Soon, however, this housing bubble that had bolstered the economy would burst, plunging the country into a deep crisis.
The economic crisis and the failure of the political elite
When the crisis hit Spain, it hit hard, and electoral woes were soon to follow. Hundreds of thousands of homes were repossessed or foreclosed upon, over 94,000 of those repossessions being in the first two trimesters of 2012 alone, according to one study by Cano Fuentes. This same study reports that unemployment also rose astronomically, rising from 8.3% in 2007 to 20.1% overall, and young people between the ages of 16 and 25% suffered an unemployment rate around 41%. Mental health deteriorated in the same span of time, with depression and suicides rates skyrocketing. Around this time, the divisions among the Spanish people became evident, coalescing around the backlash to the government’s handling of the crisis. Critics reported that the neoliberal system in place ignored the struggles of the Spanish people, placing the blame on them for their financial misfortune instead of taking into account the state’s failure to protect social institutions from attacks by liquid capital.
The response of the Spanish people was one of indignation, which culminated in the 15-M Demonstrations on the 15th of May, 2011. Protestors of the aptly named Indignados Movement took to the streets of several cities across Spain. In Madrid, thousands occupied the Puerta del Sol square for weeks as they demanded political reform. The Indignados Movement objected not only to the conservative elements of the government who had imposed austerity measures upon them, but also to the entire system, believing that none of the government institutions or political parties worked in their interests. As a result, this movement refused recognition by or affiliation with any political party, working at the grassroots level to build solidarity out of a coalition of many political protest organizations, as well as people from various backgrounds and age groups. The left-wing Podemos political party emerged directly from this movement, championing itself as an alternative to the predominant PP and PSOE parties, who in its view had failed the Spanish people.
Yet, although this grassroots movement was immense and the indignation of the Spanish people made clear, the government and the political system failed to listen and electoral woes persisted. Podemos struggled to achieve the demands of the 15-M, due in part to the infighting surrounding the party’s platform and priorities, as well as the struggle against the preexisting government structures and institutions. They also faced opposition from other upstart political parties, including the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) party. In addition, although Mariano Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party government declared victory against the crisis following their return to power in 2011, situations for the Spanish people have not improved. The housing crisis persists as prices continue to rise; over 300,000 people have lost their homes since 2011. Poverty remains a persistent problem as well; in February 2020 the United Nations condemned Spain for its incredibly high poverty rates.
The dissatisfaction with the political elites that has resulted continues to this day, from which various new political movements and electoral woes have emerged. Catalonia experienced a separatist crisis that flared in late 2017 due to resentments caused by the financial crisis, and although the Spanish Supreme Court ruled the movement illegal, Catalan nationalist parties still exist and some leaders are still jailed. One of these, the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (the ERC), supported the creation of the 2019 left-wing coalition government, hoping their concerns may get additional attention from Madrid. Spain has also experienced the rise of the far-right party Vox, which has managed to surge in recent years. For the first time in decades, a far-right party in Spain has representation in the Spanish congress. As is obvious, the creation of the new coalition government in January does not spell the end of the country’s electoral issues.
Relevance to the Present Moment
Spain, of course, is not alone in its troubles in the current day. Israel, as previously mentioned, has had its own share of electoral troubles, and populism is reported to be on the rise around the world both on the right and the left. Right-wing populism has especially exploded especially in recent years, fueled by the refugee crises, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and xenophobia. Nationalism is also on the rise, with Brexit being only one example. These are global trends that can be observed and described together, and Spain’s situation is an important one in that tapestry.
As is obvious, however, Spain’s recent electoral woes are not just a product of the global scene. They are the result of problems stemming from deep within its history, responding in their own way to global happenings. Any understanding of this global trend must take into consideration the national element, as these elements make each case within it unique. Spain yet struggles with the specter of its old dictatorship, and its problems during the transition, with many (especially far-right populist) groups idolizing Franco’s repressive regime and yearning for the lost days of Spanish supremacy. This has rallied many organizations and political groups to fight in the name of historical memory and accountability for that dictatorship. In addition, the anti-austerity efforts of the Indignados movement, among others, have failed to be appreciated by the political elites, and the neoliberal economic crisis is still very much felt by the Spanish people.
What this will mean for the future of the Spanish state remains unclear. Whether or not Spain manages to break free from its cycle of division and electoral woes will depend on its ability to take into account the spirit of the Indignados, still clamoring for real change as people continue to struggle. The new government has many challenges ahead of it if it seeks to effect any real change.