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Spain is Becoming Harder to Govern. Is This the Future of Our Divided Politics?

The July general election in Spain saw a welcome collapse in support for the far-right Vox party – it was evidence, many said, that the rightward drift across Europe could be defeated. Three months on, Spain is still without a new government. The deadlock could be broken before the year’s end, and for now, a new election seems unlikely. But recent scenes in parliament bode ill for whoever is running the country in the months ahead. Spanish politics today is in a state of blockage that reflects the reality of its proportional voting system and an increasingly polarised public sphere. Is it surprising that there is a growing public scepticism towards politics and a diminished interest in the news?

Overall, the July election delivered a stalemate: neither of the two biggest parties won enough seats to form a majority government. The conservative People’s party won the most votes and seats in the election, followed by the centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers party. But even if either joined forces with their natural allies on their right or left, they would still fall short of the 176 seats needed for a majority in the 350-seat parliament.

This scenario is now a feature of Spanish politics in the aftermath of the financial crisis, which fragmented the country’s political landscape and led to the emergence of new parties and a new generation of politicians. Since 2015, forming a government has required assembling a complex alliance, often with smaller, mostly regional parties.

Last week the conservative leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, failed in his second attempt to be elected prime minister. As a result, the Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez, who has been in power since 2018, is now a step closer to solving the new puzzle with the arithmetic he needs, even if by a narrow margin. The king invited party leaders in for a new round of talks on 2 October, and has invited Sánchez to form a government.

But the heated, occasionally disheartening exchange during the investiture debate on 29 September hinted at the volatility that could lie ahead – and at a logjam that will make governing the country difficult. Feijóo accused Sánchez of trying to build “a government based on lies”. The Socialists, for their part, accused Feijóo of being “disloyal to the king” for forcing a vote with insufficient support in parliament. The far-right leader Santiago Abascal, meanwhile, labelled the prime minister “a movie villain”.

“Why do you hate each other so much?” asked Cristina Valido, the MP representing the Canary Islands regional party, as she looked around the assembly. Her words struck a chord with many. Loud shouting erupted when the Speaker accidentally disregarded a vote. These are not usual scenes in the Cortes. Or at least they were not.

In the coming weeks, Sánchez will seek to form a coalition with leftwing Sumar and secure the support of nationalist parties from the Basque Country and Catalonia. He remains confident of being re-elected when he faces a vote. But there will be risky political trade-offs to get there. One particularly contentious issue is negotiations with the hardline rightwing Catalan separatist party Junts. Junts’ leader, Carles Puigdemont, dramatically fled to Belgium in 2017 to avoid prosecution after organising an unlawful referendum on Catalan independence. Sánchez could agree to grant Puigdemont and other public officials an amnesty, but the terms of any such deal (which remain unclear) could be deeply unpopular with many Spaniards who voted for Sánchez and the Socialists.

Meanwhile the two main Catalan separatist parties have warned they will only support a government that takes steps towards an agreed referendum in Catalonia, while the Socialist party has ruled out an independence vote. The fortunes of Catalan nationalism have slumped badly. Socialists topped the polls in Catalonia in the general election as Catalans turned out in big numbers to defeat the far right. Separatist parties, in contrast, had a poor showing in fourth and fifth place.

If Sánchez fails to secure enough support in the next two months, Spain could be heading back to the polls again as soon as January, marking the sixth general election in eight years. But even if a progressive coalition of the Socialist party and Sumar manages to form a government, it will face substantial challenges in passing legislation. Any budget, major reform or progressive law is likely to encounter opposition from parties with multiple, conflicting interests. To make things even more difficult, the Senate is in conservative hands.

The polarisation that now characterises debate among Spain’s politicians and the pundit class does not necessarily reflect the views of ordinary people. A 2021 study showed that there is little social fracture in Spain, with broad agreement on issues such as gender equality, the right to gender self-identification and the redistribution of wealth to poorer households. The climate crisis, face masks or Covid vaccines have never been as divisive as in other western countries. The one big source of tension, according to the study, is Spanish unity, and particularly Catalonia’s status within Spain.

Spanish politics has never been a clear-cut two-party system like the UK or the US. Even if the two main parties won comfortable majorities for three decades, there were always smaller and regional parties that they would sometimes need to form a government or pass legislation. But the financial crisis and its aftermath fractured Spanish politics further.

The far-left Podemos (now part of Sumar), the centre-right Ciudadanos (now out of parliament) and far-right Vox occupied and sometimes expanded existing ideological spaces. Younger leaders offered new hopes for reform and inclusiveness, but some also amplified the worst populist, divisive instincts seen around the globe. With a more fragmented parliament, stalemates and snap elections are happening more often than ever before. Since 2015, it has not been unusual to have months of caretaker governments at both national and regional levels.

Although the two main parties recovered votes in the last election, they have struggled to keep a coherent message as they cater to voters and allies left and right amid a vanishing centre. Now they seem unable even to talk to each other and agree on basic things such as judiciary appointments.

As they engage in daily skirmishes, it’s hard to imagine them coming together to tackle long-term problems such as the climate emergency, persistent childhood poverty, underfunded, understaffed primary care, and funding to sustain public pensions for an ageing population.

Watching bad puns, insults and some falsehoods flying across the parliamentary chamber last week, it was no wonder that Yolanda Díaz, the acting deputy prime minister and leader of Sumar, looked uncomfortable. She refrained from applauding a fiery speech by the spokesman of her coalition partner, the Socialist party.

And it certainly was uncomfortable. More worrisome was to think that the same politicians will need to piece together the puzzle every time there is an important decision to make for the future of the country. Will the pieces ever fit?

Source: The Guardian