Spain’s incumbent socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was returned to office on 28 April. His victory signals the recovery of Europe’s left and the country’s repudiation of a return to right-wing authoritarianism.
The socialist leader Pedro Sanchez has won Spain’s elections with an increased majority, although his party will still need to form a coalition to secure the 176 seats needed for a working majority. Sanchez took over as Prime Minister in June of last year when conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was voted out of office in a no-confidence motion brought on by a long-running corruption trial involving members of his centre-right party. This election result is further evidence of a centre-left recovery in Europe as Sanchez won the election with socially liberal policies and a well-articulated attack of the far right. Sanchez was convincing in his plea to voters to not be compliant in the face of a possible resurgence of authoritarianism. There was 76 percent voter turn-out, nine points higher than in the previous election, and his party secured an additional 40 seats.
A snap election, the third in less than four years, was called after right-wing parties and Catalan separatists rejected his 2019 budget in February. Conservatives were unhappy with what they viewed as a too soft approach to the issue of Catalonia, while Catalan separatists would only endorse the budget if Sanchez agreed to discuss self-determination for the region. It was a socially progressive budget that proposed to raise the minimum wage by 22 percent to €900 per month, the biggest increase in 40 years. Sanchez was also proposing a sharp rise in spending for Catalonia in its 2019 budget draft but that was not enough to get his budget past separatist parties.
Spain’s traditional duopoly or alternation of power between the two major parties Partido Popular and the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) has ended in recent years with the breakthrough of newcomers such as the anti-austerity Unidas Podemos (United We Can) and the centre-right Cuidadanos (Citizens).
In this election, the newcomer was VOX (Voice) led by Santiago Abascal – whose political discourse is racist, sexist, ultra-nationalist and bordering on fascist. During his campaign, Abascal spoke of the reconquest of Spain – a clear reference to Spain’s expulsion of the Moors in 1492. He talks also of Spain’s indissoluble national unity and has concrete policies aimed at imposing such a view of Spanish national identity. This includes suspending Catalonia’s self-government “until the defeat of the coup plotters” behind the bid for regional independence and the “outlawing of parties, associations and NGOs that strive for the destruction of the sovereignty and territorial unity of the nation.” Raging against what he describes as supremacist feminism and gender totalitarianism, Abascal has also described Spain’s domestic violence laws as unfairly weighted against men.
VOX is the first far-right party to win more than a single seat in Spain since the transition to democracy after Franco’s death in 1975. While this ultra-conservative party won popularity, the Partido Popular imploded as a result of adopting the ultra-conservative rhetoric of the VOX party rather than remaining true to its centre-right voters. This election result is a reminder also of the dangers to moderate conservatives of aligning themselves with the extreme right.
VOX’s political discourse speaks to the continued impact of Francoism on the present-day political and social landscape. This year marks the 80th anniversary since the end of the Spanish Civil War, and Sanchez’s government looks set to deal with the unpunished crimes of the Civil War and ensuing dictatorship. Historical memory has returned to the forefront of politics and one of Sanchez’s biggest achievements on this front has been to exhume the remains of Franco and Antonio Primo de Rivera, the leader and founder of the Spanish Falange, from a state mausoleum. Sanchez is also the first head of government to visit the graves of some of the most famous Republican exiles and is faced with the task of helping Spain to identify its dead and come to terms with the magnitude of what has been so aptly described as the Spanish Holocaust.
In putting out a call to his citizenry to not remain complacent in the face of a resurgence of the far right, Sanchez asked Spaniards to be mindful of the victory of the extreme right in countries such as the United States and Brazil. Two decades into the twenty-first century, right-wing parties with authoritarian leanings or full-blown agendas are gaining power globally: in Turkey, Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines and the United States, the so-called “leader of the free world.” For Spain, the resurgence of right-wing authoritarianism reopens wounds of a twentieth-century dictatorship that have barely had time to heal. Voters were reminded of their own very recent history of authoritarianism with Sanchez warning that a victory for VOX would put Spain back forty years.
This election highlights a number of issues for Spain’s political landscape. Firstly, the issue of Catalonia continues to create great political instability seen most clearly in the Catalonia separatists’ decision not to support Sanchez’s socially progressive budget on account of his stance on Catalan independence. Secondly, in Spain – like in other parts of the world – there is a resurgence of right-wing populism, ultra-nationalist, anti-immigration and anti-women’s rights. Perhaps because of Spain’s recent history of authoritarianism, Spanish voters came out in record numbers to vote against right-wing extremism, and this election result is further evidence of a centre-left recovery in Europe.
Dr Lara Anderson is a senior lecturer in Spanish at the University of Melbourne. Her main research focus is Spanish culinary culture, from the role of gastronomy in Spain’s fin-de-siecle identity formation to Spanish cookery television shows as a site for gender critique.
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