After two inconclusive general elections in one year and months of often fruitless negotiations, Spain finally has a new government. Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist party (PSOE) reached an agreement with Unidas Podemos to form a coalition, and in January 2020 Sánchez was sworn in as a fully-fledged prime minister, with Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias accepting the role of his deputy.
But the question on everyone’s mind is, how long can this uneasy marriage between the parties of the centre- and far-Left survive? Sánchez’s government was confirmed in a vote in parliament by a margin of only two votes. Political stability is becoming little more than a memory in Spain; some might say the developments of recent years are more reminiscent of the turbulence leading up to the Spanish Civil War than of the long-lasting administrations of the 1980s and 90s. Fundamental political tensions are coming to the fore and threaten not only the Sánchez administration but the future of the country.
At the top of the prime minister’s to-do list is the situation in Catalonia, where the pro-separatist movement has been in the driving seat for several years. An illegal referendum on independence, the questionable imprisonment of Catalan leaders by the Spanish State and numerous incidences of street violence between police and protestors have all made the situation highly volatile. And while it might not always be in the international news, the tension over Catalonia constantly simmers away, always ready to explode once more. The current Catalan leader, Quim Torra, is demanding an agreement on a new – and, this time, legal – referendum, as well as amnesty for his imprisoned comrades. In Unidas Podemos he has something of a sympathetic ear within Cabinet. Yet Sánchez knows that to be seen to be ‘giving in’ to Catalan separatist demands is electoral suicide. Most Spaniards outside Catalonia are vehemently opposed to ceding any ground: national unity is a passionate subject which makes even normally moderate Spanish voters appear uncompromisingly rigid from an outsider’s perspective. Meanwhile, according to a recent opinion poll, pro-independence sentiment within Catalonia, which had appeared to dip, is now on the rise again and would seem to be approaching fifty per cent.
The situation is a Gordian Knot. Past governments have attempted simply to manage Catalan demands. In the past they were often overshadowed by Basque separatism; now they dominate the political agenda. Catalan society is deeply divided over the issue: marriages, families and friendship groups are all breaking apart over it. If a peaceful solution of some sort exists, no one seems to know what it is. And Sánchez has only a weak grip on power, with no large majority in parliament to strengthen his hand. Meanwhile the various parties of the right-wing opposition favour ever more hard-line measures against the separatists.
Beyond Catalonia, however, there are other serious issues to deal with. Many have been predicting another economic slump, and the truth is that Spain has never fully recovered from the global financial crash of 2008. Jobs have been created in some sectors, but they are often poorly paid. The number of Spaniards living in extreme poverty has increased to over 2.5 million people. An increasing gap between rich and poor has contributed to the sense of a country in the doldrums.
Meanwhile, there is a growing sense of alarm over ‘la España vaciada’ – the ‘empty’ Spain. There has historically been a sharp divide between town and country, but this is increasing as people in rural areas move to the larger cities. Part of the problem is that farming is no longer a viable means of making a living as the amount farmers receive for their produce is frequently less than what it costs them to produce it. And in a largely agricultural economy like Spain’s, this has far-reaching ramifications. Even smaller cities, such as León, are beginning to witness an exodus of residents away to Madrid and Barcelona in search of a better living.
And then there is the rise of the far-Right. At the last elections in November, Santiago Abascal’s Vox party won over fifteen per cent of the vote, making it the third largest group in parliament. Anger among some voters both over the Catalan situation and the recent digging up of the dictator Franco’s remains from his mausoleum in the Sierra de Guadarrama served to bolster its position. If truth be told, it was almost certainly shared fear of this party’s rise which finally brought the Socialists and Podemos together to form a coalition. Yet while the Left is making a rare (and probably short-lived) show of unity, the political arena as a whole now feels more divided than at any time since the 1980s. Terms like ‘fascist’ and ‘communist’ are bandied about within parliament itself as each side accuses the other of being extremist. The middle ground feels as depopulated as the Spanish countryside, which, in a nation with such a long history of ripping itself apart, bodes ill for peaceful and constructive solutions being found for the many difficult problems facing it.
Sánchez may nominally be in power, but he is also in a very weak position. Many voters, even those on his own side of the political divide, find him a difficult person to trust. How long can he remain in power? And what might come after him?
Jason Webster’s latest book, Violencia: A New History of Spain, is published by Constable