Andrew Dowling – The late arrival of right-wing populism to Catalonia and Spain

Spain appears to be in the midst of a major political transition and important political anniversaries are ante portas. After this article was written, there has been a meeting between the head of the social democrats, Pedro Sánchez, and the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, in an apparent attempt to form a coalition government. This would be the first time that Spain, since the return to democracy (more or less as we are discovering), has had a coalition government.

Andrew Dowling, Senior Lecturer in Catalan and Spanish History at Cardiff Univeristy. He is the author of ‘The Rise of Catalan Independence. Spain’s Territorial Crisis’ (Routledge)

The tenth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the greatest economic crisis since the Second World War has produced a wealth of analysis. The shock waves of the crisis that began in 2008 continue to impact on political cultures across the world, with one widely noted manifestation being the resurgence of right-wing populist discourses. The most striking feature of the broader crisis was a failure of the political left, including its radical variants, to capitalise on a major malfunction of the existing economic system. In Europe, only two countries bucked the broader right-wing trend, Greece and Spain producing radical left challenges (for a time) to the existing order. Syriza and Podemos seemed to represent the best hope for a new left politics in a European context.

Ultimately however, rather than Syriza and Podemos changing Greece and Spain, arguably their own political cultures have changed them, with once radical goals increasingly framed by much more modest ambitions. The administering of austerity greatly eroded the left credibility of Syriza, whilst the hopes for the great breakthrough in Spain by Podemos stalled and then receded. From Hungary to Turkey, Poland to Italy, the political momentum was increasingly capitalised by the insurgent right. Yet Spain seemed broadly immune to these right populist rumblings. Whilst immigration and anti-Moslem agitation continue to play little role in Spanish political culture, we can now clearly detect the articulation in Spain of right wing populism in two broad manifestations: Spanish nationalism and its current main rival, Catalan independence.

Since the restoration of democracy in Spain in the late 1970s, the party system has been broadly centred around mainstream parties of the centre left and right, as in most European societies. Alternation in power between the social democrats and conservatives was the new normal. The economic crisis produced major mutations in the Spanish political system, shattering the stability of the two-party system and leading to the emergence of four major players: the PSOE, the conservative Partido Popular and the new expressions on left and right, Podemos and Ciudadanos. The removal from office of the Partido Popular government in June 2018 led to new leadership of the party, under Pablo Casado. The Partido Popular under Casado and Ciudadanos under Albert Rivera are now engaged in an explicitly populist battle to determine who will dominate the Spanish right in the years to come. This is simply the narcissism of small differences.

The principal stage this summer has been the Catalan question. The unprecedented Catalan challenge to state authority in the autumn of 2017 produced a closing of ranks around Spanish nationhood and commitment to the Constitution of 1978. The PP and Ciudadanos have been engaged in a strategy of competitive agitation around the defence of the Spanish nation, threatened by ‘separatists’. Street mobilisation against Catalan independence has been an increasingly explicit manifestation of this trend. With Catalonia and Spain about to embark on a series of anniversaries around the events of September to December 2017, the Catalan card seems to be the one to play on the Spanish right. The setbacks received by the Spanish judiciary in Germany and Belgium have also begun to fuel rightist euro-scepticism, though this will remain euro-critical rather than anti-European.

Spain is rather unusual in the rivalry between two formations which are broadly aligned on cultural, social and economic issues. The key distinguishing feature is that Ciudadanos was founded in Catalonia as an anti-Catalan nationalist party and has been agitating against the privileged role of the Catalan language for over a decade. The corruption associated with the PP and Catalan independence became the mechanisms for Ciudadanos to offer a new right narrative to Spain. However, the PP did not implode as hoped, meaning the conflict between both rightist parties is unresolved.  Escalating rhetoric around who is best placed to defend Spain is the cornerstone of this dispute. The flag, the nation and notions of sovereignty have become the principal forms of political articulation of a mutating rightist Spanish nationalism. The direction this takes will be determined by its rival, Catalan independence, which has also mutated into populism.

The Catalan independence movement, which became the largest single component of its political culture after 2012, has mostly seen itself as expressive of civic, democratic and generally progressive currents. The movement’s upbeat narrative on the ease of independence ended on 1 October 2017, when Spanish police violence marred the referendum-mobilisation of that day. The decapitation of the movement’s well-honed leaders has led to second tier individuals taking up the reigns. Populist articulation is centred around Carles Puigdemont, then President of the regional government, who fled the country hours after declaring independence on 27 October 2017, without even telling most of his cabinet. Yet as true believer, Puigdemont can do no wrong amongst his ultra-loyal supporters and early in the summer he removed remaining impediments to his control of right wing nationalist currents. Puigdemont anointed the rightist Catholic journalist Quim Torra as President of Catalonia. The most surprising enabler of this turn to rightist populism in Catalonia is the CUP, the once radical left formation. The CUP has prioritised the national over all other political expressions and has frequently sabotaged leftist legislation of the city council of Barcelona. The CUP is frequently praised in rightist circles for its true patriotism. Puigdemont and Torra are creating a new base of pro-independence populists, with the active participation of the CUP and the civic organisations.

As noted, a whole series of anniversaries will take place this autumn. 6-7 September when the Catalan independence parties forced through legislation for a new regime that would not even pretend at a separation of powers. 20 September with the first arrests made by Spanish police. 1 October 2017, the referendum-mobilisation. 3 October, the belligerent speech by the Spanish king attacking Catalan independence. 10 October, the declaration of independence, immediately suspended. 27 October: the declaration of independence following by the sacking of the Catalan government and the imposition of direct rule from Madrid. With the trials of the Catalan independence leaders also expected this autumn, both Spanish nationalist and Catalan independentist agitation will highten. It is most unlikely that Catalonia and the rest of Spain will reach January 2019 in a calmer position than currently. When nationalist populisms enter into political dispute, everyone loses.


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