Austerity, corruption, and opportunism has wrecked Spain’s post-Franco political system. Nationalism is now the predominant political factor. Add to this the recrudescence of fascism and one has the same failure of Liberal Democracy that has been produced by the EU policy in the past ten years.
Chris Bambery is author and broadcaster. Co-author (with George Kerevan) of Catalonia Reborn: How Catalonia Took on the Corrupt Spanish State and the Legacy of Franco (Luath Press, June 2018)
Let’s go back two decades. As Spain entered the new millennium it seemed a model of stability with a two party system whereby the Centre Left Socialists alternated in government with the Centre Right Popular Party (PP).
In Brussels the leaders of the European Union could rub their hands with glee that in a decade and a half Spain had successfully shifted from the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco to a parliamentary democracy, and EU and NATO ally. The far right was now utterly marginal. In Berlin the Social Democrats could look back smugly at how they had helped oversee that transition ensuring there were none of the upheavals experienced in neighbouring Portugal.
Now fast forward to today. The two party system is in ruins. The main cause of that was the 2008 financial crash and the deep recession which fell on Spain in its wake.
Voters turned on the Socialists and the PP, rejecting their shared policy of austerity, and the corruption at the heart of the Spanish state which they fed off. The main beneficiaries were the radical left Podemos and the, supposedly, anti corruption and MEP-liberal Ciudadonos.
Yesterday’s elections demonstrated that the Spanish political system is broken and that all the king’s men cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again. Certainly not the outgoing Socialist Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, who called this election believing his minority government could increase its number of seats.
At the outset of the election campaign the polls seemed to suggest Sánchez’s gamble would pay off. Then three weeks ago something changed – nine Catalan leaders received jail sentences of between nine and 13 years for their role in organising the October 2017 independence referendum. Catalonia exploded into protest, protests continuing today.
In yesterday’s election pro-independence parties took their biggest share of the vote. Demonstrating how support for independence is growing.
Two decades ago this would have been unthinkable. Support for independence was a minority sport. The Catalan Government took pride in a new Statute of Autonomy, agreed with a Socialist Government in Madrid, approved by both the Spanish and Catalan Governments and by a referendum in Catalonia.
Out of office the PP decided to rebuild support with an anti-Catalan campaign opposing the new Statute. This included bringing a case in the Constitutional Court against the new Statute.
In 2010 that Court struck down key parts of the Statute, sparking mass protest in Catalonia and a shift towards support for independence.
Spain and Catalonia entered a spiral. Spanish actions, such as trying to use paramilitary police to smash up the October 2017 referendum and the jailing of the nine Catalan leaders, fuelled growing support for independence and alienation from the Spanish state, not least the monarchy.
But in Spain the Socialists, PP and Ciudadonos not just defended the union and state repression but competed as to who was hardest in opposing Catalan aspirations.
In the last three weeks that was starkly obvious once more except the dance was joined by a new participant, the fascist Vox Party.
Sánchez and the Socialists cannot grasp that in competing as to which party is the hardest on the Catalan issue the right can always be that more harder. The reason they cannot do so is because anti-Catalanism is a key part of the Spanish state to which, like true Social Democrats they are devoted.
Go back to 1936 opposition to Catalan autonomy and the supposed break up of Spain was key to the military uprising against a Popular Front Government which led to civil war and Franco’s dictatorship.
So cuddly Macron style Ciudadonos shifted readily into trying to outflank the PP on the right over Catalonia. Then along came Vox who seem to have taken swathes of Ciudadonos votes because they were even further right – actually neo-fascist; wanting to jail the current Catalan Government and scrap autonomy.
The consequence of all this was that Sánchez saw his party still taking the biggest share of the vote but falling back slightly – far from the early promise of his campaign. The PP increased its number of parliamentarians by a third, Ciudadanos collapsed and Vox grew from taking 10% of the vote to 15% (earning the cheers of the far right across Europe).
Sánchez cannot even form a majority coalition if he enters coalition with Podemos, who are desperate for a deal. Incidentally, while they opposed the jailing of the Catalan Nine and pay lip service to the right to self determination, their overall position is weak falling back on blaming all nationalisms, as if you can put and equal sign Spanish and Catalan nationalism.
These results mean there is little sign of political stability returning in Spain. Sánchez may form a minority administration but the Right will be baying for Catalan blood.
The results in Catalonia show that within the pro-independence camp the centre left Left Republicans (ERC) took the lion’s share of the vote once more and the radical left Popular Unity Party (CUP), contesting a Spanish election for the first time, took two seats. That rather gives the lie to the fancy that independence is a project of the Catalan bourgeoisie out to feather its own nest (it has never supported independence). Instead it’s fuelled by a desire for greater democracy and rejection of the corrupt Spanish system).
In growing numbers Catalans are leaving the building and no amount of police truncheons can drive them back.
In truth Catalan political parties have no strategy for independence beyond asking Madrid to sanction an independence referendum which will never happen.
The ERC have suggested they might support Sánchez with their votes but their leader, Oriol Junqueras is serving 13 years for sedition. They would want his release or a pardon but such a move would incite Spanish nationalism against Sanchez so its very hard to see him meeting that price.
And that is the issue – Spanish nationalism. Since 2010 that has been growing becoming more virulent and authoritarian. It has largely created the Catalan independence movement, and its is a movement, one which isn’t going away. The cul de sac of official politics means it will continue to not just protest, but to find more and more ways to undermine the Spanish presence in Catalonia. The Spanish state will respond with violence alienating another section of Catalan society.
In all this the EU will stay silent, following the lead from Berlin and Paris. That silence speaks volumes.
Meanwhile, there is another old fault line opening up within the Spanish state. Just a few years ago a PP government in Madrid was cock a hoop that the Basque pro-independence terrorises of ETA had dissolved themselves and destroyed their weaponry without Madrid recognising that let alone making concessions like agreeing to transfer ETA prisoners to jails nearer home.
Left radical Supporters of independence, who despite disavowing violence, had been barred from office or contesting elections, or had been prosecuted and jailed under draconian anti-terror laws, regrouped in a new formation Bildu. In this election that increased their seats from four to five and are challenging the ruling, moderate Basque National Party (PNV) putting it under pressure.
Because of ETA violence pro-independence Catalans once steered away from involvement with the Basques. No longer. The ERC and now CUP are working closely with Bildu and the Basques have given strong support to the jailed Catalan leaders.
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