Steven Forti – Spain at a crossroads

Neo-liberal interests in the EU are getting fed up with the political developments in Spain. Not only are Catalonia and the Basque country questioning the authority of the national government, but much of the population is fed up with the diktat of austerity.

The answer, as we are seeing in other EU nations, is absolutist regimes. For Spain this is no problem because fascism has been slumbering since the end of the Franco dictatorship. With a little help from its neo-liberal friends, it has again reared its ugly head – in the political parties, in the courts and police, and on the street.

Steven Forti is Researcher at the Instituto de História Contemporânea of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa and professor at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. @StevenForti


For Spain, 2018 ended with the unexpected news of the victory of the extreme right in the Andalusian state elections. 400,000 voters, equal to 11% of the electorate, chose “Vox, an ultra-right party unknown until last summer, which thus obtained 12 deputies who hang like an albatross around the neck of the regional parliament of Seville. And the new year opened with signs that the Andalusian results were not a passing nightmare. On the contrary.

In January, for the first time since the end of the Franco dictatorship, Andalusia has a right-wing government. After 37 years the Social Democrats have lost their historic stronghold. The leader of the rightist Partido Popular, Juan Manuel Moreno Bonilla, was elected regional president thanks to a pact with the Liberal Ciudadanos party, which enters government as coalition partner, and Vox, which will support him but remain outside the coalition. The votes of the extreme right have been and will continue to be fundamental for the Andalusian coalition. It was immediately clear that Vox has pushed social values past the limit, asking, among other things, for the expulsion of 52,000 immigrants and the end of the gender equality policies approved in the last decade: proposals that are unacceptable, at least for now, to the conservative Partido Popular and especially to Ciudadanos, which needs to maintain a liberal centre-right veneer to remain an ally of France´s president Macron. It took only 24 hours for Vox to remove its harsh policy demands, but the party has claimed that its programme will set the political agenda for the coming months.

The consortium of three right-wing political parties established in Andalusia is a clear signal for the upcoming elections at the end of May: in Spain, in fact, we will vote not only for the European Parliament, but also in all municipalities and in 13 out of 17 regions. It is an election day crucial for the political future of the nation. So Andalusia was a bellwether. The extreme right could soon be entering national government, as in Austria or Italy: however much they try to deny it, the conservatives of the Partido Popular and the neo-liberals of Ciudadanos rely precisely on the votes of the ultra-right Vox, friends of Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen, and disciples of America’s Steve Bannon, to overthrow the Social Democrat government. In the shadows you can see the hand of former prime minister José María Aznar weaving the ranks of this new unification of the Iibertarian right.

If the Andalusian pact works, there is no doubt that it will be repeated wherever the numbers allow, in other regions and at the national level. And here is the big question: when will Spain elect its next national parliament? The legislative period ends in the spring of 2020, but few people are betting that Pedro Sánchez will be able to survive until then. The situation is very precarious, but there are two likely scenarios: either we vote in October at the latest, or Sánchez loses a vote about the budget in parliament in the ensuing weeks and we have a national election in May, together with the European and regional elections.

The crucial issue is the approval of the 2019 budget, presented in January by the Social Democrat government. For now, Sánchez can count on the votes of his party and almost certainly those of Unidos Podemos, as well as the Basque nationalists, but he also needs those of the Catalan independentists, who are demanding, as a quid pro quo,  a referendum on self-determination and the release of their leaders currently held in preventive custody. The trial will begin on February 12th and a judgment is not expected before June. Sánchez is relaunching the diplomatic process by proposing greater dialogue, breaking with the tensions of the Rajoy era. His newest proposal, which triggered the wrath of the right, was to appoint a rapporteur to the bilateral table. But after strong controversies, the proposal has been withdrawn and the government of Madrid has declared the negotiations with the Catalan regional government as failed.

On the same day as the start of the trial there will be a first vote in Parliament on the budget If the independentist parties vote in favour and allow the budget to proceed to debate, Sánchez will be able to survive for a few months more. Otherwise, it is almost certain that the legislature will end abruptly. The decision will be taken at the last moment, also because the independentists are divided amongst themselves: between Esquerra Repúblicana de Catalunya, the Partit Demòcrata Europeu Catalá, and the Crida Nacional per la República, a new movement founded by the former Catalan president Puigdemont who took refuge in Belgium.

Even if Sánchez manages to overcome this first obstacle, the final approval of the budget, scheduled for April, is a completely different story. We will see if the independentists are ruled by their heads or their hearts. It won’t suit them to bring down Sánchez: an ultra-right wing government would mean a Spanish-imposed administration for Catalonia. Moreover, the manoeuvre presented by the executive of the PSOE increases by 52% the investments for Catalonia. That is over 2 billion euros more than in the past. Voting against it would be tantamount to suicide.

But the approval of the budget also offers the last hope of saving Spain from succumbing to the European climate dominated by the national-populist right. It is an expansive budget with a strong social focus that restores many outgoings to pre-crisis levels. It would increase pensions (+6.5%), salaries of public officials (+2.5%), investment in education and research (+5.6%), and funding for policies against gender-based violence, for the reception of migrants, housing policies, and the unemployed over 52 years of age. Revenue would come from a higher tax burden on large companies and assets, as well as the creation of new taxes on financial transactions. All this would allow the reduction of the deficit (from -2.7% to -1.9%) and of the public debt, which should fall below 95% of GDP, so as not to create too much tension with Brussels. This is no more or less than the line taken by Antonio Costa in Portugal over the last three years.

The uncertainty is enormous. And in the meantime, among the left, there is no shortage of twists and turns. Íñigo Errejón, co- founder  and number two in of Podemos, has decided to form an alliance with the mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, to contest the municipalities and regions of the Spanish capital. Carmena is an independent and Podemos was aware that she was the only person who could keep Madrid in the hands of the left. Errejón was the regional candidate of the Iglesias party. Now that the break between Errejón and Podemos is out in the open, the chaos is enormous – with the resignation of the senator and regional secretary of Podemos in Madrid Ramón Espinar – the risk of political suicide for the left is palpable. We will see the consequences of this decision on the entire Spanish left and municipal politics in May, starting with Ada Colau, mayor of Barcelona. In all of this, the only parties who are laughing and savouring victory are those on the right. Spain is at a crossroads.

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