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Conservatives smell victory in Spain


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Welcome back. Most signs point to a victory for the conservative opposition People’s Party in the early general elections held this week on July 23, Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s socialist prime minister. institutional, regional and economic problems that have accumulated since the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970s.

Sánchez called the election after his ruling socialist party suffered a series of heavy regional and local defeats last weekend. As the map below shows, the People’s Party won not only in large regions such as Madrid and Valencia, but even in sparsely populated areas. Extremaduraa socialist stronghold since the restoration of democracy.

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As Barney Jopson, head of the FT’s Madrid bureau, reports, Sánchez has brought the election forward from its scheduled December date, in part to avoid months of debilitating accusations in his party — not to mention more bickering between the troublesome radical left parties with which the socialists have battled. joined to stay in power during his premiership.

Sectarianism is a historic weakness of the Spanish left, with particularly damaging consequences for democracy during the Second Republic of 1931-1936 and the ensuing civil war, as explained in Nigel Townson’s impressive new history of modern Spain.

Sánchez also hopes to exploit the fear of some Spaniards that, if the People’s Party won, it would have to rule with the support of Vox, an extreme right party of a type that has not had a sniff of power at the national level since the return of democracy.

Coalitions between the People’s Party and Vox are indeed likely in some Spanish regions where the right triumphed last weekend. With the general election less than two months away, the People’s Party has a clear interest in postponing the formation of such coalitions so that the Vox brand does not tarnish its image as much as possible during the campaign.

Yet in one region – Castile-León, north of Madrid – Vox has been a junior coalition partner of the People’s Party since last year. There, Vox created an abortion rights storm that showed his penchant for the kind of controversies that ultra-conservative politicians from Poland to the US love to wade into.

Whatever Vox’s outlook, the fact remains opinion polls have given the People’s Party a pretty solid lead over the Socialists for nearly a year, though not strong enough to gain an outright parliamentary majority. And this trend reveals a lot about how Spain’s various difficulties have shaped and reshaped the system of political parties over the past 10 years.

The old party system is shattering

To begin with, let’s look at the share of the national vote won in the 21st century elections by the People’s Party and the Socialists, who have alternated power for more than four decades. In the 2004 and 2008 elections, their combined share of the vote was over 80 percent, but by the time of the April and November 2019 elections, this had fallen below 50 percent.

They mainly lost ground to three rivals: first the radical left parties Podemos and the centrist Ciudadanos parties, and later Vox.

The rise of Podemos and Ciudadanos can be traced back to the crisis in the economic and financial sector that swept Spain, like most Western democracies, after 2008. took the form of demonstrators in Madrid carrying banners with the slogan “Que se vayan todos” (“Down with them all”).

The corruption scandals exposed serious flaws in the structures of democracy established after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. In particular, the political parties that governed Spain had granted themselves numerous privileges, including easy access to public funds, and minimized the influence of citizens by forcing them to vote during elections for candidates hand-picked by the party leadership.

The naked truth

For a time, Ciudadanos seemed particularly well placed to capitalize on voters’ distaste for the political establishment. It created an image as a liberal, pro-business, anti-corruption party, and attracted attention with innocent gimmicks such as the decision by Albert Rivera, the first leader, posing nude for a campaign poster.

But Ciudadanos has also been a party committed to fighting Catalan separatism, another deeply rooted problem in Spain, from the start. As time passed, the message became confused. The People’s Party and Vox became the main standard-bearers of anti-regionalist Spanish nationalism. Ciudadanos performed so abysmal in last weekend’s polls that it’s not even worth arguing election next month. Voters usually turn to the People’s Party.

Yet the Catalan issue has done lasting damage to the People’s Party. It has been virtually wiped out in Catalonia, the second largest region in Spain by population.

If it returns to power at the national level, it is a big question mark whether it will maintain the relative calm in relations between the central government and Catalonia that marked Sánchez’s five years as prime minister. The atmosphere could deteriorate considerably if Vox were to join the People’s Party in government, resulting in a stricter policy towards Catalonia.

Catalonia and other regional identities

At least Catalan, Basque and other regional issues are sure to give headaches to the next Spanish government. Under a formula called “café para todos” (“coffee for everyone”), all 17 Spanish regions were given some degree of autonomy after the return to democracy. But the inefficiencies in the public sector and the political confrontations this settlement led to – the latter culminating in Catalonia’s illegal secession attempt in 2017 – mean it is in dire need of an update.

As William Chislett points out in this piece for the Elcano Royal Institute, “school children all over the country (in Spain) have no shared history to draw from”. Education is in the hands of regional governments, allowing them to adapt the history curriculum to their political preferences.

For me, this is absolutely no argument for dismantling or scaling back Spain’s decentralized system. Changes are needed, however, as the current arrangements serve as an incentive to fuel disputes over history and identity.

Spanish tolerance for immigrants

Aside from Vox’s eagerness to fan the flames of culture wars and stamp out Catalan separatism, the party’s main bête noire is immigration. But the evidence suggests his animosity towards newcomers doesn’t hold much appeal with the Spanish public.

In this first class analysis by Claudia Finotelli and Sebastian Rinken for the Migration Policy Institute, we see that the Spanish population exploded from 40 million to 47.5 million inhabitants between 1998 and 2022, mainly due to the arrival of millions of Latin Americans, Asians and other Europeans .

Despite the post-2008 economic crisis and other formidable challenges, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, indigenous Spaniards’ attitudes toward immigrants have remained remarkably permissive. In the schedule below prepared by the Institute for Migration Policyfewer Spanish residents say immigration has made their country a worse place than people in Germany, Hungary, Italy and Sweden.

Finotelli and Rinken offer one explanation:

Spain provides the vast majority of its 7.5 million foreign-born residents with access to comprehensive civil and social rights, including a pathway to citizenship. These policies, more closely aligned with the demands of the country’s labor market and the aspirations of immigrants, have largely escaped political backlash.

The authors warn that Vox’s nativist rhetoric may still yield some electoral rewards, but state that overall “the country’s evolution towards a country of mass immigration is firmly established”.

Economic headwind

Finally, a word about the economy. Spain has weathered the storms that have plagued it since 2018, but some long-term challenges remain. In the chart below, we see that government debt has risen steadily from about 10 percent of gross domestic product during the transition to democracy in the late 1970s to more than 100 percent of GDP today.

Line chart of public gross debt (% of GDP) with the rising burden of the Spanish public debt

Despite some tinkering with the labor market by the current government, unemployment remains high by EU standards — over 13 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to ING bank.

All in all, there will be a lot for the next administration to get to grips with, regardless of its political complexion. The question I would like to ask the readers is: do you think, if the People’s Party wins the election, Vox will go into coalition with it and have ministers in the next Spanish government? Your opinion is welcome at tony.barber@ft.com.

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Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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