Spain’s triple crisis and the emergence of Vox

Spain is facing a triple crisis that would overwhelm considerably more stable political systems.

First, there is a deep unsolved economic and social crisis that has fostered inequality and insecurity; secondly, a deep constitutional and institutional crisis, enhanced by the situation in Catalonia; and, thirdly, a corruption crisis that, last spring, led to the ousting of former prime minister Mariano Rajoy in a parliamentary motion of no-confidence. One global plus two Spanish crises.

At the same time, there is a political fragmentation between four parties, aligned in two blocks: the Partido Popular (PP) and Ciudadanos (Cs) on the right, and Partido Socialista (PSOE) and Podemos to the left.

Neither of the blocks holds enough MPs to form a majority in parliament, and hence they need support from the “5th block” made up of nationalist and secessionists. Inevitably this block includes those parties that form the independentist Catalan government, whose leaders are either in jail or have escaped abroad.

Next week sees the start of the supreme court trial of those charged around the events of October 2017, when independence was illegally declared.

Despite the dangerous continual worsening of these three crises, they seem impossible to resolve.

The problem is that none of them are solvable with only two of the main players, they all need at least three. The economic and social one requires at least PSOE, Cs and Podemos; the constitutional emergency, which encompasses different aspects but mainly the challenge to the 1978 territorial design based on decentralisation needs PSOE, Cs, PP and the moderate Basques nationalists as well as the Catalans if they ever recover some common sense, the famous and lost seny in Catalan; and solving corruption needs all of them, the “new” parties alongside the “old” parties affected by it, especially the PP but also PSOE.

Only together can they find a regeneration deal able to overcome the profound moral crisis.

Alas, this is a utopian dream since the Cs and PP on one side, and Podemos on the other, have formally refused to agree anything with each other in any of these three fields. Only PSOE is open to bipartisan agreements on tackling the three crises.

The first consequence of this lack of agreement is to make it impossible to agree a new economic and social agenda, one which can combine social relief, redistribution and equality with the modernisation that the Spanish economy requires to guarantee growth and prosperity, and thereby foster pre-distribution in the context of accelerating globalisation and digitalisation.

The same goes with the constitutional crisis which requires a new agreement in the direction indicated by PSOE’s 2013 “Granada Declaration” – which would see moves to a federal state, recognizing some asymmetries – an approach too moderate from my point of view, but impossible anyway because the truth is that PP and Cs are today going the other way, moving away even from the territorial constitutional consensus agreed in 1978.

Nowadays, it is impossible to think about an accommodation for Catalonia with Cs clearly angling to take back some powers from the regions to Madrid and reduce self-government in different ways, and the PP following their lead.

In this context, and with the current political fragmentation and distribution of parliamentary seats, the trilemma for Spanish progressives is the impossibility of confronting these three crises at the same time.

Making it harder still, the order it choses to face them affects the evolution of the “left behind” crisis. Even if the parliamentary arithmetic changes, say after an early election, a similar situation would be repeated as long as the blocks maintain their rigidity.

Trying to alleviate the economic and social crisis is the only area where Pedro Sanchez’s minority government can actually take action, because in this territory he can count on the votes of Podemos and the nationalist and pro-independence MPs.

It is a hard task full of risks because both are pretty flawed allies. The Catalan parties because in supporting secession they have set themselves outside the constitutional order. Moreover, they are trying to break it and as a reaction Spanish nationalism is reviving across the country. Podemos support is also tricky. Not only because loyalty to the government is not its greatest attribute, but also because as an illiberal and anti-establishment left populist party, whose priority is set on lose spending and fiscal policies, it despises the reforms necessary to guarantee sound growth and productivity gains in the medium term, and as a consequence mobilises the far right.

Nothing can be done regarding the other crises. The ousted PP government was unable to do much either whilst it survived before corruption knocked it down. In this way, Spain is completing its third year of political blockade exacerbated by the worsening of the Catalonia situation – probably the worst institutional crisis suffered since the recovery of democracy, and the cause of the greatest democratic risks so far acknowledged.

Which crisis should be tackled first and by whom? That is the Spanish progressive trilemma. A question that has been tearing PSOE apart over recent years and thereby weakening our democracy; since PSOE has been the most powerful democratic instrument for the progressive modernisation of Spain.

Ousting Mariano Rajoy for corruption with a motion of no-confidence was not only a moral need – not just for PSOE, who formed their minority government as a consequence, but also for a majority of the public – but also a window of opportunity to break the conservative political cycle and put forward the progressive policies that the economic and social crisis demanded after ten years of pain. The decision was clear, the path after not so much.

That question has gained urgency since the regional election in Andalucía on December 2, where different local, national and global elements explain the collapse of the left, both PSOE and Podemos, and also the breakthrough of the Vox party – which gained a dozen seats and saw the extreme right gain a foothold in a Spanish parliament for the first time since Franco.

Thinking about the Andalucían result and the appearance of the extreme right, I recall the secular criticism formulated by the new left populist parties like Podemos against weakened social democracy for, supposedly, having abandoned left goals based on moral principles and protecting instead the means – that is, the democratic institutions that in Spain are young and still quite a historic exceptionality.

This criticism gathered great success among PSOE members, and now thanks to Vox it can be counter-argued more easily.

But, what is Vox? Why now? Vox is the Spanish extreme right response to the triple crisis that we are suffering, combining distinctively Spanish elements that cannot be extrapolated internationally, especially the Catalonia crisis, but also Podemos’ growing influence, and some global components.

As a genuine extreme right or far right party in the middle of the worst ever Spanish constitutional crisis of the democratic era, Vox is centralist and defends the disappearance of the Spanish regionalized state its replacement by a single centralist one – a safe guardian of a solid single Spanish identity.

Catalonia has enraged many former PP voters, angry about the moderate but hapless approach of Rajoy. The Catalan nationalists have in turn awakened a vulnerability in those who carry Spanish nationalist identity.

Regarding its other Spanish elements: Vox is authoritarian, uses warlike speech, and tries to legitimise authoritarianism, praying the risk generated by other religions or cultures in aid of its hard-line stance. It is also what social scientists call “nativist”, that is xenophobic ad nationalist.

Xenophobic in the sense that they want to exclude immigrants from our social corpus even if they are legal residents – for example, denying social services until individuals reach ten years residency. And nationalist in that they believe there should only be a single narrow Spanish identity or official culture, based on its imperial history and its Roman-Catholic past, and hence excluding the rich Spanish cultural and language diversity and rejecting Catalan, Basque or any kind of complementary identities.

Replacing forty years of democratic inclusion based on freedoms and rights by the not so dead national-catholic aesthetic and identity that we Spaniards suffered for centuries until General Franco’s death in 1975 is not only a bad idea but dangerous.

When it comes to the progressive social advances Spain has seen over those four democratic decades, Vox is ultra-catholic and anti-Muslim, and of course opposes the still incomplete Spanish secularisation. Vox has an anti LGBT rights agenda, is against gay marriage, is aggressively against gender equality policies, and would like to ban abortion while it proudly defends male chauvinism and the traditional family.

In this respect Vox’s stance is akin to that of eastern European right-wing radicals who want to retaliate against former governments – in the case of Vox, the liberal reforms of the last PSOE prime minister Rodríguez Zapatero. Vox’s proud opposition to cosmopolitan values sees them revel in the politically incorrect as they strongly uphold the right to hunt or bullfight.

As for the economic and social crisis, they support tax reductions –especially of inheritance tax for the very rich – and not much more. Nevertheless, it is clear that, to some degree, the deep dissatisfaction amongst voters caused by the slow and unequal economic recovery, based on low quality employment, insecurity and fear has boosted Vox support by the many who feel abandoned, just as in so many other countries.

In this way, Vox could be the Steve Bannon franchise for Spain, and probably we will soon see them trying to lead actions like the “yellow jackets” sparked by fuel tax rises in France – les gilet jaunes – a symbol of the impoverished and forgotten losers of globalisation.

On the European Union, they have a standard anti-integration message that focuses on the loss of national sovereignty, the Eurocrats role and the weakening caused by the ‘Islamisation of Europe’.

As a party they come from different backgrounds, some like its leader are former PP apparatchiks that have never lived outside the political bubble and defected from that party because they found it too moderate, others are just plain odd individuals, like the judge suspended two years from the judiciary for his sexism in court who leads Vox in Andalucía.

There are former military and even an important group of snobbish ultra-conservative aristocrats, very well connected and based in Madrid. We will not know the true face of Vox until they are in government, a situation we will hopefully never see.

Most of their ideas have hibernated within the PP since time immemorial, but the triple crises have pushed them outside this “old politics” party hammered and hampered by corruption. Now the polls show Vox growing thanks to all, thanks to the dominance of the identity question in the national debate.

So, the Spanish exception – of avoiding the rise of right wing populists which has happened almost universally elsewhere in Europe – is over and just as in so many other countries, with some uniquely Spanish characteristics, an extreme right player has arrived to push to breaking point an already ungovernable and fragmented political scene.

It may be not be the only exceptionality broken in Spain, as we may soon see mainstream Christian democrats like the PP or, even more disappointingly, liberal ALDE Cs sign a government agreement with Vox in Andalucía. If the Cs do ‘get into bed’ with Vox it will make their claim to be progressive pretty-hollow.

When Cs condemn the hard right elsewhere but flirt with co-operation with its Spanish manifestation, it brings into question just how serious and how liberal the joint European election list they intend to run with ‘En Marche’ is.

A dark perspective, that is for sure, for all.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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