Polarisation in Spain

Andrew Dowling

The morning after the local and regional elections held on 28 May, Spain’s social democrat Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced the surprise decision to bring forward the general election from December 2023 to the new date of 23 July. The forces of the right had emerged victorious from the May elections and are in pole position to pull off a victory in July. Spain remains distinctive in European terms in that the main political actors, Sánchez’s PSOE and the conservative Partido Popular (PP) have survived attempts to displace them from Podemos on the left and Ciudadanos (Citizens) on the (centre) right. A degree of re-stabilisation around the two main parties is increasingly evident with PSOE and the PP able to achieve support totalling over 60%. We may even see further consolidation of these two parties in the coming general election.

However, we should not mistake this relative re-stabilisation around the two main parties for a culture of consensus. One continuing feature of the period since Sánchez took office in June 2018 has been high levels of political polarisation and repeated attempts to delegitimize the PSOE-Podemos coalition government. A right-wing media space centred in Madrid of newspapers, talk radio, social media and local television channels has bombarded its audience with narratives of a Frankenstein coalition of “communists and separatists” – the latter term a reference to the external support the government receives from left nationalist parties from the Basque Country and Catalonia. Demonising terms like these have a long tradition in the Spanish political lexicon. Influenced by the strategies of US Republicans and right-wing populists in Latin America, the typical conservative voter in Spain is highly mobilised. This was key to the victory of the right in May 2023 where conservatives turned out in large numbers to reject the PSOE-Podemos coalition.

Sources of division

Spanish political culture is marked, then, by deep polarisation. As elsewhere in the Western world, measures passed around sexual consent and the trans issue have produced divisions between the traditional and radical left and have become touchstone issues for the right to mobilise around. Thus, although the PSOE-led coalition has passed a large number of popular social measures around the minimum wage, employment contracts and assistance with utility bills, these have been drowned out in the culture wars. Senior figures in the hard-right Vox, which has emerged as the third force in Spanish politics in the decade since its split from the PP, have also denied that domestic violence is even real, let alone an issue to be taken seriously by government, and have claimed that climate change is a hoax. Although the PP is led by a fairly conventional conservative leader in Alberto Feijóo, his party is constantly forced to react to the latest publicity stunt carried out by Vox.

There are also some features of the political landscape that are specific to Spain. The legacy of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship, for instance, is treated in a highly partisan manner. PSOE governments in the period 2004-2011 and again in 2018-2023 have sought to confront this problem of contested memory, in what they portray as an attempt to right the wrongs of history. The PP, on the other hand, has mostly crafted a narrative around forgetting the past and ‘moving on’, consistent with the pacto de olvido (the ‘pact of forgetting’) made in the aftermath of Franco’s death in 1975. Vox, meanwhile, consciously uses this issue as one to mobilise its base and is unashamed in its defence of the Franco regime. Echoing debates in the US, the left is accused – by both Vox and the PP – of stealing ‘our history’ around statues, nomenclature of streets and museum exhibitions.

A second distinctive feature of the Spanish political scene is what might be termed the territorial question. This shot up the political agenda in the wake of the unprecedented Catalan challenge to state authority in the autumn of 2017 which produced a closing of ranks around Spanish nationhood and commitment to the Constitution of 1978. Although the Catalan question has diminished as a major issue, the fact that the Sánchez government has negotiated legislation with what the right sees as ‘the enemies of Spain’, i.e., Basque and Catalan nationalists, has been repeatedly used as a tactic to undermine it. To give just one recent example, the campaign in May 2023 was somewhat thrown off course by the radical Basque coalition EH Bildu including former members of ETA in its parliamentary lists. This was used by the right to not only attack Bildu but tarnish the PSOE and Sánchez for allying with ‘terrorists’. Bildu backed down but the furore created greatly helped the right’s broader goals.

Disarray on the left, disruption on the right

PSOE may have underperformed in May’s elections, but the result was devastating for its coalition partner Podemos, which failed to achieve representation in a number of regional legislatures and lost large numbers of local councillors. When Podemos first appeared in Spain over the course of 2015 and 2016, it capitalised upon widespread discontent with the regime of austerity, garnering support approaching 30%. There seemed to be a real possibility that it would replace PSOE as the preeminent force on the left of Spanish politics. By 2023, however, such hopes seem a distant memory, as does the threat of ‘Pasokification’ hanging over PSOE.

In fact, the political space to the left of PSOE has spent much of the past 12 months in an internecine struggle that has greatly damaged its reputation and attractiveness. Many of its voters are demoralised and simply abstained in May. There is little indication of any real capacity for re-mobilisation, even though the block has now been re-organised around a new political expression Sumar (Join Together). Whilst Sumar is led by one of Spain’s most popular politicians, the Minister of Labour Yolanda Díaz, it appears too much damage has been done by factional struggles to achieve anything other than a modest electoral performance in July.

Momentum, for now, clearly favours the Spanish right, and specifically the PP, who some polls tip to gain almost 50 seats in the 350-seat Congress. On its right flank, however, Vox is also demonstrating a great capacity to act as a disruptive force, enabling it to determine policy agendas and extract concessions from the PP. Vox has skilfully exploited social media platforms like Tik Tok and Instagram; this has granted it increasing influence amongst young voters who see it as a rebellious counter-cultural force and have no memory of the post-2008 period of austerity. With the PP far from gaining an absolute majority and lacking any other potential governing partner, victory for the right would mean a PP-Vox coalition government in which Vox would have a powerful voice.

The entrance of a far-right party into the national government in Madrid would have been considered beyond the pale not too long ago. The formation of the government of Meloni in Italy, however, has clearly demonstrated that the far right is increasingly welcomed within the broad family of conservatism. Given the level of political division in Spain, a German-style grand coalition of the PSOE and PP lacks any plausibility. Even if the disparate forces of the left in Spain pull off an unlikely victory on 23 July, we can anticipate that the broad right of media and PP/Vox will do everything in their power to undermine it; in such a situation, we should not rule out a narrative emerging of a ‘stolen’ election, as seen in the United States and Brazil in recent years. Intense polarisation will remain, for the foreseeable future, a defining feature of the Spanish political system.

Andrew Dowling is Reader in Contemporary Spanish History at Cardiff University, with a particular focus on Catalan nationalism. His most recent book is Catalonia: A New History (Routledge, 2022). He is also editing the Routledge Handbook of Spanish History, which is due for release later this year.