Political Crisis in Spain Forces General Election

Demonstrators protest the trial of Catalan separatist leaders on February 21. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

After weeks of political drama in Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez decided to call a snap general election for April 28. Two elements combined to make the continuation of the current political arrangement untenable. On the one hand, Sánchez’s Socialist minority government was attempting to establish a controversial forum with Catalan independentists in which negotiations could be held on Catalonia’s future relationship with the Spanish state. At the same time, the trial of twelve independentist leaders accused of rebelling against constituted authority began in Madrid.

The Spanish government has found itself under fire from all sides. Furious opposition leaders accused it of caving in to independentist demands, but Catalan nationalists felt that the government had not made sufficient concessions and refused to back the budget when it was presented to parliament on February 14. Sánchez, backed into a corner and with minimal support, was thus forced to call for the snap election.           

How the Current Situation Developed

The current highly-polarized political arena in Spain needs placing in a broader European context. After the 2008 financial crisis, growing inequality, economic hardship, and corruption led to dissatisfaction with mainstream political parties. Such concerns sparked a movement for social and constitutional change that galvanized sections of the country’s youth and resulted in the founding of the left-wing party Podemos, along with several regional affiliates, in 2014. The arrival of significant numbers of immigrants from North Africa has also been grist to the mill for the right and has been an important factor in the rise of the far-right party, Vox.

But where the western political crisis has most dramatically manifested itself is in the resurgence of nationalist conflict in Spain. Its origins are to be found in the decision of the Generalitat de Catalunya—following the example of the Scottish Nationalist Party—to push for a referendum on Catalan independence. This was, however, totally rejected by Spain’s conservative Partido Popular (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. There followed an increasingly polarized confrontation that culminated in the Catalan government’s unilateral referendum on independence on October 1, 2017, and the subsequent declaration of Catalonia as independent.

The failure of the Generalitat to draw back despite a lack of support from the European Union (EU) was irresponsible, but the response by Spain’s state institutions added more fuel to the fire. The government tried to break up the referendum and, in the protests that followed, citizens were beaten by the police. King Felipe VI delivered a harsh address in which he condemned the Catalan movement. The leading figures in the Catalan administration were all subsequently arrested—with the exception of the president, Carles Puigdemont, who escaped to Belgium. Very significantly, they were charged with rebellion, a crime that carries a prison sentence of up to twenty-five years.

The problem here is that the charge of rebellion implies that violence was used, whereas the Catalan nationalists have consistently stressed the peaceful nature of their movement. The suspicion was that the judiciary had agreed upon the harshest possible penalties to teach the Catalan separatists a lesson. This was strengthened by the subsequent failed attempts to extradite Puigdemont on this charge, first from Belgium and then from Germany.

Recent Events

Since that time, Prime Minister Sánchez replaced Rajoy and has needed the votes of the Catalan independentists in the legislature to stay in power. He has tried to take a conciliatory line by intimating that at some future date Catalonia could gain greater autonomy, and in December 2018 set up a Bilateral Commission between the government and Catalan authorities. But Catalan pro-independence parties also pushed for the formation of a “table of parties” presided over by an international observer, whose brief would include the discussion of Catalonia’s “right to independence.”

Under pressure because the votes of independentists were needed to pass the budget, on February 5 the government said that such a table of parties could operate, but that the mediator (relator) would be Spanish and that it could only hold discussions within the framework of the constitution. This brought a storm of protest on the head of Sánchez. Sectors of the Socialist Party (PSOE) feared that Sánchez would be seen as weak in the face of separatist demands. And the prestigious former party leader, Felipe González, condemned the idea of a table of parties. At the same time, the right attacked the discussions, charging that Sánchez was effectively caving in to the separatists.

It needs stressing in this respect that the Catalan independence movement has produced a nationalist counter-mobilization in much of Spain, most outwardly visible in the Spanish flags that have appeared on many balconies, mimicking the pro-independence flags that many Catalans fly. The new leader of the opposition PP, Pablo Casado, went as far as to say that by holding discussions with the Catalan independentists Sánchez was “betraying” Spanish democracy and that he was in reality pursuing “ETA’s agenda.” Casado was attempting to draw an unlikely parallel between Catalan independentists and the now-defunct Basque terrorist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) in order to undermine Sánchez. The right also put on a show of force with a demonstration in Madrid on February 10 attended by 45,000 protestors.

Tensions were further exacerbated by the start of the trial of the Catalan leaders at the Supreme Court on February 12. What will be of upmost importance is whether charges of rebellion can be convincingly proven and, if they cannot, whether the court will have the courage to convict the men on lesser charges. In the shorter term, the trial has also mobilized the supporters of Catalan independence, with a call for a demonstration of 200,000 protestors in Barcelona on April 17 under the slogan “self-determination is not a crime.” It was in this febrile atmosphere that the failure to reach an accord with the Catalan independentists that put an end to the legislature. The Sánchez government first announced that it was calling off the Catalan negotiations, and then, after its budget was rejected, called the general election.

As the preceding remarks indicate, the political outlook for Spain is, to put it mildly, complicated. The fundamental problem is that there are two highly-mobilized antithetical political forces. On the one hand, a powerful pro-independence movement has emerged and sustained itself in Catalonia, with over two million committed supporters. On the other hand, the Spanish right vociferously extolls Spanish national identity and unity and sees any challenges to it as a criminal act.

The Next Few Months

For the upcoming April elections three scenarios are most likely. First, it is possible that the three right-wing parties, Ciudadanos, PP, and Vox, will win an overall majority. Here one can imagine a situation similar to the one that has operated since the regional election in Andalusia in December 2018, in which the PP and Ciudadanos  have governed with parliamentary support from Vox. The danger though is one of authoritarian drift, most particularly if these parties carry out their threat to once again suspend Catalan autonomy.

Second, the PSOE could form a coalition government with Podemos, though they would almost certainly need backing by Catalan and Basque nationalists. This would in many respects reprise the situation of the previous year. The key question would then be whether the Catalan nationalists continue to push hard for a referendum or tone down their demands in the knowledge that the right-wing alternative to Sánchez would be worse.

Finally, there could be no overall majority for any group, in which case any semblance of political stability would be lost. Whatever happens in Spain, the EU will have an important role to play in trying to moderate action and rhetoric. But its ability to do so, of course, depends to a large degree on the EU parliamentary elections this coming May. Should the EU be weakened by these elections then achieving a degree of political stability in Spain may prove even more challenging.