A first time with many obstacles ahead

Today the Spanish parliament has approved by a narrow margin of two seats a new government led by the Socialist Pedro Sánchez. I have not dared to start writing these notes until I saw the 167 against 165 in the screen of my tv. It will be the first time since the transition to democracy in the 1970s that there is a coalition government at the national level, the first time that there is a minister from the Communist Party, and of course also the first time that Podemos is in government. The required plurality of MP votes was achieved thanks to the abstention of the ERC, a Catalan left-wing republican party that in 2017 supported the 1O referendum banned by the Constitutional Court, and the unilateral declaration of independence. Other nationalist parties have also either voted yes (PNV) or abstained (Bildu).

The number and magnitude of the obstacles this government has had to overcome, just to get going, is overpowering. The first and probably most important has been the difficulty of its parties and supporters to acknowledge reality as it is. PSOE and Podemos failed to reach an agreement after April’s election, which produced a slightly larger share of 173 seats for the parties that today voted for Sánchez. The reasons behind the decision to call for a new election in November still escapes my understanding, but I suspect that the Socialist Party wanted to recover its dominant position in the left and, hoping to concentrate votes, assumed a huge risk. It is now clear that Podemos is here to stay, with a solid electoral floor.

PSOE has also had to assume that Catalunya and the Basque Country continue to be essential to secure parliamentary majorities, and that at the moment these are not possible without ERC. Retreating from an extremely aggressive discourse against separatists still displayed in the campaign of November, the PSOE has changed course and has negotiated with ERC the support for this government. After years of tension, dismissals and rejections, this is a fundamental first step in the right direction that is needed as air.

ERC, on the other hand, has had to assume the defeat of the unilateral strategy, and it is now struggling with the bitter task of how to reconduct the situation with its leader Junqueras in prison sentenced to nothing less than 13 years. Not only he is sentenced for sedition (a felony questioned in it itself, and that many criminal lawyers fail to see in the events of 2017 in Catalonia), but the EU Court of Justice has recently declared that he had parliamentary immunity as EMP prior to the time of the Spanish Supreme Court’s ruling. Any solution to the Catalan question is very far away, and certainly impossible with political leaders in jail, but ERC has understood that if there is any chance to improve the situation it involves a different government in Spain. Notably, Podemos has had a more flexible stand on the Catalan question (in favor of a referendum).

It is hard to disentangle which has been the component of the new government that has generated the strongest reaction of rejection among the right: the presence of Unidas Podemos, or the support from ERC and Bildu (Basque left secessionists). According to the deafening yelling from the parties of the right during the investiture session, the “unity of Spain is in peril” and this government is “supported by terrorists”. Hence, it would seem that the agreement with the secessionists is the key driver of all this wild gesticulation. However, I can’t help thinking that this is just the issue in which the parties of the right have specialized, using it so intensely for the past years to gain electoral support that they seem trapped into it. The occasional cry against the perils of communism (isn’t this extraordinary in 2020?) shows that the concern probably goes far beyond the territorial question.

All this end-of-the world rhetoric and outright verbal violence, including harrassment and threats to MPs that would support the government, shows a serious problem in the functioning of the Spanish democracy that we should aim at correcting: some parties seem to be incapable of acknowledging the democratic legitimacy of this government and of some of the MPs that currently hold seats in Parliament. Linz pointed precisely to this manichaean identification of the other party or parties as threat for the integrity of the political system, as one of the main reasons for the breakdown of democratic regimes in Latin America.

VOX is probably the best but not the only representative of this problem. It certainly has the authoritarian and nativist components typical of the European radical right (a bit less of the populist one), but also extremely present in its essence is the rejection of plurality and diversity within Spain. What is surprising to me is that, in this aspect, it is becoming difficult to distinguish degrees of dramatism with the other right or center-right parties. PP has been as harsh if not more regarding the territorial question, and Ciudadanos, following this same strategy is going from parliamentarian irrelevance into likely extinction. All three parties, with very similar intensity disqualify independentist parties directly and those who speak with them indirectly. The PP could have chosen a strategy to differentiate itself from VOX, which has almost doubled its seat share between April and November and is an obvious electoral threat. But the PP did not consider for one minute the possibility of a demarcation strategy with VOX, let alone confrontation. In fact, the PP does not seem to be paying any attention at all to its right.

It maybe that VOX was born in a context where the far right was already mainstreamed in Europe generally (as Mudde’s argumet goes in The Far Right Today) and in Spain in particular by the PP itself, through its own radicalization regarding the Catalan question and its stirring up of Spanish nationalism. In the end, they may not be that different (which would be quite dramatic) and it may make little sense to seek an inexistent distinctive trait. However, strategically it would seem reasonable, as the fragmentation of the right will complicates its chances to obtain a majority (smaller parties with spread support do not benefit from the premiums of the electoral system).

This lack of respect for basic democratic principles not only is apparent in some political parties, but also resonates on other layers of the Spanish political, institutional and media systems. Part of the press was ferouciosly attacking the governement before it was even born. A leading newspaper asked socialist MPs to break party discipline in todays’ vote. The fact that the political rights of some of the Catalan leaders in jail have not been guaranteed shows that the abusive use of restrictive legal instruments to fight against populism (and Catalan independentism has certainly many populist traits ) is a short haul strategy that can also severely damage liberal democracy. Democracy should be defended in each and everyone of its many dimensions: majority rule and minority protection, political rights as fundamental protected rights, rule of law and accountability, to name only some of the most important ones. To this list, we shouldn’t forget to add the recognition and preservation of the value of our institutions, including and above all the parliament, and the governments it elects.