By Jason Carlton
For an American in Spain, the political landscape may seem complex and highly divided, the two-party system having broken down into a variety of parties and factions vying for as many parliamentary seats as is possible in the new order. Now that the general elections are over and the PSOE is in power, it would be useful to revisit the history of Spanish democracy, and look at the causes of the controversy and instability that have shrouded Spain in the past decade.
Before democracy was re-implanted in Spain, and after General Francisco Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, the dictator ruled from 1939 to 1975. Franco centralized the country, repressing regional languages and culture and upholding the Castilian model of Spain, with the Catholic Church playing a central role in it. Before his death in 1975, Franco appointed Juan Carlos de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicilias, the grandson of Spain’s last king. Franco had assumed that Juan Carlos would continue his legacy and legitimize a new Spanish monarchy that would permanently cut off his father, Juan de Borbón y Battenberg, the dynastic heir to the throne, had the old monarchy been allowed to return. But the King, by then Juan Carlos I, quickly began a series of reforms to install democracy and replace the old dictatorship.
With a fresh democracy and Juan Carlos reigning but not ruling in a constitutional monarchy, post-Franco Spain developed a strong two-party system, with the People’s Party (PP) representing the conservative block, and the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE) representing the socialist left (later, social democracy). They took turns as either the ruling party or the opposition. Of course, there were a myriad of smaller, regional parties to represent local interests in the now-decentralized Spain, but these did not pose a threat to the prevailing two-party system.
In 1986, Spain was quick to join what is now the European Union (EU), enjoying a wealthy common market and healthy immigration. Smooth sailing, Spain was modernizing politically and economically until it was hit hard by the Great Recession that burst in on the EU. In Spain, inflation soared, unemployment reached nearly 40% (to put this in perspective, the highest rate of unemployment in the U.S during the Great Depression was 25%), and the voter base lost faith in the ruling parties.
Yet in 2011, when Mariano Rajoy and the PP were tasked with bringing Spain out of the recession with an absolute majority, no outside party posed a direct threat to the conservative government. And then it happened: the PP became embroiled in scandals and charges of corruption, and the 15M protests rocked Spain. Protesters occupied plazas across the country and took to the streets against the unrelenting economic crisis, government austerity measures that impoverished the masses, and the two-party system itself.
In the wake of the scandals and protests, two new parties emerged in the general elections: the left-wing populist Podemos with 69 seats, and the right-leaning neo-liberal Ciudadanos (C’s) with 40 seats. The splintering continued to grow, leading to another election (2016). Instead of solving the problems that were debilitating the nation, the scandals plaguing the PP came to a head. Rajoy was ousted in a vote of no-confidence and was replaced by the PSOE Secretary- General Pedro Sanchez, but Sanchez’s minority government collapsed under the impossibility of approving a state budget. Thus, yet another snap election was called just a few days ago, on April 28.
Featured prominently in this latest election was the rise of a fifth major party, namely the right- wing Vox, challenging the “cowardly” pro-European “centrist” politics of the PP and Ciudadanos. Vox espouses a right-wing, pro-Christian philosophy. While not as far-right as many critics claim, Vox is distinctly more traditional than its counterparts on the right of the political spectrum. It opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, and calls for a highly centralized Spain.
This then brings us to five major parties: the old system represented by the social-democratic PSOE and conservative PP; Podemos farther left of PSOE; Vox to the right of rightist PP; and C’s somewhere right of center. In just a decade, the predictable two-party environment in Spain fractured into a wide breadth of parties and ideologies and may never revert to the what-had-once-been. This will certainly make for a more chaotic system, but a more interesting one as well.
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By Kevin Bonilla
Images other than Kevin Bonilla’s
Featured image (Vox president Abascal at a campaign event)/Contando Estrellas, CC BY-SA3.0
Juan Carlos I, then Prince of Spain, PD
15 M/Fotograccion.org, CC BY-SA3.0
Vote of No-confidence/Pool Moncloa-Diego Crespo, PD
Vox’s Santiago Abascal/Contando Estrellas, CC BY-Sa2.0
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