Sánchez Goes Shopping for a Present

, by Christian Gibbons

Sánchez Goes Shopping for a Present
Spanish caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, December 2018. La Moncloa

‘Tis the season for gifts—and Spain’s caretaker Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, is hoping to get a good bargain. In the process, he hopes to gift himself with the greatest present he could ask for: the support he needs to finally head a stable government.

Four general elections in as many years: that is the balance sheet as Sánchez restarts negotiations this month to form a governing coalition. Sánchez was not the first Prime Minister to fail to pull one together—that dubious honor belongs to Mariano Rajoy, the former leader of Spain’s center-right Popular Party (PP)—but he has been the incumbent Prime Minister during the last two elections, and has won election each time. Now the stakes are even higher. The spectre of a fifth election continues to loom, and should Sánchez fail to convince, Spaniards may have a new voting ballot arriving with the Three Wise Men this holiday season.

Changing times?

A number of commentators have attempted to tie Spain’s profound political deadlock to the country’s broader political culture. Understandably, their assessments of the latter have been rather negative. According to this line of thinking, Spain’s parties have a penchant for partisan intransigence that fits poorly with the complexities of the present moment.

“As Spanish politics moves towards more populist and radical positions, the country’s path towards greater political conflict seems set,” wrote the political scientists Nicola Morfini and Bernardo Sainz Martinez in a May editorial. This same sentiment has also been echoed more forcefully recently in other publications. “It’s almost as if no one in Spain has been looking beyond their immediate political surroundings these last few years,” writes Barbara Wesel in Deutsche Welle. “Almost everywhere in Europe, politicians are having to find more creative approaches to forming governments.”

Sure: the center cannot hold, and traditional two-party models have broken down all over the Western world. But does that really mean that the outmoded habits of the country’s political class are the root of all the evil? I am not sure that this is the case. Even if Spain’s political parties were to change their approach to politics, the more fundamental tensions in Spanish politics would remain the same. And they will presumably continue to shape politicians’ behavior for some time to come.

A reciprocal nationalism

The biggest obstacle for Sánchez—indeed, for any politician in his position—is the Catalan question. Perhaps more so than any of the other “big issues”—corruption, migration, the economy—the issue of Catalan independence has defined much of the electoral furor of the past three years.

In these proceedings, the center-left Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), which Sánchez leads, has typically been the cooler head. Whereas the preferred strategy of the PP has been authoritarian rhetoric, Sánchez has on the whole tried to walk the fine line between compromise and firmness. Although he has expressed greater willingness to dialogue with Catalan leaders than his predecessor Rajoy, Sánchez has nevertheless ruled out the possibility of any legally binding referendum.

In truth, he could hardly do differently, even though the PSOE has needed the support of smaller regional parties such as pro-independence Esquerra Republicana Catalana (ERC) each time Sánchez has tried to form a government.

All of the back-and-forth over this issue obscures the fact that relatively little has changed since 2017. I do not mean this in the sense that no major action has been taken—the recent trial of 12 politicians and civil society activists for their role in organizing the 2017 referendum shows otherwise. What I mean is that no one has yet come up with a solution to the basic underlying conflict between self-determination and respect for the rule of law within Spain’s constitutional framework. While the right to self-determination is a fundamental – albeit limited – principle in international law, in Spanish constitutional law no straightforward mechanism is provided for secession, much less for recognizing its validity as a form of self-determination.

Article 2 of Spain’s constitution reads as follows: “The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible country of all Spaniards; it recognizes and guarantees the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed, and the solidarity amongst them all.” The Constitution also specifies that a referendum on secession cannot be held without Parliamentary approval, and that any such referendum must be held nation-wide, not just within the region in question. Unilateral declarations are simply not envisaged by it, which is the reason why the 2017 illegal referendum caused such uproar.

This is also one of the basic antinomies of modern Spanish politics: the legal, social, and political tension between autonomy (prized by regional nationalists since the beginning of the twentieth century) and unity (fetishized by conservatives and the extreme right since even earlier). And unless the Constitution changes, it is probably not going to go away.

So: the more things change, the more they stay the same? Not quite. The far-right has made huge gains recently in Spain. Really, truly. The demi-Francoist party Vox was a nobody on the electoral map two summers ago. Now, it has the third largest number of representatives in the Spanish legislature. In fact, Vox has made more progress in Spanish politics during the past year than even veteran analysts predicted it would.

If Spanish politics were a mere numbers game fought between the right and the left, this might not be as troubling. But in Spain, these kinds of trends carry the weight of difficult historical legacies. Although Vox is not entirely comparable to the Franco dictatorship—Francisco Franco was a general who overthrew democracy by force, after all—the party’s policy proposals are indeed extreme. And unlike the Spanish left, which largely abandoned Marxist doctrine after the democratic transition in favor of more moderate social-democratic ideas, Vox has no Santiago Carrillos to speak of.

Indeed, if recent news is any indication, the party is capable of becoming even more extreme. In the wake of an affirmative ruling from the EU’s Court of Justice on whether Oriol Junqueras, the leader of the ERC and one of the politicians behind the 2017 independence referendum, had obtained immunity from prosecution by virtue of his election as an MEP, talk of a ‘Spexit’ began to abound. This is not the first time that europhobic sparks have flown over the Catalan issue—pro-independence activists have also tried to shame the EU in the past, to mixed results, and Puigdemont’s party, Junts per Catalunya, is a long-time ally of the New Flemish Alliance. But it is the first time that a major political party in a traditionally pro-European country like Spain has openly considered leaving the club.

So, although Sánchez has more going for him this time than before, he faces more or less the same set of challenges: containing the far right, represented by Vox, and restraining the independentist left, represented by the ERC. At the heart of it all remains a game of one-up-manship over Spain’s Catalan—or rather, its constitutional—crisis. As I write this, in fact, the ERC has just issued a declaration saying that they will not talk with Sánchez unless he accepts the validity of the EU Court’s decision. Politics in Spain remains on a ramp of nationalist escalation, and forming a durable government is an important first step to getting off it. However, given the peculiarities of the Spanish situation, it should not be the last one.

Will Sáchez get what he wants for Christmas? I don’t rightfully know; but boy, will it be interesting to see his New Year’s Resolutions.

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