On the 12th April 2019, Pedro Sanchez, Spain’s current Prime Minister and leader of the centre-left Socialist party (PSOE), started off the campaign trail. The next two weeks would be full on, with full face election banners in the streets hanging from lampposts, and billboards with ministerial candidates being depicted as action heroes walking from an explosion. TV debates, old ghosts of politicians past returning to give their cents worth and a new character to make everyone in Europe interested in Spanish politics again. The return of the populist far right.
Pedro Sanchez, nicknamed the handsome one “El Guapo”, called a General Election on the 22nd March 2019 following a budget defeat in parliament. Only 9 months before a motion of no confidence been passed in the government center right Popular Party (Partido Popular PP) the party who gained the most votes of the elections in 2016 .
Spain has 52 constituencies, one for each province which is 50 including the islands, and the extra two are for the north African enclave cities Ceuta and Melilla. 350 deputies are elected to the lower house of congress where they sit in a semicircle. The upper house, the senate, is also elected on the same day, but their role is minor in the grand scheme of things. The Spain’s parliament is a large grey cubed looking building, with rich and traditional interior. The towering golden doors at the front of the parliament are not used often and are guarded by two large stone lions which are overlooking tourists having their photo taken. Spain’s democracy operates on a version of proportional representation to allocate seats, they allocate each province a number of seats depending on the province size and population, for example Madrid gets 32 seats whilst most other provinces without large cities get four or five seats. They count the number of votes in each province and split them between the parties, people vote for a party not a person. The party has a ‘closed list’ which means they list who will get the first seat in that province, the public influence this. Each party posts a copy of their lists, pre-ticked for their party, a week before the elections, people can just take these along to vote. Here they can see who is ranked on the list. The more votes they have, the more seats they fill from their list. So, if you are friends with your leader, who chooses the list, then you are almost guaranteed a seat. The Salamanca district in Madrid has the highest number of votes for the PP in the country, so being in the top 3 of the list for the PP in Madrid guarantees you a seat, which is why most leaders are sitting in Madrid. When the seats have been allocated they revert to a first-past-the-post system, typical in the UK, where the party, or coalition of parties, that have the most seats can ask the king to form a government. There are many regional parties in Spain that stand to represent their own region’s interests, often these parties are independent based.
To form a majority government, a party must have over 176 deputies to form a majority government, which has been almost impossible in Spain in recent years. This will be Spain’s third election in four years. In 2015 the parties could not form a government after the election and elections had to be held again in 2016. This was mainly down to the fact that new parties had emerged, in the end the PP formed a minority government as PSOE abstained from voting, also ejecting their leader at the time, Pedro Sánchez, as he was at odds with the hierarchy of the party. Later he was reelected against a favourite of the party, and a more centrist candidate Susana Diaz. The PP were ruling in as a minority with help from the centrist party Cuidudanos (C’s), a new newcomer from Catalonia in the 2015 election. They are the biggest party, but not the ruling party, in the Catalan parliament. When they started, they positioned themselves as a centre-left party but seem to have been influenced by Spain’s sway to the right in recent years.
The PP were thrown out of power because of an ongoing corruption case that saw then PM Marion Rajoy in court giving evidence. The PSOE along with newish far left party Podemos and smaller independence parties from the Basque country and Catalonia voted out Rajoy with the vote of no confidence and made Pedro Sanchez PM with a minority of 84 seats. Following 9 months of trying to increase minimum wage and make other laws to improve the society that has suffered the EU’s austerity plans and economic bad luck, the PSOE had to call elections. The same people that supported the formation of a minority left-wing coalition government, the independent Catalan parties, refused to support the 2019 economic budget due to the breakdown in talks regarding Catalonia’s independence. The Catalans voted with the right wing parties to ensure the budget could not make it through government. With in minutes PSOE’s Facebook page lit up with a picture of the parties voting against minimum wage increases and other things in the budget. The blame game had started.
From this point on till the beginning of the campaign trail there was a pre-election manoeuvring. This election is one that is framed as left verses right. The old two-party system of Spain as a whole is dead, and it is definitely a time of uncertainty for many people. Even up till recently, days before the elections, up to 40% of the country is still said to be unsure how they will vote. Most of these people are women and young people. The divisions in the country are more clear than ever when you see the wide range of parties and the level of support they have.
Many had counted Podemos, out the game as they had been quiet, and the only news to come out of the party was that of splits and divisions. Íñigo Errejón, one of the original founders who looks like a toddler and is said to be the brains behind the policies of Podemos, said that he would stand on a platform with current Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena in the up and coming local elections in May. They have formed a new political group Mas Madrid. He never formally left Podemos, but this seems to be out of kindness not to cause trouble more than anything else.
On Saturday 23rd of March the pony-tailed professor and leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, returned to politics after his paternity leave which he had been on to look after his twins since December. In the meantime Podemos spokesperson, and his partner, Irene Montero had been fronting Podemos. Even before his comeback the poster of his return event had been slated in the media for being overly macho. It was a picture of Iglesias from behind holding his fist in the air with the word “Vuelve” or return, the “El” was emphasised which in Spanish is masculine. All parties, even those with poor feminist credentials, criticised him and Podemos eventually removed the poster with an apology but it was too late it had been retweeted to high heaven. This is an example of how the media treat Podemos, they jump on anything. After the successful and charismatic return to the Plaza de Renia Sofia, Podemos’s old celebration square after they won seats in the 2015 EU elections, Iglesias went on Spain’s more liberal channel La Sexta, he let fire at the media and the banks. He talked passionately about how the media was run by the elites that don’t want the people to have power, and how the banks were running the country and not the government, the Podemos social media machine was on fire tweeting and sharing quotes from his first interview. Many feel this was a return to the old style, and it is easy to see that Podemos, despite what the media say, still have their solid fan base. But will it be enough? Many regular left-wing voters felt let down by Podemos as when they started 5 years before, they were meant to be something different. Yet, setting such hard lines for a coalition in the 2016 elections made it possible, some claim, for the PP to form a minority government. Podemos have also faced a scandal that rocked their world and left the leaders name is in tatters.
The mansion scandal was big news in Spain and left many Podemos voters feeling disheartened and upset with its leader. Iglesias brought a chalet in a well off town in the mountains of Madrid. A great deal of people felt he had become “one of them”, one of the very people he had been criticising just a year before and saying he would never leave his neighbourhood, now two of Podemos’s top deputies had bought a house and this was in the middle of a media frenzy for weeks. It was on all the talk shows and in the papers, even bloggers were writing about it. These sorts of events damage party’s reputation that does not go away for a while, and maybe that is the problem, Iglesias went nowhere until his children were born.
On the buildup to the election campaign weeks Iglesias was in court with the PP. The PP are being investigated for using their time in government, whilst Iglesias was an MEP, to spy on other political opponents, one can imagine they feared new parties and they misused their positions of influence to get the Spanish state to read Iglesias text messages and made attempts to discredit Podemos, this has been nicknamed Spain’s Watergate. Obviously this just reinforces the PP’s corruption record.
However, in the last two weeks of campaigning Podemos has won back support. The first week was over the Easter break, many parties just flooded every town and city in Spain with terrible posters and banners. Many towns put up extra boards on the street for political parties to put up their posters on, yet the country is so divided that the posters only last a day or two before they are ripped down again. PSOE’s posters of Pedro Sánchez big face filling the paper has reminded some people of Big Brother from1984 or the Hunger games election scenes. Podemos has not played a part in the traditional Spanish campaigning of putting the leader’s face on a banner, hanging from every lamppost in the street, smiling with photoshopped white teeth and a terrible slogan. Podemos have opted for a slogan saying that “you write the history you want” with a purple heart. They have also highlighted their manifesto promises more than other parties. They promised to raise minimum wage to 1200 euros, have a referendum on bull fighting, improve animal welfare, create a national bank, cut energy emission, create a national energy company and invest in green energy. They have also said they want to democratise the government and reform the senate, justice system and how political parties are run, along with reshaping the media and curbing private companies influence on the government. They have also made clear promises like free university education, yet with over 200 promises it seems overly ambitious. Maybe that is what they need though.
Regarding Iglesias, he is a different person when compared to the previous campaigns, no longer spitting insults at opponents but taking a step back and just putting a message across of his parties election promises, you might even think he had been watching the manner of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Some have said that becoming a father has pacified him. This was clear in the televised debates during the second week of campaigning. He allowed the leaders of the other parties to slander each other whilst he addressed issues of social inequality and lowering standards of living and let the other 3 battle it out over Catalonia. Hopefully Podemos, and Pablo have won back some support. Unfortunately, throughout most of April, most polls on average have been suggesting that Podemos will lose up to half of their seats, from 69 seats they have now down to around 30 seats. Polls in Spain have never been safe bets, but there appears to be several narratives around Madrid and other parts of the country that hit similar tones. Many people are considering tactical voting as they fear Vox getting into power. Many Podemos voters flocking to POSE as people see them as a safer bet to get more seats, some may have returned after Pablo’s performance at the debates.
Big Brother of the Left
The tone of the campaigns really shows the parties true colours. Podemos have had a message of hope and change; trying to position themselves as a credible left-wing alternative to PSOE, whilst remaining very aware that should they win big, they will no doubt need to work with PSOE to govern Spain. PSOE have been acting as if the election is in the bag for them. Calling an election when he did, Pedro Sanchez has tried to capitalise on the rise of the far right and hopes to split the right vote, and use the fear of Vox to get people to vote for a sensible government in the form of PSOE. The slogan “The Spain you want” gives the image of it’s us, or have this new regressive far right party in power with the centre right Ciudadanos and right wingers the PP. Hopefully PSOE, and Pedro Sanchez’s arrogance doesn’t put off too many voters and their bets pay off.
PSOE have lost a lot of voters confidence because of their history of corruption, and their vanilla pro business version of social democracy. Many feel, myself included, that Pedro Sanchez could be a reasonably good leader and an average social democrat if he was allowed to be, yet the right wingers of the party machine seem to have other ideas and may even consider a coalition government with C’s rather than Podemos. PSOE’s manifesto is very ambiguous and full of glib sentences the sort you may find in a holiday brochure. Looking further at their promises for Spain, 110 things they want to do, you can see that they have their hearts are in the right place. They are not at radical as Podemos but promise to look at free childcare for children under 3, repeal all union laws made by the PP, improve the welfare system, simplify the work contracts and invest a large amount in a green friendly economy, creating more jobs and a whole new major industry, which could be the answer to Spain’s sleepy economy. They also promise to raise taxes for large corporations and high earners and explore Catalonia’s self-governing rights to see if it can come to some agreement on the ongoing issue of the region. They want a return to the normal which does not exist at the moment.
The television debates were the highlight of what turned out to be an uneventful election campaign. In the run up to the election debates there were arguments about who should be allowed on the TV debates. Vox are becoming a big force in Spanish politics at the moment despite not having any deputies in the congress. Pedro Sanchez wanted them on the debates but the electoral commission denied this as they never had over 5% of the public’s vote at the last election. The debates were eventually reorganised after a small amount of drama probably created more by the media than the politicians. The debates were on the Monday and Tuesday nights of the second week of campaigning.
The interesting bromance here was between Pablo Casado, the right wing leader of the PP and Alberto Rivera the leader of C’s. On the Monday night they got on, and on the Tuesday they were nearly strangling each other. Pablo Casado took over from previous Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. He is much younger than Rajoy and is more right wing, inexperienced and sharper with his tongue. Only days before the debates in Toledo he has been blaming the PSOE for starting the civil war and colluding with independentist parties. PP have lost a lot of ground in recent months, mainly down to corruption and the emergence of slick centre right party C’s, and for those that like their politics very right, Vox. The PP have played this election by trying to say that they are the safe bet of the right. “Value security” is their election motto, and it does not seem to work. The PP were one of the two traditional parties in Spain, alongside the PSOE, but years of corruption, politicians lying and being involved in scandal after scandal has put voters off this traditional right wing party.
Casado is trying to reestablish them as the right wing party of Spain but C’s and Vox seem to have sucked the lifeblood from them. They will have to rely on their rural vote, where the old parties have always done so well, and some of the more skeptical right wing voters in the traditional cities like Madrid, but the PP don’t seem to have any wind in their sails this election. They could even lose their rural vote. A mix of traditional campaign techniques of conservatives parties trying to appeal to people’s sense of tradition and a promise of security from progress, even having bull fighters stand as deputies, doesn’t seem to work or help. Their pledges for the country are standard conservative policies such as freeing up the labour market, cut taxes for specific groups and areas such as tourism, and they also want to apply article 155 to Catalonia to suspend regional governance. The PP have announced no striking policies and have been trying to secure their rural and upper class city vote in a bid, not to win the election, but stop their party falling apart.
Enter Centre Right
The other half of the bromance, Alberto Rivera from Cuidudanos has been busy not saying a lot, whilst being quite loud. On the first night of the debate Pablo Casado and Rivera joined forces to attack Pedro Sanchez mainly over Catalonia and his poor management as Prime minister. They were bringing out many objects including graphs and cards, it was like a magic show. Rivera brought out a picture of Sanchez trying to bump fists with the president of Catalonia. Pablo Iglesias even had a copy of the constitution which, ironically for the anti religion left winger, looked like a prayer book. Twitter was a flood of comparisons to priests and bedtime stories being told by the Podemos front man. There was no obvious winner of this debate but many say the Rivera came across better and had the upper hand due to the Catalonia debate.
The second night of debates had a clear winner, Pablo Iglesias and was a complete surprise for Pedro Sánchez who looked ready for another beating from the two right wingers. To his amusement Casado and Rivera attacked each other and the left wingers just looked on baffled. Rivera changed tack, maybe he realised too late that they could be fighting for the Prime minister position should they get enough votes and have to form a coalition. Whilst the fighting went on Iglesias kept his calm and delivered his party’s manifesto promises, many saw a new side to the militant activist of the past.
The debate was the same day as St George’s day, in Catalonia it is the tradition to swap books with other people. Rivera gave Sanchez a copy of his own thesis. This is trying to highlight the previous scandal that Sanchez may have not written his own doctoral thesis, and Sanchez, prepared as ever, pulled out a copy of Santiago Abascal, Vox’s leader, autobiography and said something to the effect of, if this is who you are getting into bed with, you should know more about them.
Ciudadanos are an interesting but shallow party. They paint themselves as modern liberals of the country; they want to modernise and improve Spain whilst keeping it together. They want to cut taxes across the board and cut taxes by 60% for people that live in depopulated areas. They also want to reform the tax system for smaller companies and make it easier to become self-employed. They take a hard stance against Catalonia self governance and want to also eliminate royal decrees which have been abused by previous governments to make laws whilst avoiding the debate and vote in congress. PP members, and even politicians, are defecting to C’s. Ciudadanos appear to be replacing themselves in the old position of the PP. A pro-business, low tax choice for people who have center, or right wing inclined politics. Yet, this image has been tarnished somewhat by their alliances and public appearances with the PP and more so Vox. Initially they agreed to govern Andalucia with Vox and the PP following the regional elections, which showed they were not above getting into bed with Vox to gain power. Later, they were also seen at a right wing rally in Madrid’s Colon Square in February 2019.
This was a protest organised by the three right leaning parties and all three leaders where there. They protested that fact that Pedro Sánchez had planned to have further talks with Catalan parties regarding independence, however they Catalan parties refused to rule out not having a referendum which Sanchez was not willing to give, therefore on the Friday he called off the talks. Despite this, the right wing group went ahead with their protest, on the Sunday, saying they wanted to vote on the future of Spain. Many people in Spain felt put out by the change in government they never got to vote for, due to the motion of no confidence, and they wanted to vote again. Newspapers the next day showed 40,000 Spaniards in Colon Square protesting for a united Spain and against the PSOE government. The papers never showed pictures of the crowds but of all 3 leaders stood in a line, shoulder to shoulder, despite Cuidudanos and PPs best attempts to get out of the picture. Following the demonstration, a picture was doing the rounds on twitter of the 3 right wing leaders stood in a line next to a drinks fridge which contained the body of Franco. C’s were being welcomed to the right wether they liked it or not. It’s also funny how people change their mind on voting. I spoke to one voter who worked for the police, and would normally vote PP, who planned to vote for C’s as he felt Vox were too far right. Another first time voter told me she considered voting for C’s but was put off by their propaganda that was sent the week leading up to the vote, it was in plastic wrapping. Many even feel that with the recent rise public disapproval of the maltreatment of animals, Spain may see its first anti bull-fighting party deputies from PACMA.
The party, which I have spoke at length about before, that is on everyone’s lips, left and right, is Vox. The far right party are the new National Front of Spain. Many people won’t admit to voting for Vox in public, but many will. They are predicted to get up to 10% of the vote, but I think they will get even more. Following their shock win in socialist controlled Andalusia, Vox have grown from strength to strength and this is mainly happening online. Their leader Santiago Abascal has been painting himself as the strongman of Spain. He has been saying anything to get a reaction, and it has been working, but hopefully against him.
How Far Right?
Initially he started off by saying he would build a wall in Spain’s African colonies to stop people from reaching there, although there is already a huge fence there. He then announced that he would relax gun laws in Spain to allow Spaniards to protect themselves, this came the day after the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand when 50 people were shot dead by a white supremacist, and New Zealand tightened its gun laws. Abascal has also been critical of the government, and other parties, management and lack of respect for rural Spain which has become the most sparsely populated area in Europe, he has a point, they have been neglected and he is taking full advantage of this. He released videos of himself on twitter riding a house with a famous bullfighter in the dusty plains of Spain. He promotes a strong man image, often wearing military type shirts, and is very critical of feminism and independence movements. Their main message as a party is to centralise all government powers in Spain to Madrid and ban all parties that challenge a united Spain. He also wants to stop most immigration to the country and deport any illegal immigrants that are all ready here. Vox position themselves as a strongly catholic party that will stop funding feminism and trans-gender causes and ban public hospitals from carrying out abortions and gender reassignment operations.
On their website it says they stand against political correctness and want the media, and other political parties, to stop imposing political correctness on them and stop telling them how to feel, they have even hinted at banning media channels they don’t agree with. Vox have also promised cuts to public spending, want to merge all local governments and cut the corporation tax rate to 12.5% to attract businesses to Spain. Territorially, they want to increase pressure to claim Gibraltar back and suspend all region’s, including Catalonia, autonomy. As their slogan says they want to put Spain first.
Previous comparisons with UKIP and Trump are rife in the media, but Vox has a different feeling to it, they are not hardcore euro sceptics that have emerged in other European countries; they are critical of their own country’s system and identity, something that has been in-flux since the transition to democracy over 40 years ago. Franco effectively created the Spanish stereotype of flamenco dancing, sangria drinking Spaniards to bring in tourists.
Vox are a far right part and many say that we should not call them this, or fascists. they may not be the fascists we have an image of marching around saluting but they have strong elements of fascism, more than most care to admit. Ethno-nationalism, heavy criticism of national democratic institutions and the image of a strong man leading a mass movement against others that are different to the country’s natives and threaten its existence. They have found a new way to power via democracy and they are a threat to it if they ever get control of the wheel.
Obviously this election does not compare to the war in terms of violence or threat level as we live in a better more democratic world but the situation is similar, as I said before it is left vs right more than ever with 2 left parties and 3 right parties, not forgetting the regional parties, the last time the political was this split in Spain was just before the war. The second republic, established a year after the fall of the first dictator of Spain, Miguel Primo de Rivera, was met with a lot of problems that the previous dictator never addressed, and it tried to reform the country over the next 8 years. These problems included poverty, unequal distribution of land and wealth and poor facilities for the public. They achieved a great deal improving the education and health of the country, yet Spain remained hugely divided. The conservative catholic upper and middle classes of the cities, and the deeply religious rural communities, feared the rise of the socialists, anarchists and communists that had won the second set of elections in the republic. They feared their land and riches would be given away and that they would separate the church from the state, a sense of the world changing scared much of traditional Spain.
Spain has progressed tenfold in recent years in the face of corrupt politicians and a macho culture that still embraces, and sees as part of its identity, the catholic traditions of years gone by. They have progressed on women’s rights and a general attitude towards sexism both at home and in the workplace. They have also fully embraced the LGBT culture in the big cities. Many Spanish people have also travelled and moved abroad because of the finical crisis, they have seen that things can be done differently and that Spain doesn’t have to be “different”. This has led to many traditionalists feeling put out and even threatened by progress and they blame it on several things, feminists unfairly take a lot of criticism along with the other regions of Spain.
Other regions in Spain, who have a strong regional identities, namely the Catalans and the Basques, have maintained a good standard of living in the face of austerity and international change when compared with the poorer areas in Spain. They made sacrifices the same as the rest of Spain, but they have been seen by the rest of Spain, more Catalonia than the Basque country, to be better off. In the Constitution they have more right to self government and this has led to an unspoken jealousy from some other regions, it’s like a jealousy between friend when someone is “doing well for themselves”, and it is very strong here in Madrid. There has also always been a stereotype that Catalans feel different, or some say better, than the rest of Spain. When the independence question was revitalised and got more attention from 2016 onwards, nationalism rose like the Spanish sun. The sale of red and yellow wrist bands mush have shot through the roof, and the hanging of Spanish flags from balconies became the norm. The traditionalist conservative Spain was unlike the rest of Europe, they were not only scared of immigration from the middle east and Africa, they were, but also threatened by desertion by their fellow country men and being left behind in the culture war. They were challenging what it meant to be Spanish in a time when no one really knew what it mean to be Spanish. This was all on the back of austerity that had gone on for over 10 years in Spain and had been imposed by the EU. Austerity, falling living standards, inequality and a changing culture are a bad mix with people whom differ from you, and you have been told are being treated better than you. The loss of national identity in times of hardship and change is nothing to ignore. Vox exploited this and was pitting Spain against its own independent regions and immigrants alike.
Could the people who have been forgotten make all the difference?
As I have mentioned before women could change the course of this election with their vote. However, there is also another element in play that many have forgotten about. Spain has an aging population where only a few people are propping up the traditional villages in Spain. Many of the young move away to study or for work, now these villages are left with next to nothing. Some villages have a doctor, butcher, fruit and vegetable seller visit once a week and the only thing often left standing in these towns is the local no-frills bar and most don’t even have a pharmacy anymore. The main parties have neglected the Internet and local amenities and these groups of people feel like they have been left behind, this was proven in the Andalusian elections where many traditional PSOE voters didn’t even bother to vote due to feeling despondent. Some villages have less than 25 people in them, one village that only has two old age pensioners in it was recently the star of a television advert for a car. People are aware of the dying rural Spain but the politicians have woken up too late to this. The people in the rural communities still vote for one of the two big parties, PSOE or PP, but many feel neglected by them and this is where Vox have been trying to pick up votes. There are fewer people that live in these provinces and a party needs less votes to get a seat, so electorally this was a safe bet for the old parties and Vox have been targeting these seats, a bet that may well pay off.
The campaigns finished on Friday the 26th and this will give Spain their traditional day of reflection, 24 hours before elections there is a canvassing blackout in the national media to give citizens a break before they make their decision on the Sunday. It feels as if the current narrative is lets get Pedro Sanchez out at any cost by the right, and from the left it is a vote for PSOE to keep the far right out. I think this quote from Felipe González, Socialist Prime Minister for the late 80s and early 90s sums up how I feel “do we really have to be content with a choice between a Frankenstein government and a Francostein one?”.
With Spain’s soft left struggling inside the centrist party that is PSOE, and the rest of the left fighting for a breath in the shell that was Podemos, the left need to change this country whether they win or lose. If PSOE and Podemos pull off a coalition government, then they must change the country for the better from inside the government and inside the communities as its neighbour on the peninsula has. If they can do this, then they can fight back the right with good policies and by improving people’s lives. Yet, if PSOE agree a centrist pact with Cuidudanos, which could happen despite both ruling it out. One thing we can almost be sure of, and that is normally forgotten about, is that the regional parties often help make up governments, this could save the left and at the same time make life difficult. Many are praying they don’t have to rely on the Catalan parties as they will have demands that Pedro Sanchez could have a hard time meeting as PM. Then if things still don’t change then, in my view, there are two ways the country could go.
The way of France, people pushed to the point of poverty with poor services and being taxed more than they can afford. Then the people will revolt against the system and any party in power will have a tough time, or the more likely, and possibly worse route for the country, is that Vox will become a major right wing party alongside Cuidudanos. If this was to happen, then PP and PSOE would become a ghost of them former selves as losing this election, or not being able to form a government, will be a deadly blow for PSOE. No matter what happens to Vox, they are on the up and nothing seems to be stopping them. I hope I am wrong.
This draft will appear as the finalised version of my forthcoming book: Spain, Capitalism and English Teaching