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Artillery Row

An opposition unto itself

Ahead of the Spanish elections, the alliance opposing the leftist ruling coalition is falling apart

As politics goes, the Kingdom of Spain could just as well be called “Kingdom of Spin” — denoting the ability of events to whirl around at dizzying speed. In the two months since May’s local-cum-regional races and leading up to Sunday’s general showdown, the country’s political epicenter — the voting bloc whose swing will decide the new government in the autumn — has been shifting at break-neck pace. Following his party’s severe beating across several former fiefdoms in May, incumbent socialist PM Pedro Sánchez forsook the four remaining months of his mandate by calling Sunday’s snap election. In doing so, he also truncated, in the likely scenario of a power switch, Spain’s once-every-ten-years turn at holding the rotating presidency of the EU Council in the year’s latter semester, which began in June (though other member states have switched governments mid-presidency in the past and their priorities tend to be harmonized across trios anyway, those Sánchez’s team would have pursued will likely differ significantly from those of his successor).

Before Sánchez’s fateful — and mostly unpopular — move to draw up to 37 million eligible voters from their seaside retreats to the voting booths, his blue and green rivals amounted to a joint — almost indistinctly fused — turquoise foe. The likeliest locus of cabinet-formation come the election’s aftermath, in other words, appeared to lie somewhere between the right-of-center Partido Popular (blue) and the conservative Vox party (green), whose collective potential to unseat Sánchez seemed all but assured. Their sum of seats was almost sure to exceed what the socialists will whip up with their own partners. The first such partner is the far-left Podemos party of ponytailed leader Pablo Iglesias and his wife, Equality Minister Irene Montero (now dubbed Sumar under communist vice-president Yolanda Díaz’s aegis). The second are the government’s sundry secessionist partners, primarily EH Bildu from the Basque Country and Esquerra Republicana from Catalonia, both of whom have enabled Sánchez’s rule by abstaining on his investiture and voting with him on many key legislative items.

And yet, after two months of cabinet-forming handwringing at the regional level, the coalitional dynamics of Alberto Nuñez Feijóo (PP) and Santiago Abascal (Vox) seem more fraught than ever. If their appetite for a national deal pointed the way for change only eight weeks ago, today Spain’s future seems hostage to the rivalry between them.

The fading potential of a PP-Vox coalition is befuddling to many

The fading potential of a PP-Vox coalition is befuddling to many, not least to the substantial share of the former party’s voters who demand some agreement of the sort to defeat the left — but also because it bucks a wide and entrenched European trend. A right-wing tide along these lines would have made Spain the last leftist domino to be replaced by a fusionist alliance of neoliberals and conservatives, a trail recently blazed by Sweden, Italy, Finland, and the Czech Republic (not to mention Hungary and Poland, where Vox’s allies run solid majorities on their own). With a broad mandate to rapidly overturn Sánchez’s most divisive laws and policies, such an alliance would have its work cut out. Most of that reset agenda would revolve around upholding the rule of law, the Constitution and “a certain idea of Spain” as an indissoluble, constitutionally bound entity that assures equality for all citizens against the centrifugal forces of parochial secessionism.

That agenda’s most obvious item would be backtracking the clemency offered to the coup-plotters behind Catalonia’s drive for independence through an illegal plebiscite in October 2017. In June 2021 Sánchez amnestied nine of the top culprits, with his party later passing a bill scrapping “sedition” from the penal code, a tailor-made giveaway that effectively reduced the coup-schemers’ affront from a felonious attack on the Constitution to mere embezzlement of public money. The list would also include scrapping Sánchez’s so-called “law of democratic memory”, an Orwellian rewriting of the country’s 1936-39 civil war that whitewashes the Republican side’s crimes by proclaiming it fought for freedom and democracy against a ruthlessly totalitarian nationalist camp (and perhaps scrapping a previous 2007 law that laid the groundwork for this latest one). Further agreement could be found, if only partially, on reforming Spain’s confiscatory tax system and bloated state along pro-growth lines, on a more efficient and reliable handling of post-Covid EU funds, and even rolling back some of the progressive coalition’s most radical laws on transgenderism, abortion, and euthanasia. The overlap between the agendas of PP and Vox is therefore neat, but the shared willingness to form an alternative government that capitalizes on that overlap is being depleted at an alarming pace.

PP and Vox, to be sure, were already governing in tandem in Castilla-y-León. But the animus between them began to flare the very day after May’s race. Though the results were widely hailed as a right-wing tsunami, with PP and Vox earning sufficient majorities to dislodge the left from several of its age-old strongholds, making use of that power has proved a task often hostage to the pettiest of feuds. The two parties struck a deal in Valencia that notably foregrounded the freedom of parents to have their kids taught in Spanish against the regionalist drive to impose the co-official Valencian as the region’s single official language (a template later followed in the Balearic Islands). Yet the Valencia deal came at the cost of demoting one senior Vox candidate whose long-past conviction for yelling expletives at his ex-wife through his divorce process proved a red line for the PP, which made his eviction from the party’s lists a make-or-break condition for allowing Vox into government.

The bad blood bubbled over in Extremadura, another traditional socialist barony, where PP candidate María Guardiola initially ruled out the slightest rapprochement with Vox on the grounds that it “denied gender violence” and “demonized immigrants”, only to eventually retract her bile and accede to an agreement that gives Vox a single cabinet post in the administration she now leads. Overall, the whole government-formation saga brought to the fore an irreducible difference between the two parties. Whereas Vox ran on a single, nationwide program — and a unique strategy to reach power with the PP as its only tolerable coalition partner — the latter often went strategically topsy-turvy and proved far more amenable to — and less willing to alter — local circumstances. In Cantabria and Aragón, PP candidates rose to power on the abstention of regionalist parties whose enabling role a former PP would have deemed intolerable. Vox, for its part, is working hard to hold the PP’s leaders accountable to its voters, most of whom view Vox as their natural ally. In Murcia, the party has offered not to block President Fernando López Miras (PP) from renewing his mandate on the condition that it be given meaningful cabinet posts. Miras appears thus far undecided, and Murcia’s non-left voters are being left on a no-government stalemate as a result.

To rationalise this strategy of variable geometry, Feijóo keeps clamoring that wherever PPhas won the most votes, it should be allowed to govern, relegating Vox to an enabler through abstention rather than an active agent of change. This is also very much the strategy Feijóo is deploying nationally, much to the dislike of his voters who, for all their misgivings with the party, view dislodging Sánchez as a higher priority than avoiding a coalition with Vox.

When asked in several recent interviews how he will reach power, Feijóo keeps betting on an unlikely PP supermajority of the kind his party already achieved in Andalucía in 2019. To the extent he reckons with the strategy’s limits and acknowledges the scenario of needing an ally who will not trade its abstention for nothing, Feijóo is betting on PSOE’s abstention, not Vox’s. At their one-on-one debate last week, Feijóo even presented Sánchez with a deal that would have bound their parties to letting one another govern through abstention would their rival collect the most votes. Sánchez declined, claiming that’s exactly what PP is not doing in Extremadura, where the top list was PSOE’s, but where PP and Vox have risen to the occasion of breaking the socialists’ 40-year spell at power. Feijóo has been even more explicit about his reluctance to curry Vox’s favor — and his appetite for PSOE’s abstention — in a frontpage interview to El Español this week, where he claimed to want to help reset PSOE to its roots in “statesmanship”, a long-lapsed vignette associated to the likes of former President Felipe González and his vice-president, Alfonso Guerra — and to a whole cadre of their associates who decry Sánchez’s rapprochement with the far-left and the secessionists. If in need of 20 votes to govern on his own, Feijóo said, he would look to other PSOE bigwigs than Sánchez, such as Emiliano García-Page, the socialist President of Castilla-la-Mancha who owes much of his national fame to opposing Sánchez’s leftward drift.

Where does this leave the electorate?

Where does this leave the electorate? With the left all but calling to the barricades, it is only a matter of time before Sánchez’s allies yell “No Pasarán!”, the famed cri de coeur of a Madrid besieged by Franco’s forces in the waning days of the civil war. For all of Feijóo’s sniffing at Vox, PP’s regional deals with Abascal’s party will doubtless haunt him on Sunday, specially on previously non-voters turning out to castigate the right. For the left, Abascal is a “racist”, a “misogynist” and a climate “denialist”. Sánchez hopes that the specter of the far-right will prompt peak levels of youth turnout, maybe propelling Sumar to 3rd party ahead of Vox, to the point of Sánchez not needing the abstention of secessionists this time around (though his hunt for top multilateral jobs, such as at NATO, which no longer wants him as Secretary General, may hint that the man has come around to his inevitable demise).

Whatever its overall score, PSOE will massively bleed votes relative to its 2019 performance, as it already has regionally, primarily from moderates who do not forgive Sánchez for breaking his pledge of not going to bed with left-populists and separatists. This time, there’s no centrist party to mediate that transfusion to the right of PSOE (the liberal Ciudadanos did so poorly in May that it’s not running at all this time around). This large, albeit temporary, PSOE-to-PP shift is what Feijóo is betting on to take over the Moncloa prime-ministerial palace. The catch is that his chances for a supermajority are dimmed by the scores of frustrated PP voters turning to Vox, either because they’ve wholly given up on PP’s ability to govern along conservative lines after Rajoy’s milquetoast premiership (2015-2019) or because they only trust a PP checked in its moderating urges by a more self-assured Vox. Either way, the opposition is no longer just running against Sánchez, as would be natural in any multiparty, pluralistic democracy. It’s running against itself.

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