Feijoo creates dilemma for Sanchez: Repeat election or capitulate to Puigdemont
• Head-to-head vote count: PSOE 7.7m – PP 8.08m
by F Oliva
“No Pasaran!” chanted socialist sympathisers outside the PSOE headquarters in the Spanish capital on 23J, shortly after the result of the general election was known. Pedro Sanchez, the greatest political escapologist in Europe, once again survived the odds – and the five opinion polls – that anticipated his conclusive eviction from office. The gamble taken the day after his party was trounced in May’s regional elections in what seemed as the first act of an unstoppable advance by the PP-Vox ticket to Moncloa, had unexpectedly paid off. Addressing supporters microphone in hand, he triumphantly declared that the right-wing attempt to gain power and plunge Spain “in a murky time tunnel of regression”, had been thwarted. Of course, he was right but only partly so; many questions remain unanswered.
In terms of a straightforward Left versus Right national comparison, the cold facts are as follows: PSOE-Sumar obtained 10.7 million votes (44%) and 152 seats (121+31) while PP-Vox secured 11.1 million votes (45%) and 171 seats (137+33+1). It is also worth noting that the PP increased its total seats by 47 from 2019. Objectively speaking, with these figures, the bloc of the Right achieved a moderate victory: a higher percentage, votes, and especially number of seats. But this is just a consolation prize of little consequence, since under Spain’s electoral system coming in first past the post in numerical terms, important though it is, is less decisive than having the capacity to form a stable parliamentary majority for government. (More significantly an overall lead in the senate will allow them to obstruct legislation.)
Feijoo is handicapped in this respect as his only substantial natural ally, Vox, which dropped from 52 to 33 after another disastrous campaign, automatically diminishes his options of drawing support from the smaller peripheral parties, not that they would support him anyway were Vox not there, not just because of Abascal’s avowed aversion to the financial profligacy and red tape associated to the plethora of decentralised administrations in the state. The only exception to this are UPN (1) PP ideological stablemates in Navarra and possibly the centrist CC (1). In Feijoo’s case failure to surpass the magic threshold of 176 with Vox, reduces any realistic possibility of retaking Moncloa virtually to nil.
PP EXPECTATIONS SHATTERED
The high expectation of an absolute majority for the bloc of the Right was aborted from the outset when PSOE gained an early lead, which they maintained until the 40% stage of the count. PP started to gradually push ahead at that roughly midway point for what arguably turned out to be no more than a Pyrrhic victory. The final result oscillated between a hung parliament and several potential scenarios which would have intrigued the most seasoned Netflix political scriptwriters. Realistically speaking, Sanchez is in a far stronger position to re-enact a new Frankenstein coalition mark two, with the support of all his allies, the Sumar communists (itself an amalgamation of about 14 extremist groups), plus the far left separatist trio of Esquerra (7), Bildu (6), and BNG(1). Interestingly, Sumar led by Yolanda Diaz, dubbed ‘La Fashionaria’ for her chic dress style, a far cry from the Podemos perroflauta aesthetic, lost 700,000 votes and seven seats in relation to their previous iteration. With municipal elections looming, the conservative Basque nationalists PNV (5), despite sharing more than a passing ideological affinity with PP, are likely to shore up Sanchez again, bringing his tally to 171.
This is where it gets interesting in a perverse sort of way, as complicated parliamentary arithmetic has cast Carlos Puigdemont leader of JxCat (7), the most radical incarnation of Catalan separatism, as unlikely kingmaker with the power to validate Sanchez’s second investiture. Quite an irony given that the man is still a fugitive from Spanish justice after the dramatic events of 2017, which triggered the greatest civil conflict in Spain for decades. Just last week, in another turn of the screw, the Spanish Supreme Court sought to reactivate a European arrest order contingent on Strasburg finally withdrawing his parliamentary immunity as MEP. Naturally JxCat’s support, if it does materialize will come at a hefty price for Madrid, in keeping with independentist demands for a ‘pound of flesh’ in any political transaction, more so in their dealings with Madrid. An amnesty for Puigdemont and the rest of the seditionaries plus a self-determination referendum for Cataluña appears as the likely political price-tag.
What for traditional PSOE socialists of the Felipe-Guerra tradition who had a clear, principled conception of Spain as a united, indivisible nation would have been inconceivable, was fractured during the Zapatero era. Today, few would doubt Sanchez’s disposition not just to appease Puigdemont but to negotiate on the aforementioned terms, notwithstanding the prospect of potential secession of a region of Spain. If it means reforming the constitution to secure a second spell in office, it will not pose any major difficulty. For eleven million Spaniards this would be anathema, for Sanchez only a matter of political expediency. It is practically a clean split down the middle – a resurgence of ‘las dos Españas’ in less crude form – which divides contemporary Spain.
IMPORTANCE OF CIUDADANOS
The demise of Ciudadanos a centrist, national force which decided not to compete the election, brings into sharp focus one of the lagging deficiencies of the Spanish political system, the disproportionate reliance on small, independentist forces that adhere to narrow nationalist agendas without any regard for the general public interest; and the reduced number of votes required to achieve a seat in places like Cataluña and the Basque Country, in comparison to the rest of metropolitan Spain, a disparity that has never been addressed.
Ciudadanos was born with a vocation of statesmanship to exercise the role that both PNV and Convergencia i Unio, moderate nationalist parties historically fulfilled in part at different times to prop up either PSOE or PP when they fell short of absolute majorities. This was never done at no cost to the Spanish state (i.e.) extra funding and devolution of more powers to regional administrations, a price Spaniards were generally willing to pay in exchange for political stability and enduring national governments. With the demise of CiU in a blaze of corruption scandals involving the entire Pujol clan, the advent of JxCat and a generation of militant and obsessively anti-Spanish leaders, the demands have become more extravagant, the tactics more ruthless verging on political blackmail.
CIVIL WAR SLOGANEERING
‘No Pasaran’ is not an innocuous election slogan, it is loaded with history and ideological vehemence, an echo of the successful defence of Madrid by Republican forces besieged by General Franco’s troops in November 1936, at the outbreak of the civil war. It was the communist leader Dolores Ibarruri ‘La Pasionaria’ who coined the emotive phrase, to boost morale and strengthen the resolve of the city’s defenders to resist the nationalist advance.
Naturally Spain’s transition to democracy rectified the painful, tragic issues that remained outstanding in 1975, as combatants on both sides, communists and falangists, engaged in a process of mutual forgiveness and reconciliation vowing never again to resolve their differences through violent confrontation, pledging to put the past behind them, to build a better country for their children and a viable parliamentary democracy of peace, social justice and freedom. This became a canonical, basic cornerstone of the new regime until it was challenged during the Zapatero years, a process designed to gradually undermine the pillars of the 1978 constitution, that regrettably gained momentum during the PSOE-Podemos tenure.
For Sanchez a consummate tactician and his allies, committed republicans devoted to the overthrow of the constitutional monarchy, exhuming the remains of General Franco was a statement of political intent, part of a strategy to reopen the wounds of the civil war, and revive negative emotions that could be weaponised against opponents born during the transition or later. Resuscitating the Caudillo’s ghost, the harrowing memories of prolonged post-war repression has been an integral part of the Left’s election plan. It proved successful. Even the progressive UK press was awash with admonitions, drawing lazy correlations between a hypothetical PP-Vox Government and the Franco era.
RIGHT’S HISPANIC PUNCH AND JUDY FARCE
While Sanchez played his cards masterfully, capitalizing insults like ‘Falconetti’ and ‘Perro Sanxe’ in his favour, appearing relaxed and approachable in most of his appearances in peak time TV shows, Feijoo and Abascal were tense throughout the campaign, and made incomprehensible mistakes which played straight into the hands of the ‘fascist threat’ narrative of their adversaries.
Feijoo’s decision not to attend the televised debate with the three other main candidates was a costly miscalculation, an absence shrewdly exploited by Sanchez to elevate the profile of the Sumar leader, who had been trailing badly in the polls in fourth place. Diaz was able to directly confront Abascal and present herself as an implacable barrier to Vox, reportedly gaining between 5-10 seats in the exchange.
The PP-Vox negotiation for the Extremadura autonomous government was an inexcusable Hispanic ‘Punch and Judy’ show, as the two parties came to political blows in the middle of the campaign, in plain sight of a national electorate deliberating how to cast their vote. This hugely damaging episode at a time of maximum public scrutiny was compounded by a series of dire tactical moves by Abascal which showed poor judgment and worse timing.
His remarks that a PP-Vox Government would see a return to tensions in Cataluña, diverted much of the independentist vote – ERC representation was halved – to Sanchez’s party, in fear of a hypothetical crackdown on the Generalitat’s powers. And it got worse, Vox’s removal of LGBT flags in ayuntamientos under their control, absurd censorship of films and even a Virginia Woolf play with a transgender theme, acted as catalyst for a progressive vote that had been effectively neutralized in May. The reckless approach during an election campaign reflects the ascent of a religious right faction – El Yunque – that has displaced a core of notable US style liberals responsible for economic policy and the growth of Vox as a predominantly secular organisation.
The principal conclusion to be drawn from the election result is that Sanchismo is a much stronger political movement than the right had mistakenly assumed it to be. A large body of public opinion, as many as 10 million citizens are impervious to the recurring criticisms about Sanchez’s alliances and style of government, indifferent of the dreadful effects of ideological gender laws notably on minors, or the unintended release of over one hundred rapists and paedophiles as a result of ill-conceived domestic violence legislation that has destroyed the principle of the presumption of innocence for men, without having much impact on the grim statistic of murdered women in the country. The perceived use of state institutions and dilution of criminal charges against the Catalan conspirators of 2017 for partisan benefit, also failed to tilt the balance decisively away from the PSOE.
In 1943 the great British hispanist Gerald Brenan wrote ‘The Spanish Labyrinth’ an essential work analysing the causes of the civil war. In 2023 the context is fundamentally different but the labyrinth continues to cast its shadow on the nation’s political stability.