Spain for many years was a pole of stability as other countries on Europe’s southern rim succumbed to financial or political meltdown. Not any more. This weekend it will hold its third general election in four years. If no government can be formed, a further return to the ballot box may be required.
The country has fractured into a five-party system. To a degree unseen since early in the transition to democracy after the death of Francisco Franco, Spain is polarised into left and rightwing blocs. Politics has been radicalised by an illegal secession attempt by Catalan separatists in 2017 and by the Spanish nationalist backlash it provoked. The sudden rise of the ultranationalist Vox party has pulled liberals and mainstream conservatives to the right.
The election campaign has been a competition between the three parties to the right of the socialists, each bidding to be the most hardline on centre-left prime minister Pedro Sánchez. They allege he has been ready to accommodate Catalan secessionists in return for parliamentary support.
With separatist backing, Mr Sánchez brought down the centre-right Popular party government with a censure motion over corruption. He ran a minority government for eight months but called a snap election when Catalan independence leaders, insisting on the right to self-determination, refused to back his budget. The socialist leader has ruled out independence for Catalonia or a referendum. Critics, especially PP leader Pablo Casado, have nonetheless labelled him a compulsive liar, a criminal and a friend to terrorists.
Mr Sánchez has done his own tilting at windmills, conjuring up the return of Francoism. His party has a mixed record on the economy and its taint of corruption. He has, however, remained commendably moderate and statesmanlike during the campaign — which should pay electoral dividends and put him in pole position to try to form a government. The socialists may do well enough to eke out a majority in the 350-seat parliament with the far-left Podemos, Basque nationalists and other regional parties but without the Catalan secessionists.
A reformist coalition between socialists and liberal Ciudadanos might be best for the economy, on paper. But Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera has ruled it out categorically and there seems to be too much bad blood between him and Mr Sánchez. In any case, Mr Rivera is too hardline on the Catalan issue. Whether or not he needs the support of Catalan separatists — and they have stuck rigidly to their demand for self-determination — Mr Sanchez knows that only dialogue provides a way out of the secessionist impasse.
The alternative alliance of the three parties on the right, including Vox, took power in Andalucía last year; but at a national level it would be riddled with policy contradictions and risk inflaming regional tensions. Joining forces to end 37 years of one-party rule by the left in Andalucía is one thing. Running the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy is another.
The election campaign has barely addressed any of Spain’s most pressing issues, such as persistent unemployment, the economic slowdown, how to trim the budget deficit or how to punch its weight in the EU. There has been much vituperation on the Catalan issue, but few practical proposals about how to defuse the stand-off.
Spain’s democracy has matured over four decades. Sadly, this is difficult to tell from most of today’s political leaders, only one of whom, Mr Sánchez, was born before Franco’s death. If it is to be governable, the politically fragmented nation needs its politicians to rediscover the spirit of co-operation.
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