Coauthor Martin Friedek
On Thursday, November 16, 2023, the acting president of the Government of Spain, the socialist Pedro Sánchez, was re-elected with 179 of 350 votes. In addition to the support of the Socialist Party (PSOE, 121 seats), he counted among others on the votes of the far-left populist electoral platform Sumar and separatist parties from Catalonia and the Basque Country.
No government formation since the approval of the conciliatory democratic Constitution of 1978, after the end of the Franco dictatorship, has polarized Spain as much as the current one. The protests against the formation of this Government and, above all, against the amnesty planned for all those involved in the 2017 uprising in Catalonia have been growing for weeks. There are hundreds of thousands of outraged citizens from a broad social majority, which extends far beyond the supporters of the opposition parties.
Foreign observers with sympathy for Spain are perplexed. Current events do not fit the mainstream narrative. This indicates that socialist President Sánchez, together with the far-left Podemos party, supposedly got Spain well out of the coronavirus crisis during the last legislature (2020-2023) in a so-called “coalition of progressives.” In addition, it alludes to the fact that it consolidated Spain’s economy and, above all, achieved sociopolitical milestones for more justice, equality and opportunities.
Important concessions to the separatists in the previous legislature, such as the group modification of the criminal law (suppression of sedition and minimization of the embezzlement law), were praised by Pedro Sánchez as far-sighted actions to contribute, according to him, to the “pacification” of the territorial conflict through the “dejudicialization” of a supposedly political conflict.
Why are there so many people who resist Pedro Sánchez’s promise to continue with “progressive” policies and to prevent Spain from “relapsing into the restorative and dark past of the right”?
A more concrete and current bone of contention are the concessions that Sánchez granted to the regional parties that support him without any significant compensation. The ruling parties PSOE and the far-left Podemos party (which barely still exists) suffered devastating defeats in the regional and local elections in May 2023. Meanwhile, the PP now holds the leadership of the Government in 12 of the 17 autonomous communities. In response, Pedro Sánchez called for early parliamentary elections, where the PSOE was able to maintain its result from the previous national elections. On the other hand, all the other forces that voted in Congress in favor of Pedro Sánchez have emerged from the elections as losers, without exception. The separatist parties of the Basque Country and Catalonia together received only 6% of the national votes.
The figures largely explain the confusion caused by the fact that such a small minority is politically determining or even blackmailing a majority within Catalonia, not to mention the entire country.
As Pedro Sánchez has already categorically rejected any cooperation with the PP, it depends on each vote of the centrifugal parties. The Junts per Catalunya party with its fugitive leader Carles Puigdemont, whose seven seats helped Sánchez achieve a decisive leap over the absolute majority of 176 seats, is a particular tip of the scale.
All the separatist parties, but Junts per Catalunya in particular, were characterized by insisting on their maximum demands in the negotiations. Meanwhile, the ruling party, the PSOE, showed no signs of success on its part in the negotiations. Among these “covenant” agreements is the amnesty law . The instrument will foreseeably grant a general amnesty to all those involved in the illegal referendum of October 1, 2017 in Catalonia, investigated for sedition, embezzlement and even terrorism.
An amnesty as a contribution to a political solution to the territorial conflict would have been conceivable if Sánchez had sought a large majority with the PP and if the separatists had renounced their maximum demand for separation from Spain. It has not happened nor will it happen. Furthermore, the amnesty law now effectively reinterprets the Spanish democracy of 1978 as an illegitimate state. It discredits its security forces and turns rebels against the democratic Constitution into political victims. The possible appointment of political commissions in Parliament to review the Judiciary damages its independence and subjects it to a political mandate (lawfare).
With his exclusionary speeches, especially during the parliamentary session (investiture), Sánchez has contributed significantly to irreconcilable polarization. He literally described all those who did not share his concept of “generosity”, “reconciliation” and “social peace”, as “reactionaries” and “extreme right”, against whom a “wall” must be built. This is another reason why people from the moderate center, such as critical socialists, liberals and Christian Democrats, who do not usually demonstrate, now take to the streets with Spanish and European flags. The fact that the main socialists delegitimize these demonstrations by calling them incitement is exacerbating tempers.
There is speculation about how long this political constellation of government can survive. It must be said that it is not united by a common political project that is positive for the whole of Spain. But only for the negative motivation of preventing a PP-VOX government at all costs.
Outlook for Spain
This coalition of electoral losers could last a long time. The reason is that the alternative of new elections would result in a greater weakening of this, as the first surveys suggest. None of the separatists will want to give up the golden opportunity they currently have, having a head of government who depends more than ever on them and who allows them to apply their maximum demands, while the survival of the ruler in power depends completely on them.
Conservatives’ hope that the Constitutional Court could stop the amnesty law also seems premature. The Constitutional Court is currently made up of a majority of Sánchez’s supporters and dependents . These will probably rule that the amnesty is constitutional, contrary to the communis opinio of constitutional experts published in countless opinion articles.
It remains to be seen if Europe can stop this worrying process, as many in the PP also hope. According to constitutional law, the Catalan regional conflict is and continues to be an internal territorial conflict in Spain. Although the Catalan separatists have repeatedly tried to internationalize their cause and gain European support for their objectives over the last decade. Now the PP wants to take the events to Europe. He hopes that the EU will investigate and try to prevent any violation of the rule of law by Sánchez at the national level. Similarly to Poland and Hungary.
As Anne Applebaum recently reminded us, we must not lose sight of the fact that the separatist movement around Junts per Catalunya and Puigdemont was manifestly linked to the Putin regime in Russia, and that Russia has an essential strategic interest in the independence of Catalonia that would give Putin unprecedented historical influence in southern and western Europe and in the Mediterranean.
We maintain that there are now three Spains instead of two. In addition to the country’s historical conflicts, Sánchez has stylized the current dispute as a dichotomous conflict between “progress or the right.” A blatant populist simplification of reality. Even the majority of Catalans want a prosperous coexistence in recognition of their linguistic and cultural uniqueness, already widely recognized and developed in Spain.
The current paradox in Spain is that a minority is acting against the political will of a hitherto silent majority that is neither in favor of amnesty nor of the separation of parts of the country. However, it is clear that this majority is no longer willing to remain silent. There is a danger that Ziblatt/Levitsky style events will also occur in Spain, weakening democracy from within, including through elections. Latin American experts see striking parallels in Pedro Sánchez’s approach with the authoritarian systems of the Bolivarian left. As in Venezuela, where the institutions were successively taken over by politicians and where democracy was “reinterpreted.”
If, as expected, the separatists (mainly Junts, ERC and EH Bildu) continue with their public line of unconditional independence for Catalonia and the Basque Country with all their strength and use the intensification of the debate to their advantage, the Spanish State will It would be much more difficult to stop the momentum this time than in 2017. This is because the Sánchez Government has suppressed the decisive containment instruments of the rule of law recently.
The winner of the elections and president of the PP, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, had offered Sánchez six PP-PSOE State pacts to organize the reforms that are urgently needed outside of extremists and fundamentalists. Feijóo went so far as to offer alternation in the leadership of the Government between him and Sánchez for the next legislature. A rapprochement between the large centrist parties that will probably only be possible in the period after Sánchez. Let us hope that the country, which actually has so much potential, does not suffer too much damage, either internally or externally.
*This text was originally published in Diálogo Político.
Martin Friedek is a researcher. Political analyst and project coordinator at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation for Spain and Portugal.