In Spain, the Pro-European Left Fights Back

Legan P. Mace/SOPA Images/Sipa USA

Pedro Sánchez has demonstrated that a progressive, left, and pro-European politics can win. 

Spain is defying the gravediggers of progressive European politics. The re-election to the Cortes yesterday of the young socialist Pedro Sánchez, who has brought back the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) from the wilderness, was far from the right sweep that was expected.

Sánchez’s party won the biggest number of seats and looks set to govern with the more left-wing Podemos party. Its leader, Pablo Iglesias, once a Jeremy Corbyn–style firebrand with close links to Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela is now a calm symbol of Spanish bourgeois normality as a young father of two with a handsome villa in the posh suburbs of Madrid. He has re-centered his party to make it more electable at the cost of some seats which seem to have returned to the 120-year-old Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party.

The big loser was the Partido Popular (PP), once the proud conservative masters of Spain with intimate links to American Republicans and British Tories. The PP’s former leader, José María Aznar, boasted he was George W. Bush’s best amigo in Europe. But like England’s Conservatives struggling with the question of Europe, Spain rightists have not known how to deal with Catalonia.

Twenty-first-century European politics is ceasing to be about class or the countryside versus cities and urban dwellers, or traditional right against left. It is now about identity. Firstly, national identity: Is Spain a single entity with strong national regions with autonomous powers or must Spain break apart into mini-nations? Religious identity: Is Spain a Catholic or multi-faith nation? And then gender identity: Spanish socialists have pushed through strong pro-women laws to the anger of macho Spanish conservatives.

But also historical identity: Was Franco the man who saved Spain from communist takeover even if he was brutal as an authoritarian ultra-Catholic ruler, or was his cruelty so criminal that his name should be dishonored, his monument pulled down, and his secret-police bullies now put on trial?

In this new politics, the old divides between liberals and nationalists, between workers and bosses, between Mass-goers and atheists become blurred.

Huge attention has been focused on Vox, which has routinely been labeled as a far-right party. In fact, Vox’s rhetoric has always been present on the Spanish right. Manuel Fraga, the founding father of the Partido Popular, was a former Franco minister who ordered political executions. He stayed on as the guardian of a deep-rightist, clericalist politics into the 1990s. Both the Partido Popular and Ciudadanos—once hailed as the new coming centrist force in Spain—moved rightward sharply, believing Vox’s rise in the Andalusian regional elections meant that Spanish voters had also shifted. The Partido Popular relocated itself as a party opposing women’s and gay rights. It is riddled from top to bottom—ministers, mayors, MPs—with corruption that cost the former prime minister and party leader Mariano Rajoy his job.

Vox simply articulates more clearly the prejudices of the PP, rather like Donald Trump’s friend Nigel Farage and UKIP speak in Britain for many Tories and their visceral hatred of Europe.

Vox, which is pro-EU, won less than 7 percent of the seats. By far the more important outcome of the Spanish election is the rejection of the populist right’s advance, which British academics like political scientist Matthew Goodwin are claiming as the new normal in Europe.

Spain now has a patchwork of parties each representing part of the new kaleidoscope of identity politics. The socialist PSOE and further-left Podemos have almost but not quite a majority and will have to hunt for some support among small regional or single-issue parties. Most Spanish governments in the last 20 years have relied on alliances or arrangements with smaller parties.

The Spanish right has been blown apart rather like Brexit has splintered the U.K. right between the Tories, the new Brexit Party, and UKIP.

Spain has now become a fully normal European country, as voters won’t give an overall majority to any one party. Paradoxically, Spain now resembles more-settled democracies further north in the EU. Denmark has not had a majority government since 1909. Countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, and Sweden can wait months to form a government.

U.S.–style two-party politics may have reigned in the U.K., if no longer, but the norm in Europe has always been multiparty democracy facilitated by proportional-representation systems of elections.

European politics is evolving, but Spain shows that the assumption this means it is right-wing nationalism that emerges on top is far from proven.

Sánchez is close to French President Emmanuel Macron and other progressive EU political leaders who resist the axis of Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, and Viktor Orban—Brexit’s ultra-nationalist anti-European politics. What Sánchez has demonstrated is that a progressive, left, and pro-European politics can win.

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