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Note: The land that Cs forgot
The strange rebirth of liberal Spain
This week, Madrid was meant to be going through a traumatic power transition from left to right and, for the first time in 50 years, sweeping Francisco Franco nostalgists into national office. Instead, to the humiliation of Spain’s over-sized polling industry and the disappointment of disaster-porn foreign pundits, not only did the runaway favourites on the right fail to secure a congressional majority but the far-right Vox movement actually lost 19 seats.
In an Iberian re-run of the November 2022 US midterms “red trickle” (blue-green in this case), Spain’s silent liberal majority took another look at Santiago Abascal’s gang of women-in-the-kitchen devotees, George Soros conspiracy theorists, and Battle of Lepanto re-enactors and decided no pasarán.
The final polls published before their blackout five days before voting all pointed to a victory for the conservative Partido Popular (PP) under Alberto Núñez Feijóo, a moderate three-term governor of Galicia. Moderate he may be but Feijóo couldn’t hope to win a majority without the Voxistas and they were no longer anathema to the PP. Following local elections in May, the PP and Vox had reached coalition agreements in Elche, Guadalajara, Valladolid, Gijón, Toledo, Burgos and Alcalá de Henares and in the Valencian Community.
Over-excited, Abascal and Vox mistook protest votes for growing enthusiasm for their conservative agenda and used their brief time in local office to harass Pride marches and whine about woke theatre seasons. In Castilla y León, the Vox deputy governor introduced a new protocol instructing doctors kindly to offer women seeking an abortion an ultrasound and the sound of the fetal heartbeat.
Abascal would be prime minister today if the Spanish electorate were made up of men over 40 but, unfortunately, it isn’t. Seventy per cent of Spaniards support abortion and 80% back gay marriage. Once the national election campaign got underway, Vox offered a programme repealing laws on abortion and euthanasia and reducing regional powers and the long-standing special fiscal regime for the Basque Country.
Until July, the election was going to be a referendum on five years of centre-left minority governments under socialist (PSOE) prime minister Pedro Sánchez and his further-left Podemos allies. Enough voters had tired of Sánchez’s survival-first coalition management, the inevitable but unseemly favours-for-votes trades with Basque and Catalan left-secessionists, and the legislative over-reach and mismanagement of his Podemos equalities minister to elect anyone-but-Sánchez.
For a year, samples equivalent to 800,000 Sánchez voters had been telling pollsters that they intended to abandon the PSOE at the coming election. But, when it came to it, only 335,000 made the move thanks to Vox. This deprived Feijóo of his majority and with only one possible but unlikely ally in the shape of an exiled former president of Catalonia. But the most severe impact of the flight to socialist safety was felt by Basque and especially Catalan separatists. In the Basque Country and Navarra, the PSOE vote surged and, in Catalonia, its sister party won a million votes, 19 deputies, and took Barcelona for the first time in five electoral cycles.
This could all have been yours
Eleven years ago, a new national party emerged from the region and declared: "Catalonia is my homeland, Spain my country, and Europe my future". At their height – only five years ago – Ciudadanos (Cs) led the national polls – absorbing 15% of the PSOE and 25% of the PP vote. Originally a centre-left party, the Cs briefly found a sweet spot representing the europhile, unionist, anti-corruption, and socially and economically liberal currents of the PSOE and the PP.
In 2017-18, Sánchez was flip-flopping between his left and reform wings while the PP was knee-deep in financial scandals and, like every conservative party, forever undecided between a commitment to market economics and telling people what to do in the bedroom. Enthusiastic rather than grudging about implementing the reform plans imposed on Spain by the ripple effects of the financial crisis and resolute against Catalan secession, this was the Cs’ moment. And they blew it. Instead of grasping the moment, Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera got greedy. The big centre wasn’t enough. He wanted to replace the PP so he tacked right, losing social liberals back to the PSOE and unionists to Vox. The Cs were so diminished by the July 2023 election that they didn’t even contest it.
Nationally, europhile social liberals have nowhere to go except the PSOE. Thanks to pressure from the euro area’s institutions and their representative in Madrid – deputy premier Nadia Calviño, a former budget director-general at the European Commission – the PSOE/Podemos administration also became the unlikely carrier of the flame of (unambitious) fiscal orthodoxy.
If he scrapes together another government from Sumar, the new vehicle for the right of Podemos, and regional parties keen to keep Vox out of power, Sánchez is going to have to be less of a “nowhere man” than he’s been since failing upwards into office in 2018. The cyclical moment could hardly be better but the structural challenges haven’t gone away and those will only be addressed by maximising the inflow of EU pandemic-era recovery funds and adding ambition to could-be-worse pension and labour reforms. With the PSOE’s right and the PP’s left weakened, Yolanda Díaz’s Sumar will be even more decisive in driving the new government than Podemos was. Yet, she faces an internal challenge from Podemos’ bitter former leadership.
Thanks to another project in August, this will be my last column until September but there will still be podcasts and guest posts in return for €0 so don’t go away.