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The Anatomy of Spain’s Political Paralysis

The collapse of the main conservative party in last month's election, combined with the Socialists' failure to secure a parliamentary majority, has left the country's politics in limbo. All eyes are now on the new leader of the right, Ciudadanos, a party that has little to gain from being in the spotlight.

NEW YORK – Having won last month’s election with 123 of 350 parliamentary seats, Spain’s Socialists, led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, will now seek to govern. Sánchez will need the support of the far-left Podemos party, as well as the acquiescence of Basque and Catalan nationalist parties. But no one should expect him to form a government anytime soon. Spain’s endless cycle of indecisive elections continues.

Spain owes its political paralysis to several factors. Foremost, the main conservative force, the People’s Party (PP), has collapsed. In the context of Spanish politics, that development alone is cataclysmic. In the four decades since the country’s transition from dictatorship, the PP has reconciled the Spanish right to democracy and ensured that it supports the 1978 constitution, which broke with 300 years of political tradition by radically decentralizing the Spanish state.

The election wiped out over 50% of the PP’s parliamentary representation (which will fall from 137 to 66 seats), after the party lost votes in equal measure to Ciudadanos and Vox. Ciudadanos, a center-right liberal party founded in Catalonia to oppose secession, is staunchly constitutionalist, and something of a novelty in Spanish politics: the first viable national party whose main leaders live in Barcelona and speak Catalan. It is also reformist, advocating institutional reforms to ensure the welfare state’s long-term sustainability. It is the closest analog Europe has to French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche !

Vox, on the other hand, represents Spain’s traditional Catholic right. It is not anti-establishment like many other recently formed parties across Europe, but it does oppose the constitution’s main organizing principle: decentralization. At its campaign rallies, people wrap themselves in the Spanish flag and celebrate heroic moments in Spanish history, from the Reconquista to the glorified history of the Spanish Empire in America.

Vox’s electoral success is a direct consequence of the drive for Catalan independence and the PP’s failure in solving the Catalan crisis in the fall of 2017. As long as that wound festers, Spanish politics will be unstable. Vox backs the 1978 constitution precisely because its leaders view it as the best guarantee against Catalan and Basque independence. Why abandon the high ground of the law when it serves your purposes so effectively?

Yet, by pursuing recentralization, Vox is on a collision course with the powerful local elites nurtured by decentralization. Much would have to change for Vox to be in a position to enact this part of its agenda. But if US President Donald Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum have taught us anything, it is not to dismiss Vox and the political impulses it represents. The party captured a significant share of the vote in places like Madrid and Valencia, which are home to affluent constituencies that have been largely sheltered from the ravages of globalization and automation.

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To be sure, Vox comprises unsavory elements that would not be out of place in today’s reborn ethno-nationalist movements. But make no mistake: Vox is a uniquely Spanish phenomenon. It is nationalist, but it does not share the Euroskepticism of the Brexiteers or Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (née National Front) in France, nor does it augur the return of Spain’s dark past.

Though Vox has received more attention from commentators, Ciudadanos is the key to Spanish politics. When Ciudadanos was formed, it had relatively modest ambitions of becoming a mainstay of the political center, where it could plausibly join both Socialist- and PP-led coalitions to resolve the Catalonia problem and implement a set of long-overdue liberal reforms. But the PP’s collapse has changed the party’s political calculations.

Were Ciudadanos to form a coalition with the Socialists now, it would empower the PP as the main opposition party. Its immediate priority, then, is not governing, but finishing off the PP, starting with the European, municipal, and regional elections later this month. Whatever happens, Spanish politics will remain in limbo until the right is stabilized.

One of the paradoxes of contemporary Spanish politics is that Ciudadanos cannot pursue its policy agenda in earnest unless it remains weak. Lacking the parliamentary seats to govern by themselves, the Socialists view a weaker Ciudadanos is an ideal coalition partner. Having held off the far-left Podemos, the Socialists could pursue an unpopular reform agenda and seek to maintain their credibility on the left by blaming Ciudadanos for it.

Ciudadanos leaders understand this. They know that the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom marched into electoral oblivion after entering a similar arrangement with the Conservatives under former Prime Minister David Cameron. The Social Democrats in Germany have shared a similar fate since joining a coalition led by the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.

While the PP’s political mistakes in recent years have fragmented the Spanish right and paralyzed the country’s politics, the overall electorate is evenly divided (if all of the right-wing parties united, they would command a narrow parliamentary majority). Complicating matters further is the fact that Spain has never had a coalition government, and thus has no political tradition of tolerating the concessions that it entails.

Finally, and not surprisingly, Basque and Catalan nationalist parties have gained ground. Spain’s voters have become wily tacticians. With a fragmented parliament, it makes sense to send regionalists and nationalists to Madrid, where they can bargain effectively for additional transfers, in exchange for votes in support of a national government or the national budget. This will reinforce the resentment felt by many on the right and will probably sustain Vox comfortably for years to come.

Many in Madrid say that Spanish politics is becoming Italian, only without the Italians’ feats of political gymnastics. In other words, Spain is in uncharted territory. Its political culture makes little allowance for flexibility, and its party structure is deeply fragmented. Paralysis will be the name of the game until the electorate figures out what it wants and Spain’s party system responds accordingly. That is probably for the best.

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