A few days ahead of Spain’s Sunday election, the future of the country is still determined by the legacy of the 2008 crash and the crisis in Catalonia. The immediate struggle this Sunday will be between five parties and two electoral blocs. On the left, the incumbent socialist party PSOE lead by PM Pedro Sánchez may govern in coalition with the far-left Podemos and the possible backing of Basque and Catalan nationalist parties – whose support will come with stringent conditions. On the right, the electoral bloc of PP and Ciudadanos may replicate, with the tacit support of the far-right Vox, the government alliance that both parties have recently formed in Andalucía, ending three decades of PSOE hegemony in the most populous region in Spain.
And yet, whatever the outcome of Sunday’s vote, Spanish politics is likely to remain stuck in another cycle of instability for years. Since December 2015 the country has seen two elections in under a year, with a caretaker cabinet in office between them; the first prime minister ousted by a no-confidence motion, followed by the shortest minority government of the democratic era; and its worst territorial crisis in decades Catalonia. The failed attempt for the region’s independence in the fall of 2017 dealt a brutal blow to a political system already torn by the worst economic crisis in 70 years – two recessions in a row, through which 4 million jobs were lost.
Ever since, the Catalan crisis has been dominating Spanish politics, sucking up the remaining energy out of the system like a black hole. Some 12 Catalan independence leaders are now on trial at Spain’s Supreme Court facing charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.
For the parties on the right, the coming election represents a battle for the soul of the country and an existential threat to national sovereignty. As the leader of Ciudadanos put it during last Monday’s TV debate, “There are two options in this election: vote yes to Spain or vote no”. Resentment over Catalonia has meant the end of Spain’s immunity to far-right politics with the rise of Vox – a Spanish nationalist party that was polling below 2 per cent in 2017 yet is now fighting to become the kingmaker in the next Parliament.
Amid accusations of coup d’etat on one side, and colonial occupation on the other, there is little breathing space for nuance in Spanish political discourse. In an article published in 2012, the current Catalan Regional President, Quim Torra, referred to the Spanish-speaking citizens living in Catalonia as “carrion-feeders, vipers and hyenas” and “beasts in human form that exude hatred”.
In a series of tweets the same year, Torra wrote that, “Spaniards know only how to plunder”. In February this year, the same day that the trial against the pro-independence activists began, Santiago Abascal, leader of Vox, said in front of the Supreme Court that the fact that Quim Torra “is among the public and not on the bench of the defendants shows that the coup is still alive”.
Despite some recent attempts to lower the tone of the confrontation, Spanish politicians seem unable or unwilling to break the stalemate. They are still learning how to navigate the political world they now inhabit, caught between the need to survive in the new world that followed the 2008 crash and the imperatives of fighting the third general election in four years. The result is that politicians have lost sight of what else might be coming. And the country’s voters are more volatile and undecided than ever.
But the next Spanish government can’t postpone much longer the pressing questions that have been left unanswered during this campaign. For example, how will Spain square the circle of having the second largest number of unemployed in the EU, while its workers must pay for the ballooning pensions of a population that very soon will live longer than the Japanese? Or how will the new government fight the next recession when it will have less fiscal ammunition than any of its predecessors?
If the recent past is of any guidance, we should not be too hopeful. All the leading candidates are still trapped in the Catalan saga, and post-election scenarios will be shaped by it. For them, any other question seems secondary now. If the outcome is a hung parliament, major reforms might well be postponed again for another time that never seems to come.
Certainly, the past few years have been good for the Spanish economy – a motivating factor to forget about the previous miserable moments. However, after the election on Sunday the question is not if but when the hangover will finally hit the country.
Jose Piquer is an early stage researcher in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.