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21 July 2023

Pedro Sánchez’s election battle will pre-empt Europe’s future

As Spain heads to the polls, the country’s fractured politics offer a glimpse of what's to come.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Riposa in pace, Silvio. Italy’s four-time prime minister is no more. Yet for all the obituaries proclaiming Silvio ­Berlusconi’s death on 12 June as the end of an era, the opposite is true. The most striking aspect of Berlusconismo today is how it endures. His hollowing-out of Italian ­democracy, his brand of knowing authoritarianism imposed with a nod and a wink, his harnessing of the private mass media, his rupturing of the cordon sanitaire between the mainstream right and the far right, which paved the way for Giorgia Meloni’s current hard-line prime ministership; it all presaged so much of what Europe (and the United States under Donald Trump) has ­experienced over the past decade. As the historian David Broder wrote in these pages, Berlusconi lives on as “an icon of our postmodern, post-truth times”.

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It is simultaneously true that Italy has long been something of an oddity. The country’s combination of unbroken Christian ­democratic pre-eminence, with a mass-movement Communist Party as the second force, between the 1950s and 1980s, had long made its politics particular. Both of these pillars crumbled in the early 1990s, the ­Christian Democratic Party succumbing to the tangentopoli (“bribesville”) corruption scandal and the Italian Communist Party to the end of the Soviet Union.

The vacuum that this dual collapse ­created, into which Berlusconi swept, was unusual. The sheer flux and volatility of ­Italian politics in the years since has a ­character all of its own, even if elements of it have been subsequently emulated to varying extents elsewhere. Thus it was that a country with very distinctive politics also became a bellwether.

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The political story on the opposite coast of the western Mediterranean was very different. In 1994, the year in which Berlusconi first came to power, Felipe González’s ­Spanish premiership turned 12. Where Italian politics was febrile, fractious and hybrid, Spanish politics was stable, two-party and much closer to the western European norm.

Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 had been followed by a rapid shift to a democratic model which resembled the Federal Republic of Germany: a highly decentralised state politically dominated by one conventional centre-right party and one conventional centre-left party. In Spain this was the Popular Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), respectively. After González (PSOE, 1982-1996) came José María Aznar (PP, 1996-2004), then José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (PSOE, 2004-2011), then Mariano Rajoy (PP, 2011-2018), then ­Pedro Sánchez (PSOE, 2018-now).

Yet these regular swings of the Spanish political pendulum do not capture the deeper shifts in the country’s politics over the past decade. The eurozone crisis and its ­aftermath hit Spain hard and fragmented its politics, turning the predominantly two-party order into a five-party one in which the PSOE and PP had to contend with Podemos (socialist), Ciudadanos (centre right), and Vox (far right) too.

The economic turmoil also coincided with, and probably contributed to, a surge in Catalan secessionism, which further ­complicated the picture. This all actually made Spain more typical of wider European trends over the past decades than Italy: a previously stable, conventional two-party system fragmenting, and newly marked by cultural polarisation.

Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s incumbent prime minister, is a product of this environment. A former Madrid city councillor, he came to power in 2018 unexpectedly when the PP’s Rajoy lost a vote of no-confidence over a corruption scandal. The PSOE has never won a majority under Sánchez’s leadership, falling short in April 2019 and again in November 2019. After that second election he formed a minority coalition (the first coalition of any sort in national Spanish politics since the 1930s) with the socialist Unidas Podemos, which had grown out of the anti-austerity protests earlier in the decade and in 2016 formed an electoral pact with an older left-wing party.

The resulting government has been ­surprisingly durable and impactful. It has driven through swathes of progressive ­legislation including improved abortion and transgender rights, and rules making it ­easier for migrants to move from the black market to legal employment. It has also made Spain the first country in Europe to give workers the right to take leave in cases of severe ­menstrual pain.

Internationally, Sánchez has been the most influential Spanish prime minister since González, turning his country into a significant “pivot state” in Europe – a bridge between France and Germany, south and north, and increasingly between west and east.

Despite a Covid-19 recession that hit Spain especially hard (given the collapse in the tourism industry during the pandemic), its economy is now predicted to grow faster this year than those of France, Germany or Italy. Its exports hit a record high in 2022; its inflation rate is among the lowest in the eurozone. In an economic-performance ranking of 34 rich countries by the Economist last year, Spain came fourth.

That might not be enough to keep Sánchez in power after Spain’s general election on 23 July. The collapse of the younger centre-right party Ciudadanos has benefited the PP, which has been led since April 2022 by Alberto Núñez Feijóo, an appealingly unflashy conservative who pushes a relatively cautious conservatism. Sumar, a new party led by the charismatic leftist Yolanda Díaz – a senior minister in Sánchez’s heterodox coalition government – has sealed an electoral pact with the now-flagging Unidas Podemos, in an attempt to maximise the radical left’s seat share. Sumar is running on a platform of pushing any future PSOE-led government to the left.

The incumbent government’s economic management has been broadly good under the circumstances, but times are still hard. Unemployment in Spain is the lowest it has been in 15 years, but it is still at high at 12.7 per cent. The PP routed the PSOE in regional and municipal elections on 28 May. Taken together, these factors point to Feijóo succeeding Sánchez as prime minister in the upcoming election – but it would also be a mistake to write off the incumbent, one of the great survivors of modern European politics. As the New Statesman went to press, the polls were narrowing.

These circumstances are, of course, specific to Spain. But the country’s transition from two-party stability to its current, fragmented political landscape is just one instance of its wider European exemplarity. For how this plays out will, in at least five ways, embody the next chapters of the continent’s politics to an uncanny degree. It is an election that makes Spain, not Italy, the definitive harbinger of Europe’s political future.

Democracy in action: Felipe González Marquez, pictured in May 1978, served as Spain’s leader from 1982 to 1996. Photo by Alex Bowie/Getty Images.

[See also: Britain is the last liberal nation in Europe]

1. The normalised rupture of the cordon sanitaire

That the divide is breaking down between the mainstream right and the far right across the European political landscape is not a new observation. But Spain stands out, at least among the continent’s major states, for the sheer speed with which this has happened. Vox was founded only in 2013 but within a decade had become a coalition partner in one of the country’s powerful regional governments.

Vox had propped up a PP administration in the southern region of Andalucía from 2019, and in March formally entered a coalition with the PP in Castilla y León, a region north of Madrid. This may well prove to be a template for a Feijóo (PP) government ­reliant on, or even formally including, the far-right party, which campaigns against feminism and immigration and for hunting, bullfighting, a hard and heavily militarised border with Morocco to the south, and conservative ­cultural values.

The most striking aspect about such a government would be not its composition – new governments in Italy and Sweden, along with existing administrations in Poland and Hungary, would make it the norm not the exception – but just how few waves it would create in Europe. Spain’s government would be a bellwether not for its makeup, but for the lack of pushback it received.

Cooperation with the far right saw the Austrian conservative leader Wolfgang Schüssel subjected to EU economic sanctions in 2000. But a Feijóo-led pact with Vox would today create few ripples in Brussels, and the new Spanish prime minister would enjoy an open door there.

The far right’s rise in European politics over recent years looks unlikely to be reversed: social change and the transformations and turmoil unleashed by the climate crisis (including new migration pressures) may well sustain its support base. But Spain’s election, and its aftermath, will give us the best glimpse yet of a Europe in which that reality is entirely priced in.

[See also: Old Europe is dead]

2. Big-tent politics a necessity for the left

Any shifts on the Spanish left following the upcoming election may also prefigure what is to come elsewhere. In 1982 PSOE’s González won his first election with 48 per cent of the vote. Even by 1996, when he ­finally lost ­power, it had only fallen to 38 per cent. Yet Sánchez, his successor-but-one as Spanish prime minister, has never obtained more than 29 per cent.

Even in the improbable event of Sánchez holding on to power after the ­election, it is unlikely he will exceed that ­result. His endurance will depend on the Sumar-Podemos pact and on the performance of the smaller regional parties from Catalonia and the Basque Country, on which he has  always relied for power and legislative ­viability.

Here too, Spain incarnates a wider European truth: left-of-centre governments can only exist as a coalition (formal or otherwise) between the radical left, the social democratic centre-left and the liberal centre. When those forces are divided, such governments are as good as lost. Aligning them is fiendishly hard. But when they come together, they do have the ideological winds in their sails.

Sánchez’s pro-investment agenda, in the EU as in Spain itself, is at one with the US’s monumental shift towards interventionist industrial policy under Joe Biden. Economically, at least, the Western mainstream is moving modestly to the left. In European political systems, such changes demand big-tent coalitions for progress.

3. Identity versus delivery

Sánchez became Spain’s prime minister shortly after the technically illegal Catalan independence referendum of 2017. The country he inherited from Rajoy in 2018 was still scarred by the trauma of that moment, which would find new expression in the draconian sentencing of pro-secession Catalan leaders the following year, prompting a new wave of pro-independence protests.

Yet since then Sánchez has managed to calm the situation by replacing the PP’s ­antagonistic approach with one more tolerant of secession-minded Catalans, pardoning nine jailed leaders of the failed independence bid and moving to reform the outdated sedition legislation under which they were charged. In part thanks to this friendlier approach from Madrid, support for independence in Catalonia has fallen.

This case too makes today’s Spain a harbinger of Europe’s future. It is beyond doubt that identity politics will matter more in an age of ever more intensive social media use and societal polarisation. The question is how politicians respond. Many are tempted to exploit that polarisation for easy gains. It is much easier to identify a new out-group around which to rally hate than it is to build and win consent for a genuinely constructive new policy approach.

Though far from perfect, Sánchez has chosen the high-road of concrete progress over the low-road of internecine resentment and division. This may not be enough to secure his re-election on 23 July, but it does speak to a contest that will define European politics in the coming decades.

[See also: Austerity is about to return to Europe]

4. An ageing population and the spectre of empty spaces

Spain’s birth rate has fallen year by year since 2016 – from 408,734 births annually to 336,823 in 2021. In a country with a rising number of migrants and a society still – notwithstanding Vox’s rise – relatively open to immigration, that is remarkable and an indication of the demographic scarring that came with the eurozone crisis.

The result is a geographically large country, the biggest in western Europe after France, with an urban population highly concentrated in several dense conurbations (Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville), and swathes of empty space. If you take one of the country’s high-speed AVE trains, which radiate outwards from Madrid in the Iberian centre, to one of the major cities on or near the coast, you will see dry plains and ageing, emptying villages flash past the window – a potent reminder of this reality.

It is a reality that in recent years has ­taken political form in the rise of Vox, which besides conventional far-right preoccupations, such as immigration and Europe, ­traffics in messages appealing to rural voters who feel their interests and way of life have been neglected. This demographic is also attracted to the likes of Teruel Exists, a big-tent regionalist party in the north-eastern region of Teruel, which protested against the ­“forgetfulness” of the mainstream parties towards the España vacía (“Empty Spain”), the rural areas that have been left behind.

The España vacía of today is the Europa vacía of tomorrow. As the continent ages, the depopulation of European villages will become a bigger social priority. Labour market shortages will become more acute and demand more pragmatic conversations about immigration. It will become harder to find and encourage farmers willing to be genuine custodians of an increasingly lonely countryside.

5. Climate crisis driving new political splits

What increasingly unites the urban, big-city Spain of the Sánchez project with the ­Empty Spain of the Vox and Teruel Existe rebellion is the visceral experience of a changing ­climate. Last year was the hottest year on record in Spain and the third driest, a record that, judging by the current heatwave in the country (with temperatures as hot as 44°C  in June), may be broken in 2023.

Rainfall levels have fallen, the frequency of forest fires has risen and droughts are driving support for Vox in southern regions where the contest for water has become most intense.

In Andalucía the PP has urged the region’s government, dependent on Vox’s votes, to legalise the pumping of water from the Doñana wetlands in the delta of the Guadalquivir River, which is a Unesco World Heritage site. Sánchez and his allies in ­Madrid strenuously oppose the move. The dispute has escalated to Brussels, with ­conservatives in the ­European Parliament accusing the European Commission of ­interfering in Spain’s election campaign by siding with the prime minister over the ­protection of the wetlands.

Such new splits over the pressures of the climate crisis and how to respond to them are evident elsewhere in Europe. Consider the Dutch provincial elections in March in which the right-wing, agrarian Farmer-Citizen Movement finished ahead of the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte’s liberals, thanks to a surge in rural opposition to his new limits on agricultural nitrogen emissions.

The Netherlands is particularly ­vulnerable to climate change as well due to its exposure to rising sea levels. Spain’s experience of high temperatures, however, makes the country more likely to experience the extremes of climate change ahead of much of the ­continent. Based on current trends, cities such as Seville and Madrid will soon be ­unliveable in the summer months.

Such is the future of Spain. And such, in the long term, is the future of Europe. At the current rate politics in many European states will, by 2030, be defined by the normalised collapse of the cordon sanitaire between mainstream conservatism and the far right. It will be a landscape in which the left can only win by forging broad and canny coalitions.

New pressures will pitch the vacuous but seductive politics of identity against the ­sober and concrete politics of delivery. Towns and villages, especially in ageing ­rural areas, will empty out and see their shrinking remaining populations of young people move to the cities.

The climate crisis may also upend the continent’s political order, strengthening both the populists and greens of our own age and the new empty-Europe politicians of the age to come.

And yet Spain also boasts remarkable strengths. The country’s biggest cities are dynamic and creative like few others. Its society is permissive, while retaining a deep and fond sense of tradition. The country has married liberal modernity with community and belonging more successfully than many other polities.

That Spain’s population is ageing is also a reflection of its health; life expectancy there is expected to surpass Japan’s by 2040 to become the highest in the world. And in the last few years, Spain has also developed a newly influential voice in European and international affairs.

The question is whether the country can negotiate its challenges while upholding those strengths in the years ahead. Silvio Berlusconi pre-empted our European ­present. For better or for worse, Pedro Sánchez and his battles will pre-empt the continent’s future.

This article was originally published on 12 July, it has been repromoted ahead of the 2023 Spanish general election on Sunday 23 July.

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation