Spanish Populism in a time of Crisis

Since the 25th May, after the huge right-wing car protest and two weeks of pot banging on balconies, things have calmed down in the public arena in Spain. Two weeks before this, in the commuter town that I live in, I could hear these pots and pans being hit on my daily walk, even in my overwhelmingly centre-left leaning neighbourhood. However, since most regions in Spain moved to the first phase, and since then subsequent phases of Spain’s de-escalation plan, people’s political feelings of angst seem to have subsided. Yet, the Spanish flags with a black ribbon remain as does the political rhetoric from both the far-left, and far-right leaning parties, Podemos and Vox.

Pop Goes Populism

Both parties work on a platform of populism which aims to speak for the people and divides the community into a form of us and them. In the wake of the financial crisis Podemos achieved this by criticising the political caste, and Vox later did it with the patriots and separatists line following the Catalonia referendum in 2017. Podemos, part of the left-wing coalition government, have had to make the tough transition from academic protest party to one governing, and Vox are now taking their place as the insurgent force.

With the coronavirus hitting Spain within months of the coalition taking office, they have had to show political competence along with stability. This is difficult being as this is Spain’s first coalition government since before Franco’s dictatorship, but also, they have inherited a dinosaur of a civil service of which they will be blamed for any mismanagement during the crisis. Whilst they can point backwards and blame previous administrations, and even the EU, there is no doubt they have had more of a climb than most.

Also, they also have a split and vicious right wing opposition to contend with. Long gone are the days when the only difference between the PSOE and PP was the colour of the ties they wear. Now the fragmented multi-layered administration is broken up over more than just regional lines. We now have the return of the far right and the rebirth of the centre as Cuidudanos have found a new lease of life. The opposition parties continue to battle amongst themselves for support whilst also hitting out at the coalition’s chinks in their armour: Pablo Iglesias and 8M.  

As the rest of Spain moved on with the plan to bring the country out of the harshest lockdown in Europe, the political circus found other acts to play out. On the 25th May, Colonel Diego Pérez de los Cobos, head of the Guardia Civil in Madrid, was sacked by the Interior Minister. He was shortly followed by his next in command, who quit in protest. Colonel Pérez de los Cobos was dismissed after a report was leaked accusing the government of mishandling the 8M protests. The government is being investigated by the courts and the Colonel was caught slating the government in the report. I use the word slating justly as El Pais reported that the report contained many discrepancies from incorrect dates to using fake news as a source of reference, it also failed to report phone calls between government agencies.

In parliament just a day after the Colonel’s dismissal, Pablo Iglesias was accused of being the son of a terrorist by PP deputy Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo. This was in reference to Iglesias’s father who had been a member of the far-left group FRAP, which was linked with rebellious acts against the fascist dictatorship in the 1970s. However, there is no evidence that his father took part. Iglesias calmly replied that he would encourage his father to take the deputy to court over the comments. Cuidudanos, PP and Vox have all taken turns to shout down the government in recent weeks despite the PP and Cuidudanos trying to move more to the centre, and try to act more like grown-ups. Seems as if they can’t help but get involved with the populists in the playground.

The heated rhetoric had not stopped there. Only the next day after being called the son of a terrorist, he came face to face with Vox’s spokesperson Iván Espinosa de los Montero in one of the various commissions in parliament. Iglesias said that the right would rather carry out a coup d’état than defend democracy. He later retracted the comments, feeling that it was an unnecessary thing to say. The ironic thing being is that he said it during a sitting of the reconstruction commission, which was put in place by the government to build parliamentary concession for rebuilding the country after covid-19.

Vox and the PP know that if they attack Iglesias he will react. During the last elections in December, he actually came out as the more mature and well manner politician during the debates. However the verbal attacks on him and his family, the pot banging outside his house and trouble inside Podemos could all come to be too much. The more he shouts back the more it appears to reflect badly on him, even though many people may agree somewhat with what he says.

In the same week the old, pro-monarchy newspaper ABC shared a video of Irene Montero, Equality Minister, saying that numbers were down at this year’s Women’s day march due to fears of coronavirus. Whilst the video of her chatting with a journalist prior to an interview, just a day after the protest, admits that fewer people went to the march, there was no admission that it was a bad move to have the march at that time. Montero even says, “In other words, I am not going to say it because I am not going to say it. Well, because, tia, I want to be very cautious, because I believe that the communication that is being done as a Government is good communication, based on medical data,”. Despite the full context of the video, the media had a field day.

Venezuela Boogie Man

The word Venezuela seems to be coming up in every comment that leaves the mouths of anyone on the right. Whilst the queues for food and the complaints about late ERTE payments are very real, that is only because we have just come out of a world-wide pandemic. Similar images are coming from all over Europe. And whilst the empty rhetoric of a non-evident spiralling country may not be true now, it soon could be.

As Iker Itoiz Ciaurriz points out, the efforts of the political opposition to create an environment of chaos is like what has happened in other countries in South America, and these countries have ended up in similar situations to Venezuela. Whilst the risk of this happening in an EU country remains slight, there are several factors that could cause a downfall of the fragile coalition.

The mere fact that they exist is enough for the right, they don’t need an excuse to undermine the government with numerous legal cases and leaks to the press. Yet it is the pacts that the centre-left PSOE have done that may be their undoing. Having strengthened relationships with several regional parties from the Basque country and Catalonia, this government has possibly alienated the pro-unity Spaniards who are easily set off by confrontation with Catalonia. And whilst many of these voters may have been on the right, not all will have been. Also not forgetting that Sanchez’s pact with Podemos is also unpopular with some in the PSOE party machinery, the business world, and the EU.

Whilst many of these groups may be quiet now, there are policies in the works that may set off protests and actions with the intent of destabilising the government. The labour law reforms and the proposed plastic tax just to name a few. That along with certain economic woes for the country, it will be a fresh wound for the right to pick at. With that said the government’s minimal vital income has been given the approval by the IMF.

Catalonia has its own troubles at the moment with inter-regional politicians fighting over a small pool of votes and they also have problems with industry. They will be pushing on Sanchez for help. It is only a matter of time before the regions create drama and this will only work in favour of the right. With Nissan planning to pull their factory from Barcelona, costing up to 6,000 jobs, this is not the best time for more economic troubles after covid-19. This will leave an opening for the opportunistic right wing to relight the flame of Arriba España.

The regions are planned to resume control of their administrations following the last extension of the state of alarm which was approved last week on the 3rd May. Prior to this extension, the government had a much easier time getting the votes together to pass the state of alarm. Despite a bruising parliamentary session, Pedro Sanchez has come out with more support for his coalition government.

A lot of what happens now will also depend on factors outside the government’s control. If the EU decide to impose austerity following the economic lifeline that Spain, and all other countries, have just been handed, then the left-wing coalition will find it hard to stay afloat. Podemos was created to oppose austerity and will not likely implement it, it is also easy to say that the PSOE will only push the EU so far.

Then there are the regions picking up the batons from where the central government have left off, no doubt if there is blame to be thrown it will be at Moncloa. All this and the temptation for the PSOE of a coalition government with the PP and Cuidudanos is also a genuine threat to both the populist parties.

Whatever happens, politicians on both sides will utilise the rhetoric of defence, country, freedom and democracy to manoeuvre their bases whilst the other parties try to keep their heads down hoping that the other two will cancel each other out. Yet whilst that may be the ideal situation for many, it is unlikely to play out that way. The PP and Cuidudanos have played side by side with Vox when needed, as have the PSOE and Podemos. Furthermore, the PP can’t decide where they want to sit politically and Ciudadanos are going on their first date with the PSOE. That won’t please Pablo. For sure, the parties and their voters are not going anywhere.

With an investigation into the country’s former king being announced today, this will surely fire up parties on both sides of the ideological spectrum. And as much as the political nerds like myself may enjoy the drama of monarchy and politics, we must remind ourselves this is not an episode of Game of Thornes. As the country is about to go into the worst economic period it has seen since the 1920s, and was barely walking from the last one, politicians should concentrate on looking after the citizens not ceremonial flag waving. That said, great changes can happen at the most unexpected of times, the monarchy only just held on during the last economic crisis. Will it be so lucky this time?

Whilst this king has not been caught shooting elephants at the state’s expense (it was his father), it may be his father’s corruption that brings his place in society into question.

A recent poll by GAD3 has shown that both Podemos and Vox are losing support due to their rhetoric. Vox would go from 52 to 33 seats and Podemos from 35 to 27. All centre parties would gain with the PSOE gaining 1 seat up to 121, Cuidudanos gaining 3 up to 13 and the PP with the biggest gain from 89 seats to 111.

The country’s population has overcome much in recent months, and bounced back from the financial recession better than most suspected. Still with these playground politics, and every politician with their own interests at heart, Spain seems to be going backwards politically and it is taking its’ people with it. Populism isn’t for the people; it is for the politicians.

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