#ElectionsSpain2019: Populist radicalisation, Catalonia, and the far-right

Spain is the epitome of political instability, with a 5 party fragmentation and the impossibility of appeasing radicalised nationalists. Español

democracia Abierta
22 February 2019

Pedro Sánchez at the PSOE party conference in 2017. Wikimedia Commons. All Rights Reserved.

The political landscape in Spain is that of instability, alongside rising radical nationalisms that make it almost impossible to reach an agreement.

The socialist government of Pedro Sánchez has lasted eight months. It’s the shortest government the country has seen since the re-establishment of democracy in 1978 after 40 years of dictatorship under general Franco.

The parties leading the independence movement in Catalonia, which triggered a deep constitutional crisis, unexpectedly voted in favour of the creation of Mr Sánchez government, that took over from Mariano Rajoy, leader of the Popular Party (PP).  

The minority government of Rajoy that possessed 134 seats and was sustained with the support of the Citizen’s party (Ciudadanos) unexpectedly fell after a vote of no confidence promoted by Sánchez, the leader of a weak socialist opposition that had only 84 seats in a parliament of 350.

In May 2018, the PP, haunted by a long list of scandals and illegal finance cases, was sentenced by the Judiciary, placing the party at the epicentre of an extensive corruption plot.

The corruption sentence assured that the government could no longer continue, and that a vote of no confidence was inevitable. 

The corruption sentence assured that the government could no longer continue, and that a vote of no confidence was inevitable. However, it was Sánchez who promoted the idea that Rajoy must stand down and name a new leader of the PP to the government, and that that will be enough for the oposition leader to withdraw his vote of no confidence.

An unexpected government

But Rajoy did not react to the offer of stepping down to secure the contituity of the PP government, probably miscalculating that the negative approval ratings of Rajoy ensured the entire opposition would unite in pursuit of removing him from government.

A majority organised themselves, including the new left Podemos (with 67 representatives), and a group of minority representatives from Basque and Catalan nationalist parties, and Rajoy was ousted.

Named as president by surprise, Pedro Sánchez, conscious of his weakness, began ruling with a minority government. Once in power, instead of calling for snap elections to try to improve his weak support, he decided to try his luck.

He attempted to revert some of the most antisocial measures of the previous conservative governments and opened dialogue with the pro-independence parties of Catalonia, who keep a weak but steady control of the Catalan parliament and of the autonomous community powerful resources, including the propaganda apparatus.

However, the Catalan issue remains plagued with negative emotions, and the inherited conflict was too heavy to deal with by the new Moncloa palace (siege of the president of the government) lodger. The negotiations for governance, and above all, to pass the annual budget through parliament, have left their mark on Sánchez’s short but sweet stay at the Moncloa palace, and the same Catalans  that swore him in ensured its lack of viability towards the end.

The eventual alliance between archenemies, the Catalan nationalists with the PP and the Citizen’s party, to take the government down is a prime demonstration of this.

The demands of the Catalan government for the recognition to the 'right to autodetermination' and for international mediation was too much for the socialist government to take.

The demands of the Catalan government for the recognition to the 'right to autodetermination' and for international mediation at the negotiation table was too much for the socialist government to take.

Thus, the government of Sánchez was obligated to call new elections, this time for the 28th April, one month short of the municipal, European parliament and autonomous community elections, set for the 26th of May.

Crisis, fragmentation, and instability

The coming elections on the 28th of April will be the third general elections in Spain in the last four years, bringing to light the instability that has recently defined the political system.

Spain has gone from an, albeit imperpect, bipartisan system in the past few years, to a highly fragmented scenario which is far less stable.

Traditionally, governments have governed with either an absolute majority or with minority governments that gained the support of the Basque and Catalan nationalists, that were pragmatic in character. The nationalists often acted as bargaining chips in favour for benefits for their territories, have become kingmakers in Madrid on several occasions, and have heavily invested the gains in nation building at home.

This hegemony of the two large parties began to break down with the emergence of two new parties, Podemos on the left and the Citizen’s party on the liberal, centre-right, that erupted in the 2015 elections with 42 and 40 seats each in parliament.

They emerged mostly as a response to the poor management of policies relating to the great recession of 2008 and the following social crisis that rocked both society and the parties of the establishment, and, in the case of the Citizen's party, also originally born as a reaction to the hegemony of incresingly populists nationalists in Catalonia.

Alongside the emergence of these two new political forces, in Catalonia nationalists on the right of the political spectrum radicalised due to the same social tensions produced by the financial crisis, and the threat of losing its hegemony to its so-called "republican" pro-independence competitors. By becoming pro-independence supporters themselves, they hoped to keep their hegemony in Catalonia maintaining their competitors at bay.

Disaster in Catalonia

This radical shift in Catalan consevative nationalism, acquiring clear populist traits, inreasingly demanded a referendum to gain territorial independence, putting at the centre of the political agenda something which is not permitted by the Spanish constitution.

Despite the fact that no constitution of any State allows for the secession of one of its territories, the Catalans played along knowing that the Spanish State wouldn’t accept their demands under any circumstances, in the hope that this will be a strong card for their negotiation of further concessions to the auntonomous community, and will eventually distract the social pressure by diverting and concentrating it into the referendum issue.

Following a wave of populist radicalisation and massive demonstrations in the streets led by the Catalan government with the enthusiastic support of the governmental media and a couple of well organised and robustly funded civil society organizations, the nationalist parties decided to unilaterally push the issue of a referendum beyond the point of no return.

The government of Rajoy, caught up in recovering from the economic crisis and focused on a purely containment and judicial approach, was unable to contain the independence movement, and the Catalan nationalists in spite of the clear opposition of the central government and the Supreme Court, convoked and held their referendum on the 1st October 2017.

The consequences of this territorial conflict that has been so badly managed have been disastrous: Catalan society has been divided and Spanish society has been radicalised.

Although it was an illegal referendum that could not provide basic democratic guarantees, and in spite of the warnings from the government and the Supreme Court against further breaking of the law, the result caused a subsequent declaration of independence (even if it never became fully effective). The central government intervened, applying enforced rule over the region, following a mandate from the Senate, softened by the socialist support, with the horizon of snap regional elections to be held before the end of the year.

The consequences of this territorial conflict that has been so badly managed by both sides have been disastrous: Catalan society has been fractured, and Spanish society has been radicalised, fuelling a nationalist reaction that pushed the country to the extreme right.

Police repression of peaceful voters at polling stations was a grave error, and fell right into the trap that the nationalists had planted. The photo of an old lady defending the polling station whilst being beaten by riot police was powerful publicity for the independence cause and tragic for Spanish democracy's image abroad.

The posterior denouncement and incarceration of nationalist leaders (bar a few who fled justice and the country) has led us to the quagmire situation that we are currently in.

We witnessed the tragic spectacle of a trial under charges of rebellion (which means the use of violence to secede) that didn’t appear to exist. Despite other violations such as disobedience and embezzlement having clearly taken place, the charge of rebellion and the high penalty that such a charge receives has been perceived as a revenge plot by the Spanish state, and is being used by the pro-independence movement as as a further evidence that their cause, albeit unilateral, is the only way out.

This only throws petrol over an already raging fire, feeding grievences and victimisation that fuel nationalist sentiments in Catalonia and leaving Catalan non nationalists orphan of political clout and in disarray.


As a reaction to an increasingly radicalised nationalist Catalonia, the PP is also suffering a process of populist radicalisation.

This has caused the party to fragment, with some sectors leering towards the far right, causing the ultra right party VOX to emerge with force in 2018.

Whoever comes out on top at the next elections, will have to face up to growing tensions over the radical push of a ‘Catexit’, and the growing reaction of the extreme right.

The recent regional elections in Andalucia have created a right-wing alternative coalition to an almost 40 years of socialist rule, made up of the Popular Party, Citizen’s Party, and with the support of VOX and the 400,000 votes they received. What could occur in Spain from the 28th April onwards is that the country emerges governed by ‘the three rights’, where the extreme right will probably be calling the shots.

In few years, Spain will have gone from an imperfect bipartisan yet predictable system supported by conservative yet moderate nationalists, to a five party system, with one leering to the extreme right grabbing the centre and others to radicalised national populism already governing on the periphery.

The political landscape in Spain is that of much instability, in which it has become impossible to reach an agreement with radicalised nationalists who wish to promote their own agenda, no matter the costs in terms of stability.

Whoever comes out on top at the next elections, will have to face up to growing tensions over the radical push for a ‘Catexit’, and the growing reaction of the extreme right.

An ultra-right reaction to the threat of the breakdown of the country is certainly taking advantage of the current state of affairs to create a dangerous scenario for Spain, and as a consequence, for the whole European Union.

Further internal destabilisation and deepening cracks within one of the biggest and oldest nations of the European Union will only provoke delirium for the likes of Steve Bannon, rejoicing for hawks at the White House, and satisfaction within the Kremlin.


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