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The governance of Spain: between rock and hard place

Sebastian Balfour
2 April 2008

The result of the Spanish elections of 9 March 2008 raises more questions than it answers. The Partido Popular (Popular Party / PP) conservative opposition can no longer claim that the socialist administration of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was the freak outcome of the Madrid train bombings three days before the 14 March 2004 elections; yet the narrow victory of the socialists places them in an uncomfortable position - between a rock and a hard place.

Sebastian Balfour is emeritus professor of contemporary Spanish studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Among his books are Deadly Embrace: Morocco and the Road to the Spanish Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2002), The Politics of Contemporary Spain (Routledge, 2004), and (with Alejandro Quiroga) The Reinvention of Spain: Nation and Identity since Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2007)

A version of this article, entitled Entre la espada y el pared, was published in Spanish in El Pais on 31 March 2008

The new configuration of political power will make it hard for Zapatero to negotiate a stable parliamentary majority. His potential allies on the left suffered a haemorrhage of votes as many supporters of these smaller groups chose to vote for his Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers' Party / PSOE) to keep out the PP. This added to the woes of the ex-communist party Izquierda Unida, already the principal casualty of an electoral system that penalises national (that is, Spain-wide) minority parties and rewards regional parties benefiting from a geographical concentration of votes.

The 9 March elections intensified this trend; they were marked by an unprecedented "bipolarisation" of votes between the PSOE and the PP, leaving regional parties in Catalonia and the Basque country, in particular, with the leverage to negotiate a deal over the investiture or the programme of the new Zapatero government that might deepen the more general polarisation of political life in Spain. The president of the Basque region, Juan José Ibarretxe, wants to hold a referendum on self-determination on 25 October (which is both unconstitutional and opposed by all nation-wide parties); while the fact that the conservative Catalan coalition party, Convergència i Unió, is in parliamentary opposition to the socialist-led coalition government in Catalonia, leaves Zapatero with even less room for manoeuvre.

A corroding democracy

The rock and the hard place between which the Zapatero government finds itself, however, derive from several problems much deeper than parliamentary arithmetic or the economic downturn that it will have to negotiate over the coming months or years (a downturn whose effects will probably hit Spain harder than many other European countries because its recent economic growth was driven largely by real estate and construction).

The first problem lies in the peculiar nature of conservatism in Spain. The Popular Party's response to its unexpected defeat in 2004 was to adopt a populist strategy of attrition against the new socialist government that went beyond the normal protocols of democratic opposition, just as its rhetoric went beyond the bounds of the adversarial discourse appropriate to democratic opposition (see Ivan Briscoe, "From the shadows: Spain's election lessons", 11 March 2008). In a virtual and almost permanent electoral campaign, the party bypassed parliament and mobilised its supporters onto the streets and squares of the big cities where it has mass support. It did so around three issues: terrorism, nation and morality.

The PP broke with precedent by campaigning against government attempts to negotiate a ceasefire with the Basque terrorist group ETA (whereas the socialists had supported the José María Aznar government in its talks with the Basque terrorist organisation in the late 1990s). It joined with the church in opposing Zapatero's proposals for progressive reform of highly restricted legislation on moral issues. And it fought to prevent further devolution of rights and competencies to the regions that went beyond the administrative principle of subsidiarity - thus its crusade against the reform of the Catalan statute.

Also in openDemocracy on politics and conflict in Spain:

Diego Muro, "ETA after Madrid: the beginning of the end?" (15 March 2004)

Douglas Murray, "Spain's shame" (17 March 2004)

Ivan Briscoe, "A victory for Spain, not al-Qaida" (18 March 2004)

Mariano Aguirre, "Spain's 11-M and the right's revenge" (10 March 2006)

Diego Muro, "ETA's farewell to peace" (18 January 2007)

Ivan Briscoe, "Spain: trials and tribulations" (12 March 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Eternal Euskadi, enduring ETA" (3 August 2007)

Ivan Briscoe, "From the shadows: Spain's election lessons" (10 March 2008)

The PP drummed up support for its campaign against the Zapatero government within the state and amongst civic organisations where it had support. In doing so, it politicised institutions such as the judiciary and the church and organisations like the Association of Victims of Terrorism, all of which would normally be expected to remain outside party politics. The subtext of the campaign was that the elections of March 2004 were illegitimate, the result of manipulation by the socialists of the jihadist railway bombings on "11-M". Against all evidence, media outlets close to the PP continued to insist that ETA was involved in the atrocity and that both the police and the new government were covering this up.

On a range of policy issues - abortion, gay marriage, divorce, devolution and immigration - the PP placed itself on the right of the political spectrum rather than on the centre-right, thereby narrowing its chances of an electoral victory. Its claim to be a party of the centre hardly conforms to opinion polls or electoral results. The political polarisation that ensued, contaminating non-party institutions, has deeply undermined the quality of democracy in Spain.

A plural identity

Indeed, the behaviour of the PP suggests that it has not internalised the basic norms of parliamentary democracy nor assimilated the centre-right discourse which it claims to stand for. It also suggests that the party has not confronted its own past in order to flush out neo-Francoist cultures and mentalities. This failure to cleanse its own stable derived from the consensual elite-driven nature of the transition to democracy which allowed the right to evade the past. Party renewal is not helped by the absence of internal democracy vital for the articulation of new strategies based on changing political contexts. The narrowness of the socialists' electoral victory, and the strength of the PP's vote in its conservative strongholds (such as Madrid, Valencia and Murcia) may undermine any temptation to change strategy or put together a more moderate opposition team.

Despite having lost two consecutive elections as leader of the PP, Mariano Rajoy remains at the helm of his party. After a relatively long post-election silence, he is changing his team and appointing some younger deputies close to him to his shadow cabinet. Even if he did wish to reposition the party, however, he has to convince or neutralise some of the powerful rightwing "barons" in the party. The PP's persistent failure to position itself fully on the centre-right and to adopt consensual democratic politics would continue to make it difficult for Zapatero to carry out his progressive agenda. This is particularly true of the question of the architecture of the Spanish state, the second problem that constrains his new government.

One of the PP's most successful campaigns, and the one probably closest to the heart of its militants, was against any further devolution of power (both real and symbolic) to the regions (in particular to Catalonia). The whole issue of nation has become a battleground in the competition between political parties. A central feature of the discourse of PP's organic intellectuals and media is that Spain is disintegrating because separatism is rife, and that the socialist government is conniving in the collective suicide of the nation.

True, this sort of polemic is not confined to Spain in these days of accelerated immigration and globalisation (or "glocalisation", in the effort of such thinkers as Roland Robertson and Alvin Toffler to capture people's need to look for identities ever closer to home). The ground under nation and identity is constantly shifting. Europe alone offers numerous examples: the increasingly dis-United Kingdom; Belgium; the Balkans; Italy.

The historical roots of plural identity in Spain lie in a sort of 1-1 draw in identity stakes between Spanish and regional identities in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. The Franco dictatorship (1939-75) tried to destroy this duality by imposing a single identity. In doing so it made the expression of difference all the more intense with the new democracy. One of the most important features of post-1975 democracy has been the celebration of the plurality of nation and identity, and this has been a source of great cultural vitality. The problem is that some political elites are pushing not just for a hierarchy of identities but for an almost exclusivity of identity, whether Spanish or regional. This is despite the case that the vast majority of people in Spain are comfortable with dual, triple and even quadruple identities.

A last wave

The architecture of the state, negotiated in the 1978 constitution in the shadow of the Francoist dictatorship, has exacerbated this problem. Over the last thirty years, the seventeen regional autonomies in Spain have become immensely powerful with an extraordinary range of resources and competencies which exceed in some cases that of the German Länder. Recognition was given to the special nature of the historic communities like Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque country. But the Basque country and Navarra were given more competencies than Catalonia or Galicia, and this created an asymmetry between them that became the source of grievance, especially for Catalans.

This was made worse when the possibility of achieving further resources was extended to all the regions - the so-called café para todos effect. What this in turn did was to set in motion a dynamic of competition between the regions based on comparative grievance. The new political elites in the regions cannot ignore this compulsion to catch up with or stay ahead of the others even if they want to, because around them emerged powerful networks of financial, commercial, social, and cultural interests. These interests put them under pressure to extract ever more resources from the state and to differentiate their identity and history from that of other regions. Hence the growing tensions between the regions over a range of issues, such as history (whose claim to a distinct historical identity is stronger?) and control over water (which river belongs to whom and who should benefit from its waters in an increasingly parched Spain?)

This is competitive rather than cooperative federalism (or quasi-federalism). What is missing is the mechanism of co-responsibility that characterises working federal states. There is no co-decision-making at national level and so the regional governments are not encouraged to think "nationally". The Spanish senate doesn't represent the regions, as the German Bundesrat represents the Länder. Yet the Zapatero government's wish to reform the senate to bring it in line with regional power is opposed by the PP. A restructuring of the senate requires a reform of the constitution, which in turn entails a two-thirds majority in parliament as well as a referendum. The current balance of power in the national parliament makes this vital reform unrealistic.

The new minority socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero thus faces even greater challenges than in the last four years, that of the economic downturn especially. Yet it still has room to offer juicy morsels of self-government to regional parties in order to cobble together a working majority in the national parliament. This may well represent the last wave of devolution possible with the bounds of the constitution. The Basque Nationalist Party, in particular, may be more amenable because it has been chastened by its loss of votes and the rise in support for the Basque branch of the Socialist Party (making the latter the largest party in the region); so much so that Ibarretxe might be persuaded by his own party to postpone the referendum on self-determination in exchange for yet more competencies. Beyond that, a greater, indeed a most glittering, prize lies within the grasp of the new socialist government: the final dismantling of ETA through legal and security measures.

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