Spain’s Left Finds a Fragile Solidarity in the Shadow of Resurgent Francoism

John McClure
November 14, 2019

The last episode of Spain’s exhausting national election saga, which I recounted in a previous posting, began last April and ended in September with the appalling failure of the Socialists (PSOE) and the new left Podemos to form a government. The two parties had done well enough in April’s national elections to form a ruling coalition, but after months of negotiations they could not reach an agreement on power sharing. So new elections were called for November, much to everyone’s disgust, and when the polls closed on Sunday, November 10th the results left millions of Spanish progressives even more unhappy.

Both PSOE and Podemos lost several seats in the Congress of Deputies, with Podemos losing a fifth of the seats it won in April, but together they still remained strong enough to form a new government. So deep were the wounds inflicted in the first round of negotiations, however, that neither seemed ready to work with the other. Meanwhile, the conservative Partido Popular did very well and so, appallingly, did the Francoist party, Vox. Having claimed a meager 12 seats in April, it now came away with 52 and became the third party of Spain, well ahead of Podemos. For a moment, then, it looked as though the nation might have to endure a third election in early 2020, one which the parties of the right, including Vox, had a good chance of winning.

Pedro Sanchez, PSOE’s leader, is getting much of the blame for making this disastrous second election necessary. Reports suggest that he was ready and perhaps even eager last summer for negotiations with Podemos to fail. Some claim that he believed it would be dangerous for the Socialists to face October’s explosion of Catalan rage, triggered by the sentencing of rebel politicians in the Spanish courts, at the head of a coalition government. Podemos, after all, has been more sympathetic to the Catalan secessionists than PSOE. Others contend that he thought a second election would bring more propitious results for PSOE, allowing it either to govern alone or to compel Iglesias to demand less for his support. But why he would think this is a mystery. For autumn, as predicted, rained a series of blows on the Socialists. The economy’s decline and the rise of unemployment left them exposed, as the ruling party, to considerable criticism from the right. The Socialist-led eviction of Franco’s remains from the dictator’s monumental tomb in the Valley of the Fallen also stirred up the right, for many of whom Franco is still an honored figure. And the re-eruption of massive secessionist street actions in Catalonia lent further fuel to the hardliners of the right, who claimed that only they could restore order in Spain.

But Sanchez is also being credited for acting swiftly this week to break the deadlock on the left and avoid disaster. On Monday morning, the story goes, Sanchez, who was crushed by Sunday’s results, rallied his spirits, recalculated his options, called Iglesias, and invited him to meet immediately, Then, at the meeting, he offered Iglesias virtually everything Iglesias had demanded in the summer’s round of negotiations. The two hammered out an agreement in little more than an hour, set their most trusted advisors to draft a formal document, and emerged on Tuesday to sign it and commit themselves to form a coalition government as soon as possible, leaving the details of their pact to be worked out after the investiture. At the end of the signing ceremony, the two embraced. Efforts to win the support they will need from smaller parties to make the new government a reality are already well underway. As of now, (November 14th) these efforts seem likely to succeed.

Sanchez’s embarrassing and yet elegantly brisk volte-face makes excellent sense, politically. After the botched negotiations of the last six months he and Pablo Iglesias both needed a win to remain at the head of their respective parties. And both realized that Spain, faced with the Catalan insurgency, could not afford to drift along for several more months under a caretaker government caught up in yet another election campaign.
But in the end, surely, it was the resurgence of the Partido Popular and the breathtaking advances of Vox that provided the most dramatic incentive for reconciliation. If prolonged negotiations were to fail again and third election to be necessary, the people would have had enough. Those who bothered to vote would almost certainly give the parties of the right the chance that the left had squandered. And Vox almost certainly would be part of any rightist coalition. Its power, its legitimacy, and its persuasive appeal would be magnified exponentially. Under these circumstances, Sanchez gave Iglesias what he wanted: not only the coalition that he had so recently declared unacceptable, but a vice presidency (one of three) for Iglesias himself, and three ministries for his party. Iglesias was ready to compromise as well, both on Catalonia and on Sanchez’s disturbing choice of a neoliberal deputy as minister of the economy.

Well done at last, especially if the parties can actually form a government and give Spain a period of stable progressive rule. But by pushing the nation into a second election Sanchez and Iglesias have inflicted a wound on Spanish democracy that their reconciliation alone will not heal. That’s why there has been no dancing in the streets in the wake of the two parties’ reconciliation. Even those who fought for this outcome seem too exhausted and too skeptical of politicians’ capacity to solve Spain’s formidable problems and heal its deep divisions to celebrate. Besides, something very precious remains lost, the security of a country where, until now, any resurgence of Francoism has seemed impossible. Not only is Vox now the third most powerful party in Spain. In the crucial region Andalucia, the heartland of Spanish socialism and my part-time home for 24 years, it is the second party. If you look at the interactive election maps of Andalucia which break the vote down by municipalities, the first map you see shows a vast field of red, the color of PSOE, which got the most votes in almost every municipality, whether urban or rural. But when you click to focus on the parties that came second, suddenly the region turns pale green, Vox’s color.

If you try to find out who among your neighbors gave Vox this incredible boost, you get another shock. One becomes aware, living in rural Andalucia, that many old wounds are not healed, many scores remain unsettled. One gets to know which families in the village, remembering past cruelties, still do not speak to one another forty-four years after Franco’s death. One notes the haughty conservatism of some of the wealthier residents and wonders how deep it goes. And sometimes the old politics break through. I have found myself, working beside amiable neighbors on a hillside in the winter mists, being told with gentle certainty that things were better under Franco: there was order, then, and people were better cared for. And I have heard the same from wealthy, well-educated Andalusians.

It turns out, however, that it’s not only conservative campesinos and señoritos that have come out for Vox this time, but a significant segment of Andalucia’s youth. The party, as I learned from a worried friend last year, is very popular among adolescent and twenty-something Spaniards, whom it reaches via the social media. Journalists covering Andalucia’s agricultural towns and mountain villages reach a similar conclusion. They report that the party, with its promise of national glory, its defense of traditional sports (hunting, bullfighting), and its frank espousal of patriarchal values, “esta de moda” among the young: it’s cool. How bitterly ironic that the Socialists’ disinterment of Franco from his tomb in the Valley of the Fallen has coincided with a different sort of disinterment, that of his ideas and his militarist manner by the strongmen of Vox, who now find a sympathetic audience among the young.

Pablo Iglesias may provide the best recipe for diminishing Vox’s increasing appeal to young Spanish voters. This appeal is the product, he says, of the ever more sharply unequal distribution of wealth in Spain (the worst in Europe, according to Caritas), the extraordinary rates of joblessness among the young, and the bitter precariedad of most employment, which no longer comes as it did in the social democratic era with considerable protection against dismissal and significant unemployment benefits, at least for many workers. Vox will lose its appeal, Iglesias argues, only when an empowered left manages to wrest control of the economy back from the EU’s neoliberal policy makers and the nation’s economic elites.

This does indeed seem like the best approach to stemming Vox’s surge. But it may be difficult indeed to build the sort of healthy economy Iglesias imagines in the face of the conditions set not just by Spain’s neoliberals or the EU’s but by the markets of global capitalism. And as we have seen before, it may also be hard to convince many young and legitimately aggrieved voters that the pony-tailed academics of the left, with their demanding and mostly economistic analyses, are as “cool” as the arrogant and athletic horsemen of yet another fascist apocalypse, with their talk of the “reconquest” of Spain for manly men, womanly women, and the simple truths of the right.