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ANALYSIS: 2019 in Spanish politics - How much creative destruction will Vox unleash?

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ANALYSIS: 2019 in Spanish politics - How much creative destruction will Vox unleash?
Santiago Abascal, leader of Spain's far-right party VOX, gives a speech during a campaign meeting ahead of regional elections in Andalusia, in Granada. Photos: AFP.
14:34 CET+01:00
Will the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, react in time to stop the rise of Abascal?

In 2019, Spain faces a mega election year. There will be local, European and several regional elections all on the same day in five months time, May 26. The Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez (PSOE), with his minority government (just 84 seats out of 350 in Congress), might even decide to go for a Super Sunday and call an early general election for that weekend as well, or do so at some other plausible point during the year depending on how he perceives the result affecting his chances of staying on in the job.

In Spanish politics, local elections have normally been something of a predictor of the result of the following general election, so if Mr. Sánchez believes the explosion of Vox in Andalusia in December foretells the threat of a thrashing in town councils around the country before the summer, he might be tempted to go early in the hopes of not losing so much. After all, if Mr. Abascal has all of a sudden managed that result in Spain’s southern socialist heartland, what might he be capable of on the more conservative south-eastern coast or in Castilla y León? It could be a rout. Conversely, he might adopt the strategy favoured by Mariano Rajoy (Popular Party), his predecessor in the role, and try to wait Vox out until the general election clock runs down in 2020, or at least to the tail end of this new year, perhaps expecting the shiny new right-wing bubble will deflate somewhat, if not burst altogether.

The rise of Vox means Spain is moving now from four-party politics to five-party politics, or even six if we consider the regional nationalists in Catalonia and the Basque Country as another force, and given their electoral weight and political influence on the whole system, which was set up that way, in their favour, back in 1978. Six-party politics is a very long way from decisive government and collective decision making for a better future for all. Some in Spanish politics have dreamt this signifies a move towards what is seen as a more rational northern-European coalition-forming model, like in the cult Danish political thriller Borgen, but the three years since the double general election cycle and stagnation in 2015-2016 have produced very little in the way of national problem solving, and almost no progress has been made on the coalition front. The reality has mostly been more preening and posturing and increasing polarisation.

This has culminated most dramatically in the country’s inability to solve the Catalan separatist crisis in any definitive manner over the past 15 months. Mr. Rajoy’s suspension of home rule was a move in the right direction but calling new regional elections immediately was a mistake and Mr. Puigdemont was replaced by Mr. Torra, who is openly supportive, from the comfort of taxpayer-funded institutions, of using radical street violence as a path towards the still unrealised and unrealistic independent Catalan Republic. Pedro Sánchez’s approach, presented to the public as “dialogue” but in reality sustained by his weak central government’s reliance on separatist votes in Congress, has at least had the effect of allowing pro-independence parties in the region a chance to fight amongst themselves, instead of uniting against Madrid. That is not a proper long-term solution either, though.

This month, the trial of the Catalan separatists held in jail on remand since last year will begin and last for several weeks. The increased conflict and media attention—both at home and abroad—will only be compounded by, you guessed it, Vox, because Mr. Abascal’s party has been a party to the prosecution (the Spanish legal system allows for concerned groups to act in this role) since last October, its brand firmly imprinted in most of the judicial and prosecutorial documents to have come out of the courts since then. Politically, and radically, Vox proposes not only a move towards the re-centralisation of some powers (education, healthcare, policing, etc.) but getting rid of Spain’s regional governments altogether.

Catalonia, Vox, Catalonia, Vox, Catalonia, Vox, distracted a little by strong media interest in what is still unfolding in Andalusia, where the right has managed to do a three-way deal to control the regional parliament. This month they will try to repeat the trick and form a new regional government to put an end to 40 years of socialist dominance in the south. So Catalonia, Vox, Catalonia, Vox, Andalusia…and Vox, again. While we’re near Seville and Málaga, let’s throw in a few ongoing immigration stories along the southern coast, a few hundred more Africans jumping the fences in Ceuta or Melilla, some more Twitter videos of dozens at a time rushing on to a beach, or perhaps another big boatload all the way from the Libyan coast. Mr. Abascal will be able to get on the news to promote his stronger, some say xenophobic, stance on immigration.

And the media and the courts will produce half a dozen more major criminal cases by May, murders and rapes and the like, to shock the nation and give morning TV shows something to speculate on and scare viewers with. That will give Vox a chance to demonstrate its harsh stance on whole life prison sentences again, life means life, lock ‘em up and throw away the key. Oh, and the ongoing soap opera that is the exhumation of Franco will continue, given the minority socialist government’s inability to rush its big symbolic gesture into reality.

Catalonia, Vox, Andalusia, Vox, immigration, Vox, criminals, Vox, Franco, Vox. But why?

Mr. Abascal and his team will have to decide whether they will allow the xenophobic nationalist aspect of their brand to roam free or if they want to try to rein it in and do “radical patriotism” or something, but I would suggest the common thread is that Vox is selling a robust response, within that context of increasing polarisation, and continued lack of leadership to ongoing major unsolved national crises, or at least the perception of those crises, to voters who are concerned about their country, Spain, which is not, after years of fluffy “transversal nation of nations” ideas from the left, an empty signifier. Spain means something to Spaniards.

The nation, as the King alluded to last week in his Christmas speech, is still threatened by Catalan separatism, whose desired outcome is still to redraw the map of the country and have off with a fifth of GDP, and is still not working economically, for young people especially. Now, this does not mean Vox would actually provide strong constructive leadership, in reality, but the other four or five parties are still trying to react and respond to the sudden popularity among voters of Mr. Abascal’s bold stances, which are receiving new and increasing attention. Conversely, if such an analysis were correct, or at least along the right lines, what would happen if the Prime Minister decided in 2019, in order to stay in power, on a radical reversal of his current approach, ditching Catalan separatist support and suspending home rule in the region again, with the backing of Ciudadanos and perhaps even the PP? What if he tried to outline a more intelligent approach to the immigration problem? Mr. Sánchez demonstrated at the motion of no confidence in May that he is more than capable of such skullduggery.

2019 is going to be an exciting year in Spanish politics.

Matthew Bennett is the creator of The Spain Report. You can read more of his writing on Patreon, and follow him on Twitter. Don't miss his podcast series with weekly in-depth analysis on Spain.

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