ANALYSIS: Gloves come off as Spain begins two-month-long political fist fight

There's 68 days until the General Election in Spain and politicians are already mixing Biblical metaphors with Civil War rhetoric. The gloves are most definitely off, writes Matthew Bennett.

ANALYSIS: Gloves come off as Spain begins two-month-long political fist fight
Clockwise from top left: Pedro Sanchez (PSOE), Pablo Casado (PP), Pablo Iglesias (Podemos), Santiago Abascal (Vox) and Albert Rivera (Ciudadanos).

What is this general election really going to be about? 350 seats in Congress, every party wants to win, every party leader would like to be Prime Minister, but the polls are split five ways (six if we include the regional nationalists).

The first ones over the weekend suggest Podemos and Ciudadanos are both slipping, the PP is holding on, and Vox and the PSOE are trending up. Will Podemos drop as low as 10 percent? Will Vox make it past Ciudadanos into third place?

Either coalitions beckon or Spain will see more of the months of posturing deadlock and entrenched disagreement that was only broken after 12 months and two general elections in 2015-2016 by some good old-fashioned political backstabbing, when the PSOE establishment got rid of Pedro Sánchez as leader (yes he came back, and here we are) and ordered socialist MPs in Congress to vote in favour of Mariano Rajoy.

There are 68 days to go until the ballot but after just the first weekend, spokesmen have rushed straight towards the rhetorical extremes. Mr. Casado and the PP have already said they would like to see the indefinite suspension of home rule in Catalonia, announcing April 28th will be a choice between “the Popular Front or the Popular Party”, whispering “we caught them negotiating with Torra”, in reference to the outgoing government's failed attempts to talk to Catalan separatists.

Explainer: Why Spain is heading for ANOTHER general election

Mr. Rufián (Esquerra), has agreed that option seems to be on the cards if the “fascist” right wins, and is mixing Biblical metaphors with the Civil War and deadly threats, saying at a rally this weekend: “We here today to say to the three horseman of the ultra Apocalypse, they will not pass, they will not pass, they will not pass, and that Catalonia will be your grave”.

During a softball TV interview on Monday evening—he was even allowed to waffle about his new book—the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez (PSOE), criticised those who were just “pouring petrol” onto the Catalan issue. “There are political parties that live off territorial grievances and who want the permanent suspension of home rule”. He added he hoped there would not be much confrontation or many personal insults during the election campaign. Fat chance.

Polling company Metroscopia has revealed Ciudadanos is losing an estimated 400,000 votes not to the PSOE, which Mr. Rivera might prefer given his attempt to position his party somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum, but to Vox, the new right-wing nationalist populist kid on the block, that since the elections in Andalusia Mr. Rivera has tried very hard to avoid mentioning or being seen anywhere near.

Ciudadanos has now announced it will not do any kind of a deal “with the PSOE and Pedro Sánchez”, adding a second cordon sanitaire to the existing one it has against Vox, and that the socialists must be sent into opposition “after their deals with the separatists”. In that they agree with Mr. Casado and the PP, who are also fishing for strategic votes in the Senate, Spain's 266-seat upper house, because that chamber gets to approve or block the suspension of home rule in Catalonia.

Over in Vox, they're not having any of it. Mr. Ortega Smith said during a TV debate on Monday morning that voters shouldn't plunge for the “cowardly right”, in reference to the PP, which would be “wasting a vote”. Mr. Abascal is already opening the champagne to celebrate winning “elections that haven't even been held yet”, after apparently getting the other parties to work “in the service of the nation”.

He is also stoking fears of a new left-wing “Popular Front” and looking to “frighten the enemies of the unity and freedom of Spaniards”, while stopping both “the separatist coup” and “Chavist communism”, in reference to the Venezuela and Podemos. He has announced that Vox will hold a big rally in Catalonia, which should get Mr. Rufián sufficiently excited about apocalyptic horses.

Podemos spokeswoman Irene Montero has said her party represents the useful strategic vote “to stop the reactionaries getting into government” and that she would like to at least be the leading progressive party.

The polls are suggesting that will not happen. Pablo Iglesias failed at his attempt at strategic hegemony on the left last time and will be off on paternity leave until the end of March, after announcing his quickly forgotten “anti-fascist alert” against Vox in December.

On the Basque radical separatist militant left, Arnaldo Otegi (EH Bildu) has suggested a joint Basque/Catalan/Galician/Canary regionalist/nationalist/separatist/leftist block. That might make strategic sense from their point of view, and gobble up some space from Podemos in the process, but there has so far been no response from the other parties. 

How much would Mr. Abascal and Mr. Casado love it if Mr. Otegi and Mr. Puigdemont ran in the same coalition?

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.

READ MORE ANALYSIS: What the snap election could mean for Spain, Catalonia and Brexit








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Madrid puts off separatist talks over Catalan snap election

Spain's central government on Thursday said the announcement of snap elections in Catalonia would delay planned talks between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and the region's separatist leadership.

Madrid puts off separatist talks over Catalan snap election
Catalan regional president Quim Torra (R) meets with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez at the Palacio de Pedralbes in Barcelona on December 20, 2018.Photo: AFP

News that the regional election would be brought forward was announced by regional president Quim Torra on Wednesday but he did not give a date, suggesting some time after mid-March.

The date was brought forward following a major dispute between Catalonia's two ruling separatist parties, Together for Catalonia (JxC) and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC).

The announcement came ahead of a key February 6 meeting in Barcelona between Torra and Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to lay the ground for talks on resolving the separatist conflict.

In response, Sanchez's office said the meeting would go ahead but that the negotiations would not begin until a new regional government was in place.   

“The government is hoping to be able to begin the dialogue after the Catalan people have spoken… as soon as the elections are over and there is a new (regional) government, then we will begin talking,” said a statement.

“The government remains willing to start the process of dialogue with the Catalan institutions to resolve the political conflict.”

The talks had been agreed as part of a deal with ERC in exchange for its support in getting Sanchez through a key investiture vote earlier this month.   

But the delay was swiftly denounced by the ERC as a “flagrant breach of the agreement which was completely irresponsible,” its party spokesman Sergi Sabria said.

Sanchez, who himself is in a fragile position at the head of a minority coalition government, still needs ERC's support to pass Spain's own much delayed national budget.

In a radio interview Thursday, Torra said he would bring up the right to self-determination and amnesty for the nine jailed Catalan separatist leaders when he meets Sanchez — both of which have already been rejected out of hand by the Socialist leader.