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Politics in Spain: Seven predictions for 2022

Top left: Spain's socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, top right: Madrid's right-wing regional leader Isabel Díaz Ayuso, bottom left: far-right Vox party leader Santiago Abascal, bottom right: Catalonia's regional leader Pere Aragonès. Photos: AFP
Top left: Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, top right: Madrid's right-wing regional leader Isabel Díaz Ayuso, bottom left: far-right Vox party leader Santiago Abascal, bottom right: Catalonia's regional leader Pere Aragonès. Photos: AFP
A return to the fore for the Catalan independence push? Far-right Vox to continue growing in popularity? Perhaps even early general elections? Seville-based political journalist Conor Faulkner talks us through some of the potential outcomes to expect from Spanish politics in 2022.

The Catalan issue back on the table

With the last couple of years of government business taken up by the COVID-19 pandemic, look for the Catalan issue to rear its head in national politics as Spain emerges from the pandemic.

There were two major points of contention in 2021: President Sánchez’s decision to pardon the nine Catalan leaders of the 2017 independence bid, and the long-running but reignited language issue of Catalan vs. Spanish in Catalonia’s schools.

The president of the Generalitat of Catalonia, Pere Aragonès, said recently in his Christmas address that he will seek “alternatives” if dialogue with the Sánchez  government “runs aground” and fails to deliver “tangible results” in 2022.

It was Aragonès’ first Christmas address as head of the regional government, and it included subtle political nods: he recorded the speech outside the Palau de la Generalitat and, instead of broadcasting it on December 30th, as is customary, it was released on the 26th, the day of Sant Esteve – an important cultural holiday in Catalonia.

Looking ahead to 2022, the Sánchez government will not only face political pressure on the Catalan issue from the left, but also from the Spanish right.

Leaders of both Partido Popular, Pablo Casado, and far-right Vox party, Santiago Abascal, have ran with the issue as a soundbite in order to score political points throughout the last year, framing Sánchez ’s electoral mandate as dependent on unpatriotic separatists and he and his government more sympathetic to Catalonia than to other regions of Spain.

Far-right Vox continue to grow

Far-right party Vox looks set to continue its rise in 2022.

​​With the government preoccupied by pandemic response and centre-right PP mired in internal infighting, the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam Vox party has utilised social media at a time when a turbulent period in history – both political and in terms of public health – have kept millions of Spaniards at home on the internet.

After initially gaining a foothold in Spanish politics in the 2014 European elections, Vox burst onto the national scene in 2019 when they took a majority in the Murcia legislature and placed representatives in Spain’s lower house, El Congreso de los diputados.

The rise has continued since then: according to a recent survey carried out by IMOP Insights for El Confidencial. If Spaniards were polled today Vox could take as many as 64 seats, up from the 52 it currently holds, and bag 18.2 percent of the vote – a significant enough figure that would allow them a route into a PP fronted government, whether led by Casado or Ayuso.

Keep an eye on Macarena Olona in Andalucia too, in 2022.

An Alicante native, Olona is Vox’s General Secretary in the Congress, represents the Granada province in Spain’s lower house, and has been a constant and vocal thorn in the side of the government – Pedro Sánchez and Yolanda Díaz in particular. Some pollsters are expecting an ‘Olona effect’ to boost Vox at the regional level and perhaps even make a run for the Senate.

Brand Ayuso continues to build – stocks in Casado fall

Pablo Casado is the leader of Partido Popular (PP), but if you were to judge by international press coverage you might think it was Isabel Ayuso, leader of the Madrid autonomous community. 

Political magazine Politico included her in a list of the 28 most influential people of 2022. In the The Washington Post, she was described as a “conservative heroine,” and “the new Thatcher or Reagan.” The Times of London put it simply: “the Iron Lady from Madrid.”

When Anglo-American columnists and commentators write about the Spanish right, they are no longer writing about its national leader but its boss in Madrid. Even in Latin America she has overshadowed Casado, a region Casado has tried to foster political links with and make anti-communist coalitions. But the conservative contact in Spain for the conservative forces of Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay, Venezuela and Uruguay demand a nod of the “heroine” made in Madrid.

Madrid regional president Isabel Díaz Ayuso is stealing the limelight from PP leader Pablo Casado. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)
Madrid regional president Isabel Díaz Ayuso has stolen the limelight from PP leader Pablo Casado in 2021. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)
 

Ayuso is a populist: she won Madrid under the slogan “Communism or freedom” and was the first Madrid leader to have her majority propped up by the far-right.

There has been tension and infighting between Ayuso and Casado, with many in the latter’s camp feeling Ayuso is planning to use both her media profile and base in Madrid as a springboard for party leadership.

Look for Casado to face political pressure from team Ayuso in 2022, as well as being outflanked on cultural issues by Abascal and Vox.

A few untimely gaffes – including ‘accidentally’ attending a Franco memorial mass in Granada last month – have weakened Casado’s appeal and hold on the party – look for more erratic politics as he tries to make up for lost ground.

Fractures in the coalition government to emerge

When Spain’s Interior Ministry deployed a military tank against striking shipyard workers in Cadiz last month, the issue shone light on political fractures between the two governing coalition parties: Pedro Sánchez ’s centre-left PSOE, and the far-left Podemos.

Many in Podemos were critical – both privately and publicly – of the decision, and felt it highlighted the differences between the two government bedfellows. 

The recently released labour reform may present an opportunity, if successful, for the government to coalesse around an issue and present a united front, but the reforms are, arguably, the first real substantive policy to come from the Sánchez government and it was led by Podemos Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz .

In the days following, Sánchez’s team and other PSOE cabinet members have distanced themselves from the ‘Díaz  effect’ and attempted to portray the agreement between government, employers and unions as a government, not Podemos, success.

But those fissures are already there: PSOE, and Sánchez  in particular, maintain the status quo economically and offer a conformist neoliberal outlook with smatterings of pro-worker and civil liberty rhetoric.

Spanish Minister of Labor and Social Economy Yolanda Díaz. Photo: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP
Spanish Minister of Labor and Social Economy Yolanda Díaz. Photo: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP
 

Podemos, on the other hand, frame themselves as more transformational and will attempt to harness the socioeconomic upheaval of the pandemic to try and affect significant change on the Spanish economy. It is believed the first political battle of 2022 could be internal tension between PSOE and Podemos over raising the minimum wage, something Sánchez has previously attempted to delay.

Similarly, it is already being reported that Sánchez is reticent to follow through on some of Podemos’ key proposals including animal wellbeing and a trans law.

With little besides very recent Podemos-led labour reform to show for his time in office, Sánchez  will surely have an eye on the next election – political maneuvering is already happening, attempts to distance Díaz  from the labour reform being just one example – and seek concrete policies to campaign on in order to avoid being remembered as the ‘el guapo’ pandemic president.

But tribalism will inevitably reemerge as elections loom, and if the ideological fractures already present in the coalition worsen during 2022, or seventh and eight waves of the pandemic further stymie the government, it could head into the next election divided and presenting an open goal to the right.

Ciudadanos disappear off the political map

After emerging in the mid-2000’s as a ‘post-nationalist’ social-democratic party in Catalonia, Ciudadanos have taken quite the turn rightward in recent years.

Fighting since 2017 with both PP and Vox for electoral space on the right, Ciudadanos refused to even consider coalition with PSOE, and since then have struggled to define what they stand for, win many voters, and even less elections at any level, regional or national.

They have haemorrhaged members and money, and with elections in ​​Castilla León slated for early 2022, another poor showing could be the final nail in the coffin for Ciudadanos and leave them both politically and economically bankrupt. Recent polls put them at just 3 percent in national voting intention. 2022 could be the end.

An early election?

Rumour has it that sources close to Pedro Sánchez are briefing that he would favour a general election in November 2022, not sometime by the end of 2023, as reported by Vozpópuli.

It is believed that Sánchez may prefer to hold the election sometime in 2022, when there could be political and economic goodwill following the end of the pandemic (we hope) and an injection of European funds filter into the Spanish economy.

If the historical unpredictability of Spain’s electoral cycle is anything to go by – Sánchez could surprise us.

Dissatisfaction leads to extremes – and electoral pacts?

Spaniards have a very negative view of politics and politicians in their country. 61.4 percent of those surveyed consider the political situation “bad” or “very bad” while only 13.2 percent view it as “very good or good.” And politicians don’t fare much better: Pedro Sánchez and Yolanda Díaz lead ratings, both with a measly 3.6 out of 10. They are followed by Pablo Casado (3.1), Íñigo Errejón (2.9), Inés Arrimadas (2.8) and Santiago Abascal (2.6).

With such a low threshold for approval, look for Spanish politics to veer further to the extremes – left and right – in order to try and bypass this lack of trust. While it may mean seperatist or progressive (‘communist’ according to some in Spain) rhetoric on the left, on the right it could well mean PP enter into some kind of informal pact with Vox not dissimilar to how the Conservatives in the UK subsumed votes from both the Brexit Party and its previous incarnation UKIP.

Casado will struggle to keep pace with Abascal and Vox on cultural issues, and has shifted rightward in recent years in an attempt to do so, but knowing this and that PP could, according to polls, win an absolute majority with Vox’s support – PP and Vox may just decide it’s in both their interests to team up and give the far-right a route to La Moncloa.

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