Europe’s future looks brighter after the Spanish elections – the far right insurgency can be tamed

Politics is evolving dramatically across the continent. But the assumption that it’s only the right that will benefit is far from proven

Denis MacShane
Monday 29 April 2019 11:43 BST
Prime minister Pedro Sánchez welcomes Socialists' win in election

Spain is defying the grave-diggers of progressive liberal European politics. The election to the Cortes yesterday, far from seeing the right sweep into power with voters turning to the rightist VOX party produced the re-election of the young left socialist Pedro Sanchez who has brought back the Spanish socialist party, PSOE, from the wilderness.

His party won the biggest number of seats and looks set to govern with the more left-wing Podemos party. Its leader, Pablo Iglesias, once a Corbynista firebrand but now a symbol of Spanish middle class normality as a young father of two with a handsome villa in the posh suburbs of Madrid, has re-centred his party to make it more electable.

The big loser was the Partido Popular, once the proud conservative masters of Spain with intimate links with British Tories. But like England’s Conservatives struggling with the question of Europe, Spain rightists have not known how to deal with Catalonia.

Twenty-first century European politics has ceased to be about class or the countryside versus cities and urban dwellers. It is now about identity. Firstly, national identity – is Spain a single entity with strong national regions with autonomous powers or must Spain bust apart into mini-nations? Religious identity – is Spain a catholic or multi-faith nation? And then gender identity – the Spanish socialists have pushed through strong pro-women laws to the anger of macho Spanish conservatives.

But also historical identity – is Franco the man who saved Spain from communist takeover even if he was brutal as an authoritarian ultra-Catholic ruler – or was his cruelty so criminal his name should be dishonoured, his monument pulled down, and his secret police bullies now put on trial?

In this new politics, the old divides between liberals and nationalists, between workers and bosses, between mass-goers and atheists become blurred.

Huge attention has been focused on VOX, which has routinely been labelled as a far-right party. In fact, VOX rhetoric has always been present on the Spanish right. Both the Partido Popular and Ciadadunos – once hailed as the new coming centrist force in Spain – moved rightwards sharply believing Vox’s rise in the Andalusian regional elections meant that Spanish voters had also shifted. The Partido Popular relocated itself as a party opposing women’s and gay rights. It is riddled from top to bottom – ministers, mayors, MPs – with deep corruption that cost the former prime minister and party leader Mariano Rajoy his job.

VOX simply articulates more clearly the prejudices of the PP rather like UKIP speaks for many Tories and their visceral hatred of Europe.

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VOX, which is pro-EU, won less than 7 per cent of the vote. By far the more important outcome of the Spanish election is the rejection of the advance of the populist right which is being claimed by academics like Professor Matthew Goodwin as the new normal in Europe.

Spain now has a patch-work of parties each representing part of the new kaleidoscope of identity politics. The socialist PSOE and further left Podemos have almost but not quite a majority and will have to hunt for some support amongst small regional or single issue parties. Most Spanish governments in the last 20 years have relied on alliances or arrangements with smaller parties.

The Spanish right has been blown apart rather like Brexit has splintered the UK right between the Tories, the new Brexit Party and Ukip.

Spain has now become a fully normal European country, as voters won’t give an overall majority to any one party. Paradoxically, Spain now resembles more settled democracies further north in the EU. Denmark has not had a majority government since 1909. Countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden can wait months to form a government.

On the BBC Today programme its excellent Europe editor Katya Adler argued that Spain was now diverging from a European norm of two-party politics. Two party politics may have been in true in the UK, if no longer, but the norm in Europe has always been multi-party democracy facilitated by proportional representation systems of elections.

European politics is evolving but Spain shows that the assumption this means it is right-wing nationalism that emerges on top is far from proven.

Sanchez is close to Macron and other progressive EU political leaders who resist the Le Pen-Salvini-Brexit axis of ultra-nationalist anti-European politics. Maybe this is the start of the European left’s fightback.

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