Why aren’t we talking about Spain?

by Salome Dermati,

As a student of Political Science and International Relations, living in Spain for the past four months has been a blessing. Public debate on politics and topics such as the Catalonia crisis, immigration, feminism, and climate change, has been growing more than ever before. It seems as though everything has become political, or as if everyone is ready to take a stand on a number of “hot” issues. The situation became more controversial when Pedro Sánchez, leader of the PSOE Socialist Party and former Prime Minister, announced a snap election for November 9th, 2019. That was when I fully realized how important it was for me to dive into Spanish politics and see with my own eyes what I considered to be a huge political moment for Spain and Europe in general. Everything was on the line; VOX had been gaining support, Unidas Podemos seemed to lose its momentum, new parties emerged to an already fragmented picture, and Catalonia still divided the country. So, why wasn’t it discussed more outside of Spain and Europe? I follow the news from different sources on a daily basis, including podcasts of internationally respected newspapers, but it was mostly the Spanish media that provided information.

I became fairly disappointed at that realization, although to some extent it can be justified. The last quarter of 2019 was bombarded by news from all over the globe that dominated the news cycles, most notably the impeachment procedure of Donald J. Trump, President of the USA, and the protests in Hong Kong, which shocked the world and are still ongoing. Moreover, in October we celebrated the thirtieth anniversary since the fall of the Berlin Wall, whereas in December the seventieth anniversary of NATO gave ground for new discussions on -and a critique of- its past achievements and role today. Likewise, even more people came together to protest against the climate emergency or current regimes such as in Chile, Lebanon, and Iran, and demand immediate action. And let’s not forget Brexit and the political crisis in Britain either. Most worryingly, however, 2020 began with threats of a new world war. Under Trump’s orders, Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top military general and most important figure, second to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, was assassinated in Baghdad’s airport on January 3rd.

Under these circumstances, it appears reasonable that the latest political developments of a relatively small and dependable -meaning, not posing any severe threats to its residents or its neighours – states would be of secondary importance. Even more so, other crucial elections were held all over the world, for example in Israel, India, Ukraine, Argentina, and Hong Kong. Nevertheless, it is worth discussing and examining what occurred in Spain this autumn and what it may indicate for the future.

The recent elections were triggered because of PSOE’s failure to pass a new budgetary plan last year, after the withdrawal of support of Catalonian parties. Major consequences occurred, as a result, that altered significantly the configuration of the Congress. The Popular Party (PP), historically one of the two strongest parties along with PSOE, lost twenty-three (23) seats, though still managing to place second. Ciudadanos, another left-wing party, came in seventh after losing more than forty (40) seats, causing its leader to step down. On the other hand, VOX, the ultra-right, racist, homophobic, sexist, nationalist party, doubled its seats and ranked third.

Despite losing ten (10) seats combined, PSOE and Podemos joined forces once again to form a new coalition government. Together they hold a hundred and fifty-five (155) seats out of the three hundred and fifty (350), not reaching the hundred and seventy-six (176) threshold for a majority. Their approval was achieved, however, in the second phase of the investiture debate (investidura), in which solely a majority of the representatives present is needed to vote in favor. Indeed, a hundred and sixty-seven (167) deputies endorsed Pedro Sánchez against a hundred and sixty-five (165) that voted against. Representatives of VOX left the room, whereas thirteen (13) members of the Catalan and five (5) of the Bask nationalist parties abstained.

Nowadays, Spain has a new, entirely left government, the first one since the 1930s. The cabinet will be comprised of representatives from PSOE, Podemos, United Left (UI), and Partido X, a recently formed transversal party. Interestingly, more women than men will head ministries, such as those of Defense, Economy and Business, Foreign Affairs, the European Union and Cooperation, Justice, Industry, Trade, and Tourism, as well as Finance. In fact, their presence is meaningful on both quantitative and qualitative levels, given the significance of the aforementioned portfolios.

When it comes to policy, the administration has already announced big reforms. Whether it is improving labor law in favor of workers’ stability and security, empowering national labor unions, allocating more funds to the public healthcare system, or raising the minimum wage, the Iberian country is promised to experience radical social changes. In addition, the government aspires to pass environmental law, increase taxes for wealthy corporations and individuals, and grant free access to universal public child care from birth.

On the other hand, PSOE has already made steps in shifting the public narrative of its painful past. In fact, in late 2019, the remains of Francisco Franco, the dictator that ruled for nearly forty years in the last century, were removed from the Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos), a cemetery outside of Madrid dedicated to the victims of Spain’s civil war,  which cost the lives of around five hundred thousand (500.000) people between 1936 and 1939. While the move still remains highly controversial, the government wishes to continue on that path by exhuming more graves, revoking political convictions charged in that era, as well as recompensing for goods and properties confiscated by the regime.

Concerning the future, a key element is resolving the Catalonia crisis. After long negotiations, Sánchez and Iglesias secured the abstention of the Republican Left of Catalonia, or ERC, which was necessary in order for a coalition government to be formed. The party is the largest pro-independence one in Congress, yet appears inclined to sit at the negotiation table once again and end this deadlock. Whatever the result may be, it has been decided that it will need Catalonians’ approval through a referendum. We are entering a new phase of the crisis, where both sides have declared their will to recommence an auspicious and rigorous dialogue.

On the other side of the aisle, PP, Ciudadanos, and VOX have promised to take action against what they deem as “treason” and “a staged coup d’état.” They strongly oppose Sánchez’ aid by ERC because of the latter’s “unconstitutional” and “delinquent” actions that disrupt national unity and sovereignty. Not only that, but they also stand far away on merely all topics, from climate change and taxes to gender equality and minority rights. Consequently, the new government is set to face many challenges, while being a minority in the Parliament.

So far, I’ve limited myself to the political establishment. What about the common people? Has society transformed, and towards which direction?

When we remember the ever-increasing rise of VOX and its anti-everything rhetoric, it is easy to fall into the trap of retrogress or conservatism. The party has been gaining momentum, yet for the most part, it is thanks to its hard stance against Catalonian separatism. Even though the rest of the country agrees with them on that question, society as a whole has shifted towards the left on a number of social and economic issues. Massive protests, especially in Madrid, on feminism, gender equality, workers’ rights, and climate change last year verify this pattern.

Spain joins again the global trend of uncertainty. Notwithstanding the ambitious goals and societal developments, it will be extremely difficult for the government to assert its voice in such a multiparty and diverse Parliament. The least we can hope for, for the sake of its people, is stability and growth.

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