One step ahead of authorities, coordinating themselves via a phone application created by the anonymous Tsunami Democratic group, a mob blockaded Barcelona airport on October 14. Angered by the day’s Supreme Court’s conviction of nine Catalan pro-independence politicians on sedition charges, one demonstrator lost an eye after riot police fired rubber bullets into the crowd. With no cars entering or exiting, a 65-year-old French tourist died of a heart attack after walking four kilometers in an attempt to make his flight. In the coming days, hundreds more were injured and millions of euros in property damaged in central Barcelona. A week later, a general strike brought Catalonia—a region responsible for 20 percent of Spanish GDP—to an economic standstill. Right about then, the far-right Vox party started gaining traction in polls.
In a survey completed by Madrid’s Center for Sociological Investigations (CIS) October 13, just 7.9 percent of Spaniards supported Vox. Two weeks later 13 percent did, and in Sunday’s general election 15.1 percent backed their hardline nationalist approach to Catalan separatism. Party leader Santiago Abascal pledged to lead a “patriotic alternative” to the mainstream parties. Though just 8 percent of Spaniards list the independence debate as a top concern (much like abortion in the United States) those who care are close to single issue voters. “Catalonia has never been an issue that benefits the Left,” Ana Sofía Cardenal, a political scientist at the Open University of Catalonia, told me.
There is a broader sense of unease that permeates Spain. In a recent Pew Research poll, just 25 percent of Spaniards believed their children will be better off financially than they are, and 76 percent said elected officials don’t care about them. Parliament has not passed a national budget in three years. The European Commission recently lowered this year’s growth forecast for the country from 2.3 to 1.9 percent. In Sunday’s, and fourth in four years, the 69 percent voter turnout was down six percentage points from the vote April.
Though Pedro Sánchez’s Socialists again took the most votes—28 percent nationally (down 1 percentage point from the spring)—just weeks ago it seemed a reasonable bet that a new vote would help him consolidate power after a failure to form a government. But within days of Sánchez calling elections in September, the Supreme Court delivered the Catalan verdict, violence spiraled out of control, and Socialist poll numbers dipped. Now, Sánchez’s prospects for forming a viable governing coalition look even worse amid the collapse of the centrist Ciudadanos (Citizens) party, which lost 47 of its 57 parliamentary seats.
Ciudadanos, often labeled “the party of the OECD,” surged in the April vote, getting 16 percent of the national vote, and sparking hopes that they could play a stabilizing role in Spanish politics, acting as a kingmaker party between more established Left and Right alternatives. But in what Victor Lapuente, a professor at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg and a columnist for El Pais, called “one of the biggest mistakes in recent Western political history,” Ciudadanos leader Alberto Rivera refused to negotiate with Sánchez.
“It was something like treason to the party’s stated values,” says Toni Roldán, a former MP and head of policy for Ciudadanos, who resigned both posts in June. “Agreement with Sánchez blocks the nationalists, allows us to follow through on reforms that we have talked about for years and fight corruption.”
Together, the Socialists and Ciudadanos would have controlled a healthy 180 of 350 seats in Spain’s legislative lower house in April, paving the way for progress on reforms to labor markets, pensions, education and regional funding schemes that were placed on hold by years of revolving door of governments—a logjam that BBVA bank estimates costs the economy 200,000 jobs.
Instead, Rivera imagining himself a future Prime Minister, remained aloof. His miscalculation was reminiscent of the one made by Germany’s Christian Lindner of the Free Democrats, who in 2017 refused to form the so-called Jamaica Coalition with the Greens and Angela Merkel’s CDU. Just like in Germany, the decision has been costly.
The paradox is that polling shows that voters’ preferences haven’t shifted away much from centrism. Indeed “the announced policy positions of centrist parties are the closest to the preferred positions of a large segment of the electorate,” in September’s British Journal of Political Science, but “few of these parties are electorally successful.” Tracking data from Germany, Finland, the UK and Canada, and amid a prevailing discourse that assumes government to be inept, Zur found voters no longer trust in centrism’s central claim—that of delivering sober, competent governance.
Ciudadanos’ best-ever showing in April was the result of taking advantage of a one-off collapse in support for a scandal-ridden center-right Partido Popular (PP). Rivera may have thought he could displace PP on the right of the political spectrum, but his voters were not interested. Ciudadanos’ failure to seize a coalition opportunity with the Socialists after the election signaled incompetence. “When he had the opportunity to change the country, he dropped it out of personal ambition,” Roldán says. “It is a humongous lost opportunity for Spain, and with all the party’s ideological travel people are now lost about what it stands for.” On Sunday, Ciudadanos dropped votes to the Socialists, PP, and even Vox, and Rivera looks set to resign as leader.
In Spain, policy centrism remains attractive. Even Catalonians are growing tired of turmoil, with support for independence declining 5 percentage points over the past two years (down to 43 percent).emphasizes pedestrian pocketbook issues like unemployment, health, general economic problems, quality of work and corruption, and not Vox talking points like immigration or Catalonia, as top concerns. More than two-thirds of Spaniards think EU membership is a good thing.
About half the country has a positive view of the Socialists. Meanwhile, the country’s other establishment party (PP) finished second Sunday, adding 22 parliamentary seats. Though mutual enmity precludes a grand coalition, the Socialists and PP control a healthy 208 of 350 parliamentary seats. Amid zero appetite for a third straight election, under the guise of national interest, PP could look to abstain from the parliamentary vote, thus allowing Sánchez to form a minority government. “We’ll fulfill our responsibility because Spain can’t carry on being deadlocked,” the PP’s Pablo Casado said. While Sánchez said he is working to form a “progressive government,” a minority government will leave him forming ad hoc coalitions to pass legislation one bill at a time. There will be a total of 16 parties in parliament this session. This is hardly a recipe for stability.
Meanwhile, entrenched positions on key issues often preclude compromise—a Catalonian independence party has the fifth most seats, and Vox, which wants to abolish federalism in Spain, came in third. “You have party leaders that view this as a zero sum game, and new players with very little experience, it’s a bad mix,” Lapuente says.
Can the far-right Vox capitalize on the gridlock? It’s quite possible, and mainstream parties fear another election anytime soon would play into extremist hands. As Catalonia simmers, and Sánchez faces numerous hurdles to governing effectively, Vox has the potential to gain more ground. For now, polls show Vox’s abrasive rhetoric puts a hard cap on their fortunes. But should the economy falter further, and life get harder for the average Spanish voter, recent weeks show things can change quickly.