Spain’s new culture war

The inauguration of the most fragmented parliament since 1978 will usher in a period of culture war centring on national identity.

After the most protracted hung parliament in its recent history and yet another general election, Spain finally has a new government. Pedro Sánchez will stay at La Moncloa, the prime minister’s residence, but it is hard to say for how long. He is counting on the narrowest majority ever to inaugurate a government in the Spanish Congress – 167 to 165, with 18 abstentions. Even though he has formed a coalition government (the first since the restoration of democracy in 1978), Sánchez can only rely on the combined 155 seats held by his socialist party and Pablo Iglesias’ Podemos – making him dependent on the support of eight other parties. Given that no previous Spanish government has needed the backing of ten parties to pass legislation, this adds an element of instability to his leadership.

But Sánchez’s troubles do not end there. To establish this small majority, he secured the abstention of two toxic parties: Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) – a left-wing Catalan separatist group led by Oriol Junqueras, who is currently serving a prison sentence for sedition – and Basque EH Bildu, the political arm of former terrorist organisation Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, which has killed more than 850 people. Sánchez secured the ERC’s abstention by signing a document promising to open a new phase of dialogue with Catalan separatists and eventually conduct a consultation with the Catalan people. The fact that the document does not limit the talks to the 1978 Constitution nor define their goals – and that it speaks of a “political conflict”, a main demand of the separatists – has created a political storm. Indeed, even some socialist leaders argue that Sánchez has sold the Constitution for a handful of votes (he rejects these accusations). The document is ambiguous enough to support both sides’ arguments.

Sánchez is now weaker than he was in April, when he failed to form a governing coalition with Podemos.

In any case, this investiture session revealed that Sánchez is now weaker than he was in April, when he failed to form a governing coalition with Podemos. His expectation that he would crush Iglesias and win a majority in another election proved misguided. His risky gamble also backfired in the sense that, during the election campaign, he made strong commitments to uphold the Constitution and fight separatism (with the motto “Ahora España”, or “Now Spain”). Due to his U-turn on these issues, he has lost credibility and exacerbated his weakness.

Unfortunately, this turbulent investiture session will not end with the vote to approve the government. There is at least one area in which Spain is profoundly different from other the rest of Europe. Whereas elsewhere on the continent culture wars generally revolve around European integration, foreign policy, immigration – and moral issues such as LGBT rights, abortion, and gender – Spain maintains a broad consensus on these topics. The most emotive divisions between Spanish parties and voters emerge in areas such as national identity, the Constitution, the monarchy, and the legacy of the Franco regime. When the controversies surrounding these topics are dormant and the 1978 consensus holds (however uncertainly), Spanish elites can make the most of a country blessed with a broad consensus in their dealings with other states. But, when these controversies re-emerge, Spain faces many of the same problems as other European countries: political polarisation, institutional weakness, media bias, and public opinion dominated by angry leaders on social media.

Today, the inauguration of the most fragmented parliament since the 1979 election will usher in a period of culture war centring on national identity. This is likely to have two main consequences for Spain’s foreign policy. Firstly, if foreign policy suffered from the need to ensure Spain’s economic survival under the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy, the Catalan mess will consume a lot of energy in a similar fashion, as Spanish parties continue their fights at home within EU institutions. This process has already begun: the European Court of Justice recently ruled that Junqueras and Carles Puigdemont, former president of the Catalan government, can serve as MEPs – a ruling whose implications the People’s Party and Ciudadanos are contesting in the European Parliament.

Secondly, although there are indications that Podemos’ leaders will not control any powerful ministries – which should provide continuity in foreign and defence policy – rising tension in Bolivia, the Middle East, or Venezuela could bring about a clash between the opposing visions of foreign affairs held by the socialists and Podemos. This will probably weaken the international credibility of the Spanish government. Spain will, therefore, still attempt to complete its comeback to the international arena started by Sánchez in June 2018, but it will have to do so with far greater instability at home.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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