July 19, 2023

Spaniards heading to the polls this Sunday will not do so cheerfully. Not only is the election disrupting the summer holidays of more than a quarter of Spanish voters — but the options on the ballot paper are, at first glance, pretty dismal. Neither of Spain’s two mainstream centrist parties can win outright, and so both will be forced into coalitions with smaller, more extreme parties. If one is to believe the feverish discourse, it’s a choice between anti-feminist neo-fascists on the Right or blood-drenched, murderous terrorists on the Left.

There is a grain of truth in this. If the current Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez wins, he will probably only be able to form a government with the backing of EH Bildu — a Basque separatist party that welcomes former terrorists from the now defunct but once dangerous ETA into its ranks. However, if the opposition People’s Party (PP) of Alberto Núñez Feijóo wins, it will need the support of Vox — a hard-Right party that attracts national conservatives and authoritarians. Some of its supporters remain in thrall to the thuggish military dictator Francisco Franco.

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Bildu and Vox each claim to be devoted democrats, but most Spaniards strongly dislike both — and with good reason. Vox leader Santiago Abascal has called Sánchez’s government “the worst in 80 years”, suggesting that he prefers Franco’s violently repressive autocracy. His party hopes to repeal abortion and euthanasia laws, end measures to ensure gender equality and combat domestic violence, and re-centralise power to Madrid.

The reputation of EH Bildu leader Arnaldo Otegi is even less flattering. The ETA veteran has only semi-apologised for the group’s murder of 853 people between 1968 and 2011. Having vowed to “alleviate” the suffering of the victims’ relatives in 2021, he then humiliated them by putting forward 44 former convicts at local elections in May 2023. These included seven candidates condemned for murder or for directly assisting murder.

While Spain’s mainstream parties would rather avoid such unseemly bedfellows, it seems they will have little choice: the People’s Party will likely win the most votes but fall short of an absolute majority. In that case, it will have no option but to turn to Vox. The party has no other potential allies: its dismissive stance on devolution and independence referenda has alienated nationalists from the Basque Country and Catalonia, who might otherwise have been sympathetic to its Christian Democrat agenda. Indeed, ever since Catalan separatists tried to secede unilaterally in 2017, the split between unionists and centralists has often dominated politics just as much as traditional Left-Right alignments.

If Feijóo’s PP and Vox fail to win a majority of seats, then Sánchez — whose party has long followed a conciliatory policy of devolution without independence — will form a minority coalition government with far-Left Sumar (a tweaked version of current coalition ally Unidas Podemos) backed by all the nationalist and separatist parties. That includes five or so deputies from EH Bildu. Nevertheless, although the polls are still too tight to call a winner, a People’s Party-Vox coalition is still the most probable outcome.

The election campaign has become all about the kingmakers. “Take the vote of Txapote!” (an infamous ETA chief currently jailed for several murders) is a favourite PP slogan targeting Sánchez’s Socialists. “Vote against the pact of hate!” shouts a massive scaffolding banner in Madrid’s famously gay Chueca district, claiming a PP-Vox coalition would shred women’s rights and fuel homophobia.

What frantic political slogans fail to acknowledge is that whichever side wins, Spain is not about to be sucked into a whirlwind of insanely radical government. EH Bildu and Vox may make headlines, but in reality they have very little influence. Support for Vox has in fact shrunk to below 13%, from 15% in 2019 elections. EH Bildu, meanwhile, represents fewer than 1.5% of Spaniards. By comparison, the People’s Party and the Socialists are large, resilient and moderate parties — European-style Christian or Social Democrats who have run all of Spain’s governments for four decades. Some think the most logical coalition would actually be between them, creating a German-style “grand coalition”. Of course, entrenched bad blood makes that impossible, but minority allies are unlikely to force larger parties to adopt truly radical policies.

The reasons for this lie in the strength of Spain’s 1978 constitution, designed three years after Franco’s death to prevent a return to radicalism. Any significant change requires a two-third parliamentary majority, which can only be found by combining the votes of both People’s Party and the Socialists. As a result, there have only been two amendments in the last 45 years, both to please the European Union. (In comparison, France’s Fifth Republic has amended its 1958 constitution 24 times, and Germany’s Basic Law has had 62 changes since 1949.)

The constitution proved its worth in 2017, when Catalan regional leader Carles Puigdemont made his unilateral declaration of independence. The Constitutional Court proclaimed Puigdemont’s so-called referendum — which most Catalans boycotted — illegal, and the main secessionists were jailed or fled into exile. Since then, the separatist balloon has deflated. EH Bildu faces a similar problem, with support for Basque independence, which has never grown above 50%, waning in the face of a constitution that declares the “indissoluble unity” of the Spanish nation.

Yet those on the far-Right who imagine the constitution is their friend are equally misguided. Even if Vox gets into power, it will struggle to pass many of its more radical policies. Its call to recentralise Spain’s 17 semi-autonomous regional governments would require rewriting a constitution that enshrines the “right to autonomy” of the country’s regions. Elsewhere, as the constitutional scholar Ana Carmona Contreras points out, other Vox proposals such as striking out the abortion law or banning separatist parties are similarly made impracticable under the constitution.

In the face of inevitable failure, Vox will likely devote its energy to culture warfare instead. Expect chest-thumping about Spanish history — especially the conquistadores in the Americas and other “deeds and feats of our national heroes” — as well as attempts to revive the flagging fortunes of professional bull-fighting with public money. (Its manifesto also takes a dig at “New Bauhaus” architecture, a dislike uncomfortably close to that of Adolf Hitler.) Otherwise, Vox’s influence will be reduced to encouraging a People’s Party government to uphold its economic principles: cutting taxes and shrinking the state.

In other words, Vox is destined to share the fate of far-Left party Podemos, whose role in Sánchez’s outgoing coalition shows how slight the impact of small, radical partners can be. Podemos’s headline reform to employment law, and its support for minimum wage hikes, hardly challenge the standard aims of social democracy.

The main policy mistake Podemos will be remembered for wasn’t intended to be radical. Its clumsily written 2022 rape law allowed some sex offenders to leave jail early. It was, however, a well-meant response to a horrific gang rape during the San Fermin fiestas in Pamplona in 2016 — but it left a loophole open to be exploited. “Sánchez put hundreds of monsters back on the streets,” a Vox campaign poster shouts. That may be true, but there is little radical about the law itself.

Much like Podemos, Vox will struggle to push through its radical agenda. Those watching this weekend’s election for signs of a neo-fascist revival are therefore likely to be disappointed. Unlike much of Europe, Spain’s revolutionary days are over; few European countries offer as much political stability as Spain has over the past four decades. Vox may try to whitewash Franco, but Spaniards learned much from an era of civil war and dictatorship. They won’t be going back.