With its 506,000 km2 and 48 million inhabitants, Spain, the state that ruled one of the great empires of history, is facing a crisis that threatens its own territorial unity.
Spain, the fourth largest country in Europe and one of the most mountainous, is organized into 17 communities and two autonomous cities. It has a parliamentary monarchy whose current king – Felipe VI – is trying, as far as the Constitution allows, to continue to be the symbol of a united, plural and democratic state.
A very difficult task for this monarch due to the inheritance of his father Juan Carlos I, who for decades was a hero of democracy, but whose image was eroded in recent times due to luxurious safaris, travels, wastefulness and mistresses. Being a republican -the monarchy is a meaningless institution already- I recognize the current Spanish monarch for his great effort for the good of his country. The outcome does not depend on him alone.
Recent history of Spain
In 1936, shortly before World War II (WWII), the military bases in Spanish Africa rose up against the government of the Republic. The coup succeeded only in part of the country. Spain was divided into two zones; one under the authority of the Republican government and the other controlled by the coup plotters. The situation led to a bloody Civil War, in which General Francisco Franco was appointed supreme leader.
Franco’s final victory meant the establishment of a totalitarian regime. The development of a strong repression against the defeated forced thousands of Spaniards into exile and condemned others to death or imprisonment. Spain’s support for the Axis powers during World War II led it to international political and economic isolation after 1945. However, the anti-communism of the regime meant that during the Cold War between the United States and the USSR Francoism was tolerated and finally recognized by the Western powers.
According to Uruguayan historian Enrique Mena Segarra, the best decision of the “Generalissimo” was not to enter the war directly, unlike Mussolini. At the end of the 1950s, his international isolation culminated with the signing of several agreements with Washington, which allowed the installation of joint military bases in Spain. In 1956, Morocco, which had been a Spanish and French protectorate, acquired independence and a plan for the economic stabilization of the country was implemented.
Franco died in 1975 and Juan Carlos I was proclaimed king two days later, as planned. The king then – surprisingly – promoted the transition to democracy. What for the late dictator was “tied up and well tied up”, did not count with the hidden objectives of his successor. Adolfo Suárez was appointed president of the government by the king and managed to pass the “Law of Political Reform” in the Francoist courts.
Free elections were held in 1977. In 1978 the Spanish Constitution was promulgated, which established a social and democratic state under the rule of law, with a parliamentary monarchy. In 1979, after the first elections under the new Constitution, the centrist coalition Unión de Centro Democrático (UCD) obtained a simple majority in the Congress of Deputies and Suárez was sworn in as president of the government. In January 1981 he resigned due to internal pressure from his own party.
During this period the Basque terrorist group “ETA” committed a large number of attacks. During the voting session for the investiture of Suarez’s successor, Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo (UCD), on February 23rd, 1981, there was an attempted coup d’état promoted by high military commanders. The Parliament was taken over by Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero, but the attempt was aborted the same day by the direct intervention of King Juan Carlos, in defense of the constitutional order. His firmness earned him a well-deserved internal and external prestige for decades.
In the 1982 general elections, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) led by Felipe Gonzalez won by absolute majority and became president of the government and remained in power for four terms. In 1992, Spain appeared triumphantly on the international scene, offering the image of a solid and modern country, with the celebration of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona and the declaration of Madrid as “European City of Culture.”
In the early elections of 1996, the Popular Party (PP) won, opening a new political stage in Spain. However, he did not achieve an absolute majority, so José María Aznar had to make a pact with the nationalist parties in order to be elected president. His administration faced a key challenge: improving the economy to enable Spain to become a member of the European Union states that would share the new single currency, the euro, which was introduced in 1997.
According to the 1978 Constitution, the head of state is the king, who moderates the normal functioning of the institutions and represents the state in international relations, as well as symbolizing the unity and permanence of the nation. However, he does not have his own initiative in political acts, since he is not responsible for them and they must always be countersigned by the elected authority.
The executive power -domestic and foreign policy- is exercised by the government. The Council of Ministers is headed by the President, who appoints his ministers and has the functions of a head of government in a parliamentary system. It is responsible to the Legislative Branch (Cortes Generales).
The Congress of Deputies may depose the President by means of a motion of censure, which determines who replaces him in office. The legislative power is exercised by the Cortes Generales, the supreme representative body of the Spanish people, in a bicameral parliament composed of the Congress of Deputies (350 members) and the Senate (266 members). General elections are held every four years.
Spain is one of the most decentralized European countries, as all its territories administer their health and education systems, as well as some aspects of the public budget. In the cases of Catalonia and the Basque Country, they are equipped with their own fully autonomous police forces, which replace the functions of the National Police in these territories. Catholicism is the predominant religion; 68 % of Spaniards define themselves as Catholic. However, the percentage of practitioners is much lower. Spain has an enormous cultural wealth, both in archaeological sites, temples, palaces, fortresses, historic gardens, urban complexes and museums, among which the Prado Museum stands out. The country has contributed excellent creators in all artistic disciplines.
Simultaneous crises in Spain
Spain is currently experiencing three overlapping challenges that threaten democracy and its very continuity as a state: economic, territorial and political crisis. The clash in Catalonia exemplifies this scenario. Added to this is the end of the two-party system and a new hard right wing represented by VOX, led by Santiago Abascal, as well as Pablo Iglesias’ Unidos Podemos party, financed by the Venezuelan and Iranian dictatorships.
In the last decade the prestige of the institutions has been seriously devalued. The party system has shifted to a polarized multiparty system and national unity has been challenged. The Catalan “sovereigntist process” reached its most radical point with the holding of a referendum on October 1st, 2017 (held without the approval of the central government) and the subsequent events of violent mobilizations, declaration of independence – not effective – and the arrest or flight abroad of the rebel leaders. The president of the Catalan government, Charles Puigdemont, fled and was arrested in Germany in 2018, but German Justice denied Spain his extradition.
The second government of Mariano Rajoy, which culminated in 2018 following a parliamentary censure, ushered in the current administration. The PP was held responsible for running parallel accounting to benefit and favor some of its members; this was the trigger for the victorious censure motion. The last few years also marked a social decline that provoked a general impoverishment, through the increase in unemployment and with special effect on young people.
At this juncture of discredit and party conflict, it is no coincidence that new formations appeared. Ciudadanos (CS), which was a Catalan party born in 2005 with a social-liberal program, made a leap to the rest of Spain and, faced with the Catalan independence challenge and the weakness of the two traditional parties, sought the center space. Finally, the last of the parties to emerge is VOX, which takes postulates from the European right along with others typical of Spanish nationalism.
The dispute for the right-wing vote involved an important tension between PP, CS and VOX, each of which sought to be the “authentic right” after the former lost its monopoly of that representation. The election results offered only two possibilities for the PSOE, as the three right-wing formations did not add enough seats to form a government. Podemos demanded the formation of a coalition government which made the PSOE uncomfortable and which CS refused to join. Faced with this deadlock, elections were reconvened in November 2019. VOX became the third force. However, the right did not achieve a majority due to the electoral collapse of CS. Days later, Sánchez and Iglesias sealed “the embrace pact” and in January 2020 the former was sworn in as president.
The current virulence, enhanced by the historical moment, and a crisis full of uncertainties could provoke a certain willingness to reach agreements. However, the trenches have become deeper, more immovable.
“What is deteriorating severely in Spain is not only politics, but the entire public space,” stresses analyst José Paz. That space where we have gone from bipartisanship and the dominance of a handful of big media to “multipolarity”. A fertile ground to amplify intoxication. “Politics has suffered an enormous deterioration of its image. The cliché has been installed that politicians are only there to take advantage. But politics is only the scapegoat. What needs to be regenerated is the entire public space. Including the media, which are in need of a deep self-criticism”. In this climate of unease, there is a proliferation of nostalgia for the great leaderships of yesteryear and a feeling that the level of debate has reached rock bottom.
According to the writer and journalist Jesús Cacho, director of the digital newspaper Vozpopuli, “Sánchez has sold his soul to all the parties with which he said he would never agree (…), the cost will not only be the burial of the regime of ’78 and the Constitution that consecrated it, but the demolition of Spain as a nation state to be replaced by that ‘plurinational Republic’ that these days the ‘co-president’ has praised without anyone in the Executive having denied it”. It seems that “the destruction of the nation of free and equal citizens that has presided over the more than 40 years of a transition deserving of all imaginable reproaches, but also deserving of the praise of a prosperity never known on the skin of the bull”, seems to be approaching. Sooner or later -predicts Cacho- “the head of the gang will be forced to implement a severe adjustment plan, at which point the coalition will be blown apart.”
With growth slowing down and unemployment on the rise, the Spanish economy is incapable of generating resources to face the subsidized society they dream of, “that republic governed by local political elites, new feudal lords, with a central power supported by big businessmen addicted to crony capitalism, small businesses thrown in the gutter victim of the tax tsunami, and a great mass of people dependent on the welfare state.”
Last year, Spain suffered the coronavirus pandemic, like the rest of the world, which led to the declaration of a state of alarm and severe measures to restrict the movement of people and economic activity. In a country with radicalized political parties, communist totalitarians such as Iglesias or those nostalgic for Francoism, added to the pandemic and independence… there is little room for optimism.