OPN Spain elections

Just as Spain’s voters were about to head to the polls in a general election last week, I drove through much of the heartland of the Basque Country, a mountainous area that sits in the armpit between southwest France and a portion of the northern coast of Spain — a bit like the armpit there the Bay of Biscay coast takes a hard-left turn into the Iberian Peninsula.

It’s hard to exactly define where Basque Country begins and ends. Head south past the posh hotels and surf beaches of Biarritz and you’re immersed in its culture on the French side, it hugs the coast of northern Spain through the gritty city of Bilbao, and begins to lessen as you hit Santander and go west.

That lack of a specific geographical area, and maybe the fact that the Basque heartland straddles both France and Spain, made the case for a Basque homeland difficult to state.

But Sunday’s general election and the stalemate in the Madrid parliament gives the six deputies elected by Basque voters extra clout when it comes to forming the next government. In the coming weeks — more likely months — the horse trading is fully underway, making it hard for the parties on the right to reach the magical number of 176 deputies needed to form a majority government in the 350-seat parliament.

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Spain’s Political Landscape and Coalition Struggles

Spain is a nation of 19 separate regional parliaments, each responsible for things like housing, the regional environment, regional finances, education.

Separatist sentiments vary across those regions. In the Basque areas, where culture, language, food and identity is ubiquitous, so too is support for the leftist, pro-independence EH Bildu. Its six deputies will exact a high price. Another Basque separatist party, the PN, won five seats.

And then there’s Catalonia, whose future, centred on Spain’s second-largest city of Barcelona, will again be at the forefront in Madrid. The ERC party was returned with seven seats, with the Junts per Catalunya party also winning seven seats

The three remaining seats are filled by a deputy from the Canary Islands, one from Galicia and one from the Navarran People’s Union.

They hold the key to power but also speak to the strong sense of nationalism from Spain’s disparate 19 regional assemblies. And the price for their participation in a new government is a weakening of the ties that bind Spain together.

In May, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the largest in the outgoing coalition, called a snap general election after his junior coalition partners suffered a serious setback in municipal elections.

Calling the election was a gamble, with Sanchez betting that the majority of Spain’s voters would not support the far-right Vox party in its efforts to sit at the Cabinet table with the more moderate Popular Party (PP).

Pedro Sanchez
PM Sanchez has the lion’s share of work to do to cobble together a coalition of the left Image Credit: Rruters

A Challenge Amid Regional Divides

It was a gamble and considering that the PP and Vox won 168 seats — eight seats short of a majority — in that regard Sanchez’s political instincts were right. A majority of Spanish voters did not want to see Vox, with its support for the era of dictator General Franciso Franco, in power.

But it also leaves Sanchez with the lion’s share of work to do to cobble together a coalition of the left.

The PSOE won 122 seats and Sanchez can rely on the 31 gained by Sumar, the left-wing umbrella coalition formed following those May local elections. Bring the Basques on board and his route to power gives him 164. Win over the Catalonians and he returned to power. Of course that’s easier said than done — and the coming weeks will determine whether he has the guile to get over the line once more.

If there’s one thing Sanchez has shown in his career over the past six years, it is that he has the ability to break and make political opponents.

He was a long shot to become prime minister back in 2018 when he timed a no-confidence motion to perfection, ousting Mariano Rajoy and the PP from power after a long-running scandal. He cobbled together a coalition of the Basques and the Catalans then — and he’s betting he can do the same now.

But the rise of Vox over these past five years has been fostered by those on the right who see Spain as being too weak, too willing to compromise to the regions, giving too much away when power needs to be centralised in Madrid.

If Vox had its way, those 19 regional assemblies would be gone by the board — with power resting in those 350 deputies in the national parliament. And no, there wouldn’t be an upper chamber, the Senate, either.

The Catalan separatists have held three referendums on independence, all of which have been declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court. The last vote, in October 2017, left many of its leaders facing long prison terms for sedition and others fleeing in exile to Belgium.

Through the election campaign, Sanchez faced a barrage of criticism from the right for defusing the legal standoff with the Catalans and bringing them back onto the political stage from their criminal convictions. Mostly.

The Junts party leader, Carles Puigdemont, remains a fugitive in Belgium and an amnesty for his role in that October 2017 referendum will be a price for any coalition deal. And that will only inflame tensions of the right.

Indeed, the day after the general election, the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Madrid asked for Puigdemont’s international arrest warrant to be reactivated — hardly a coincidence — but meaning that officials will be playing hardball and have raised the pressure on the exiled leader even more.