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The crisis of the Spanish system

The Catalan issue has shattered the essential agreement of our democracy: territorial unity based on decentralization and self-government. It has also created enormous doubts about the quality of our political model

Antonio Caño

More than once I have heard the assertion that the wave of anti-establishment sentiment that has affected many countries over the last decade, expressing itself through various forms of populism, nationalism, xenophobia and other radical assaults against the established order, had not affected Spain substantially, or at least not sufficiently to shake the structures of power in any significant way.

The absence of clearly anti-European political projects, the fact that there has been no popular rejection of foreigners here, and the weakness of both far-right and far-left organizations, have occasionally led us to conclude that in Spain, the system had somehow resisted better than in other places against the onslaught of forces that originally emerged out of the 2008 economic crisis.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, Spain’s political system has been seriously eroded, especially in the last four years, by movements that are very similar to those we have witnessed elsewhere in Europe and in the United States, albeit at a different pace and expressed in a way that adapts to our own history and traditions.

The result is turning out to be just as lethal, or even more so, than in other latitudes: in Spain, the traditional party system is cracking, nationalism is gaining ground at the expense of models based on solidarity and cooperation; feelings are trumping reason; and populism is taking precedence over politics. As a result, Spain is experiencing the worst crisis of its entire democracy – on a level with the [failed coup of] February 23, 1981 – and not a single one of its institutions is safe.

Spain’s political system has been seriously eroded, by movements we have witnessed elsewhere in other parts of Europe and the US

The main focus of the crisis is, evidently, Catalonia, and I will return to that later. But the Catalan problem would not have reached its current dimension if it had not coincided in time with other determining factors: the decline, possibly definitive, of the Popular Party (PP); the self-destruction, perhaps also irreversible, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), and their replacement on the right and left of the political spectrum by two parties which, being different in genesis and nature, are both more inclined toward populism than politics, and whose personality-driven leaderships are more focused on denouncing problems than in finding solutions – more based on faith than on rational criteria. The shakeup of the political scene has brought government action nearly to a halt, legislative activity in parliament is blocked, and both the judiciary and the Spanish king – in a determining public address – have been forced to occupy spaces that they are legally entitled to, but which entail enormous erosion.

Fortunately, this gradual weakening of our institutions has not been mirrored by a strong protest movement on the streets – the latest ones, by women and pensioners, are very recent and not at all anti-establishment. But citizens have grown very skeptical, they have lost faith in the political class and in the institutions, and just like in other countries, there is an attempt to compensate through increased nationalism.

The epicenter of the institutional crisis is clearly Catalonia, where legendary demands and problems that had been silenced for decades came together under a new flareup of fanatical patriotism which, in recent weeks, has evidenced all the racism and xenophobia underpinning it.

Besides the serious management problems derived from that conflict, the Catalonia issue has shattered the essential agreement of our democracy: territorial unity based on decentralization and self-government. It has also created enormous doubts about the quality of our political model, and even about the viability of our democracy. The difficulty defending the Spanish cause in Europe is not just due to the government’s incompetence, but also to a lack of true conviction about our national project.

The Spanish state’s response to the separatist challenge has reflected these shortcomings from day one: it was slow, clumsy, contradictory and insecure. The government, unable to craft a persuasive yet firm policy for Catalonia, resorted in a haphazard way to the courts, which are now battling within and without our borders in order to push forward very complex cases with very serious implications. Spanish parliament has yet to conduct a single debate on Catalonia worthy of that name, much less come up with a reasonable project to guide the conflict down political channels. And our main political leaders have so far been unable to pose together for a picture and offer at least an image of unity against a threat that affects Spain’s very survival!

This lack of consistent and orderly reaction has created a sense of abandonment among Spaniards, and, like in other countries, they are seeking solace in identity and pride of belonging to a group. The display of flags on balconies is not to be censored, of course, nor is it an ominous sign of a return of sinister forces of the past. But we cannot deny either that those flags are an explosion of nationalist emotion that could entail risks if there is no shared coexistence project that reflects our reality as a country. Ciudadanos, the party that is benefiting the most from this situation, must be aware of this danger. The last time that Spaniards hung flags from their balconies, it was to celebrate the passage of our Constitution. Why are the flags coming out now? What unites us on this occasion?

The rise of Ciudadanos in the polls, while a manifestation of the crisis of our system, represents a chance to channel it, as long as its leaders are aware of the responsibility and understand the difference between a successful brand that responds to trends and a reliable political force that takes risks and sets a political horizon that is both convincing and viable. The fact is, for now, there is some cause for concern in the way that Ciudadanos identifies with extremist positions that seek only national identity and tough action. Emmanuel Macron, whom Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera so often compares himself with, has made his own national project – liberal and all-including – inseparable from the European project. There is no other way in Spain.

Citizens have lost faith in the political class and in the institutions, and the response has been increased nationalism

An ideal condition for a more balanced rise of Ciudadanos would be the existence of an alternative on the left. Unfortunately, we are a long way from that situation. The universal explosion of populism led the PSOE into an irrational debate about No is No and left-wing identity, and put Pedro Sánchez at the helm as secretary general. It’s been a year since then, and things have not improved. Meanwhile, Podemos has yet to define itself, torn between its desire to join the system – a home mortgage of over half a million euros would seem to indicate so – and its original goal of fighting it.

None of the symptoms of the crisis of our political system today suggests any signs of improvement. Some, like Catalonia, even suggest the opposite. On the year that we celebrate the 40th anniversary of our Constitution, it is necessary to re-read this document with the determination to update it, reform it (!), and use it as a tool to regain the lost consensus and the commitment of new generations of Spaniards.

English version by Susana Urra.

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