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Spain’s populist drift

A snap election in Madrid and political developments in Catalonia will only serve to exacerbate a policy of extremes

Madrid regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the conservative Popular Party.
Madrid regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the conservative Popular Party.Emilio Naranjo / EFE

Spain is quickly advancing toward the turbulent waters of populism and increasingly radical polarization. Extreme positions are gaining traction, with Madrid as a hyperbolic ideological battlefield for the right-left axis, and Catalonia mired in its own damaging, disruptive dynamics.

As if this were not enough, in recent days Spaniards have witnessed a series of tactical moves that could be defined as short-sighted or even downright shady, and which in all likelihood are disappointing for a large segment of society. Many citizens rightly wish they had a political class that could address Spain’s enormous challenges through earnest, serene dialogue. Instead, there is a widespread feeling that partisan calculations play a disproportionate role in politics. Last week’s ill-fated no-confidence motion in Murcia and the call for an early election in Madrid have now set dangerous dynamics in motion.

In the conservative ranks, there is a reconfiguration process underway that contains several elements of polarization. The collapse of the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) party ends the hopes of having a center party to defend regeneration, pragmatic views and a liberal vision. Its inability to create a solid structure throughout the national territory, and its multiple strategic mistakes, have left Ciudadanos badly, if not fatally, wounded.

Pablo Iglesias’ nomination reinforces the debate in the Madrid region around the absurd ideological face-off between the champions of freedom against communism and the anti-fascist fighters

Meanwhile, the conservative Popular Party (PP) is feeling the magnetic pull of the radical project defended with growing force by Madrid regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso, who is pushing the party further to the right. Winning the Madrid election is an existential issue for the PP, but to do so on the strength of Ayuso’s rhetoric would probably kill the attempt at moderation that party president Pablo Casado illustrated with his speech in Congress in October, when he symbolically severed ties with the far-right Vox during a no-confidence motion debate. All of this will likely make Vox the only viable interlocutor for the PP, and the far-right party is closer than ever to its dream of playing a decisive role – and getting a spot in government – in the Madrid region, which is the gateway to other institutions.

These dynamics are exacerbated by the moves on the progressive side. The decision by Pablo Iglesias, leader of Unidas Podemos, to quit his position as second deputy prime minister of Spain to run for the Madrid premiership only heightens the battle, which will significantly influence national politics. His nomination reinforces the debate in the Madrid region around the absurd ideological face-off between the champions of freedom against communism and the anti-fascist fighters. This radical effect is not welcome: Madrid and Spain need something different. Time will tell what effect this decision has on the central government of Pedro Sánchez, of the Socialist Party (PSOE). That will largely depend on how reinforced Iglesias emerges from the Madrid race.

But two observations can be made from the outset. Yolanda Díaz, the current labor minister and the person set to replace Iglesias in the central government, is a politician who is far removed from the radical rhetoric of her predecessor, and she has proven herself to be highly efficient at dialogue with employers and unions alike. It is to be expected that the central executive will no longer have to deal with the kind of internal destabilization caused by a deputy PM who felt that former Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont, who fled Spain to avoid arrest after leading a failed unilateral breakaway bid, is an exile not unlike those who fled the Franco regime following the Spanish Civil War; Iglesias also aligned with Russia during a recent diplomatic spat involving the jailed dissident Alexei Navalny, when he stated that Spain is not a full democracy. However, there is nothing to prevent Iglesias from becoming a destabilizing factor in other ways once he has left government.

The Socialists could try to project an image of moderation and pragmatism, but the party is hostage to forces pulling in a different direction

Meanwhile, Catalonia is set to remain another major cause of polarization. The choice of the separatist Laura Borràs as the new speaker of the regional parliament, and the perpetuation of pro-independence figures in government circles, do not bode well for moderation.

All of this creates an extremely complicated situation for the PSOE, which heads a minority coalition government in Spain and is forced to seek support from other parties to pass legislation. The Socialists could try to project an image of moderation and pragmatism, but the party is hostage to forces pulling in a different direction. A fatally wounded Ciudadanos reduces the possibilities of dialogue with the political center; Podemos is radical by nature, and the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), despite its alleged pragmatism, has disruptive goals.

There is not a lot of leeway for the optimism of intelligence; the voices of moderation from either end of the political spectrum must speak out bravely to provide a counterpoint to the worst siren calls.

English version by Susana Urra.

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