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Elections in Spain: Regime Maintenance Disguised as Democratic Vitality and the Possibility of Change

Photograph Source: Ministry of the Presidency – Government of Spain

In last Sunday’s Spanish elections, Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE) considerably expanded its presence in the country’s Parliament, while the Popular Party (PP), which for more than two decades has quite purposefully and successfully driven the country’s arena of “thinkable thought” toward the hard right, had its poorest electoral showing in years.

The other big news was that a) the Catalan independence party, ERC, won the largest number of seats in that Autonomous Region’s delegation to the Congress of Deputies in Madrid and b) the neo-Fascist Voxparty had a weaker showing at the polls than many had foreseen.

The consensus understanding of these events—as processed by the Madrid-based “liberal” press led by El Paísand its powerful, if albeit somewhat more nuanced, echo chamber in Barcelona (La Vanguardiaand El Periódico)—was one of clear, but cautious optimism, rooted in the idea that Spaniards had, in effect, voted for moderate center-left change, and perhaps even a return to the practice of respectful dialogue between opposing parties.

In fact, the general sense of hope transcended the usual precincts of the centralist establishment to include certain elements of the independence-oriented Catalan left.

For example, in the wake of Sunday’s polls, Gabriel Rufián, the rhetorical firebrand of the ERC, raised the possibility that Prime Minister Sánchez might be forced to sit down at the negotiation table to talk about an independence referendum, as well as the possibility of halting the ongoing prosecutions of the members of the Catalan government who backed the October 1st  2017 referendum on independence in that region.

One of the most endearing elements of self-identified progressive parties, and the media outlets that like to give them visibility, is their great belief in the possibility of resolving conflicts within the confines of the existing social and political system.

It is also their greatest weakness, for it frequently leads them to impute good will to establishment leaders and political configurations that are manifestly lacking in this all-important quality, and whose only real goal is to enervate the “progressives” and their movement to the point where they can be harmlessly coopted into the existing political order.

Though it is not the only reason for the abrupt shifts we are now seeing in the Spanish political system, the issue of Catalan independence clearly towers above all other factors.

It is because of the independence movement’s sustained grass roots organizing in favor of greater democracy—and not the florid, TV-ready pronouncements of Podemos’ Pablo Iglesias so appealing tomoderately informed progressive commentators from other countries—that is most responsible for ripping off the mask of Spain’s supposedly “peaceful” and “successful” transition to democracy (1975-82).

And it is thanks to the fact that these same Catalan citizens ignored an intense central government campaign of propaganda and intimidation,  and pressed ahead with a vote on their future as a people, that many in the rest of Spain, and many millions more around the world, were forced to acknowledge the existence of a Spanish Deep State, and the fact that it often works hand-in-glove with a profoundly corrupt judiciary to cancel out the exercise of  many basic democratic rights in the country.

And finally, it has been the quiet insistence of the Catalan in seeking a more democratic life outside the confines of that supposedly sainted, but, in fact, deeply flawed constitutional order, that has catalyzed the rise of the authoritarian right.

To say this is not, as some cynics like Catalan socialist (PSC) leader Miquel Iceta have done, to “blame” Catalan nationalism for the rise of the neo-fascists.

Rather, it is to simply point out that the decision of the more established conservative parties (PPand Citizens) to use the peaceful and democratic Catalan movement as their full-time rhetorical punching bag, and to engage in a near daily competition regarding who would more swiftly and harshly suspend autonomous rule within the restive region, that has paved the way for the rise of Vox.  After all, why vote for thinly disguised fascism when you can have the real thing?

So, where does the newly empowered “progressive”, Pedro Sánchez, come down on this absolutely central issue of Spanish political life?

Despite what you might have read, or want to believe, he lines up squarely on the side of the right wing parties he just defeated.

While he and his government spokesmen generally avoid the grossly incendiary and punitive rhetoric of the nominal right, and carefully spice their public interventions with statements about need for dialogue, their actual proposals on the Catalan issue are largely indistinguishable from those of their conservative rivals.

Sánchez, like them, has repeatedly said that he will never consent to the staging of a Scottish-style an independence referendum. And like his rivals, he has repeatedly said that there is no solution to the Catalan problem outside the existing constitutional order which, of course, was bequeathed to the nation by the corrupt Francoist establishment in the late 1970s, and that quite purposely made the indivisibility of the state—rather than the pursuit of justice or healthy democratic practices —as the country’s paramount legal and political value.

And like his more leather-lunged colleagues on the right, he has repeatedly portrayed Catalan independentists as a disruptive minority that is seeking to impose its will on majority of the population in that autonomous region. This, despite the fact that the independence bloc has emerged victorious in the three consecutive Catalan Parliamentary elections, the last of which, in December 2017, was conducted under a de factooccupation of Catalan institutions by the Spanish central government.

Indeed, it should also be remembered that Sánchez’s Socialist party did not hesitate for a second when the then ruling PP called on them to vote in favor of that legally questionable suspension and occupation of Catalan autonomous institutions on October 27th2017 in response to the Catalan parliament’s democratic decision, taken mere hours before, to declare independence from Spain.

Finally, he and his party have also been studiously silent before the judiciary’s:

a) Decision to keep the non-exiled members of that independence-declaring Catalan government in preventive detention without bail for more than a year, in full violation of existing guidelines on such matters.

b) Promulgation of rulings, with no basis in existing legal principle, that prevented the agreed-upon head of the winning independence bloc December 2017 parliamentary elections—exiled Catalan president Carles Puigdemont—from reassuming the Catalan presidency. This, despite the fact, that the government of Belgium, where Puigdemont was living, had already dismissed Spain’s attempts to have him extradited on charges of rebellion and sedition owing to a manifest lack probable cause.

c) Prosecution of the non-exiled members of the independence-declaring Catalan government on the very same charges that the Belgian judiciary, and subsequently the judiciary in the German landerof Schleswig-Holstein, had deemed legally baseless when levied against the head of that same government, again, Puigdemont.

So, if the headlines you read about Socialist gains and PP setbacks conjured up hopes of a resolution to Spain’s long-festering problems, my advice to you would be simple and straightforward: “curb your enthusiasm”. Pedro Sánchez may not be as grossly offensive as his fire-breathing counterparts on the right, but when it comes to safeguarding the decadent social and political order they venerate, and have thrived within, he is their loyal servant.

And this being so, one can only wonder why anyone in the ERC, or for that matter, the so-called quality press can think his recent victory at the polls might herald the tiniest possibility of real change in the country.

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Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  A Citizen’s Democracy in Authoritarian Times: An American View on the Catalan Drive for Independence  (University of Valencia Press, 2018).

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