Conflict Alerts # 584, 26 January 2023
In the news
On 21 January, a mass protest was carried out by people in Spain demanding the step down of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. The gathering was led by “right-leaning civil society groups” with the support of the centre-right Popular Party and the far-right Vox party. The protestors held sign boards that said: “Sanchez, resign!" and “traitor,” reflecting the angst on the government as the general elections are expected to be held in May. Leader of the Vox party, Santiago Abascal said: “The worst government in history…has divided Spaniards and freed rapists and coup leaders.”
Protesters claimed the government’s decision to agree to the demand of Catalan secessionists in appointing a person to mediate talks between the “pro-unity and pro-independence parties” as a betrayal. In line with the protesters, the current regional parties have rejected the move and called for an independence vote.
On 22 January, Sanchez said: “The government is working for the unity of Spain, and this means uniting Spaniards and not pitting people against one another like the right is doing.”
Issues at large
First, the nature of protests. Protests against the national government have been frequent in the last five years, but the demands centre around the Catalonian community. The first set of protests called the “Madrid demonstration” was against gender violence when a Catalan court dismissed a person guilty without charges. A series of Catalan protests followed it to revive the independence movement and against the sentence of the nine separatist leaders. At present both issues are being highlighted by far-right and right-party groups to stage protests against the government. While the protest does seem political as the elections near, there is a limited amount of discontent amongst the conservative section of the public against Sanchez for not addressing the gap in the health sector, employment, and economic crisis.
Second, continuing political polarisation. Single-party governments have been the norm of Spain since 1982 until the Conservative People’s Party (PP) leader Rajoy was replaced by the Socialist party leader Sanchez. Although the change was quick, the continuity of the Socialist party has not been easy. The party has suffered to gain support from the radical-left party Podemos, right of centre party Ciudadanos to form a coalition government, which had never occurred since democracy was established in 1977. In the process of cutting down the differences with the existing parties to form a coalition, a series of four elections gave way for 16 parties into the congress. This took place due to a loss of confidence amongst the public over the party’s incapacity to form a government and address the issue of budget reform, reform of the law on sexual consent, and illegal immigration. The far-right party, Vox, and the PP focused on these issues resulting in a vote gain of 15 per cent additionally in the November 2020 elections and triggering the protests. The rise of the far-right and recovery of the PP created pressure for the Socialists and Podemos to unite, but it is not enough to have a majority to pass any legislation in the parliament. This led Sanchez to get close to Esquerra Republicana (One of Catalonia's secessionist parties) for support in the parliament. Therefore, the two-split in Spain’s political system is expected to worsen.
Third, the challenge over Catalonia. The ousting of the conservative party leader was due to the crisis in Catalonia, and the issue of the spread of the separatist movement has been the base for the split in Spain’s political scenario. In 2017, when Catalonia held an illegal referendum for independence sparked fear as they saw it as a threat to Spanish nationalism. When the Supreme court sentenced nine leaders of the separatist organisation of Catalonia for using their resources to “declare an independent republic,” it led to mass protests amongst the community. While Sanchez maintains a stance to have a dialogue to settle the issue between the regional leader of Catalonia, the threat to Spanish nationalism has taken the centre of the far-right party’s agenda. Its focus on addressing illegal migration and separatism has helped gain support from the public but to gain a majority in the parliament it would need the support of the Conservatives. This has furthered with the national government stepping in to replace the conservative majority judiciary to reform the sedition law, becoming the key reason behind the protests and a political deadlock for the 2023 elections.
The political chaos furthers the polarization. Sanchez presents the idea of dialogue to settle the Catalonian issue; it seems to aggravate the influence of the Right party which has been aiming to devour through the difference to gain power. In such a scenario, the far right would still require the support of the conservative party to form a coalition, which seems to be fluid as both play for power. While Sanchez has to an extent excelled in sustaining the coalition government, he faces a more complex situation without a majority to pass legislation on reforming the sedition and judiciary laws. Whether the winner of the 2023 elections is centre left or centre right, the polarisation can be expected to further with the worsening fragmentation within the parties.