BARCELONA—It was 10 a.m. and Antonia Huguet, 75, trundled home from a dilapidated school in the middle of Barcelona’s Gothic neighborhood after voting in Spain’s general election. With her dyed blond hair done up in a bun, Huguet looked like a character out of a Pedro Almodóvar movie—which seems rather appropriate since Spanish democracy these days could easily be mistaken for something on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Like many of the characters in Almodóvar’s films, Huguet lived through Franco’s dictatorship and can’t abide the idea of fascism returning in her lifetime. After Spanish democracy began in the late 1970s there were two political parties (the right wing Partido Popular and the Socialist Workers Party on the left).
Now there are five political parties including the newly emergent extreme right-wing Vox party. Mention Vox and Huguet begins to mutter under her breath in anger. Even 44 years after Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, “There are a lot of fascists in Spain, even though they would never admit it in public,” she says. “I am worried.”
In other parts of Spain however, the idea of Vox—a party that denies the Holocaust, wants to limit women’s rights and Spain’s decentralized system of governance, and puts a brake on immigration—elicits a more giddy response.
In the trendy area of Pla del Remei in Valencia there were very few Vox pamphlets left, a party representative told the daily El País. “If you watch for five minutes, you see it. People who esthetically look like PP [Partido Popular] voters, such as well-dressed ladies, are mostly picking up Vox papers today.”
Spain went to the polls on Sunday and there was only one consensus: the two-party political system that once provided stability was effectively comatose. The PP had the worst results since it was founded and its leadership will likely be challenged. The modest rise of Vox has effectively left a polarized and potentially dangerous new political landscape in its wake.
Practical issues—like whether the left-wing political coalition actually will rule—are still up in the air although by 11:15 p.m. local time on Sunday, a government spokeswoman said that PSOE won the election, allowing the group to govern in coalition with the leftist Podemos party and with Catalan separatists. Meanwhile Vox was expected to gain as many as 23 seats in parliament. The PP, meanwhile, was well on its way to having the lowest political representation in parliament since 1989. The result will likely lead to a major debates within the party as to where its future lies.
Voters came to the polls in droves. Voter turnout had increased by nearly 9 percent over the elections in 2016. In Catalonia, where the Socialists need to do well in order to remain in power, turnout increased to nearly 18 percent. A strong turnout, especially in Catalonia, has meant that the question of Catalonia’s independence remains up for grabs.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez will likely negotiate with the independentista party Esquerra Republicana, though he could come into office even if the independentista parties abstain during the confirmation process.
The Sánchez government itself came to power nine months ago when the government of Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular was reduced to a shadow of itself after a resounding multi-party no-confidence vote in parliament, the consequence of a series of corruption scandals and a botched response to Catalonia’s 2017 independence bid.
No one, however, could be blamed for mistaking the position of Spanish prime minister for a kind of revolving door. The current prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, called the elections in February after his minority Socialist government lost support from Catalonia’s independentistas.
The prospect of an independent Catalonia slivered the PP into various factions, each of which attempted to outdo the others in punishing the Catalan independentistas. Vox, considered as something akin to a political joke until then, was the most aggressive.
When leaders of the Catalan independence bid went on trial in Madrid for sedition, Vox took the astute step of joining in the proceedings against them, which is allowed under Spanish law. Then in December of last year Vox scored an unexpectedly strong result in regional elections in Andalusia where they polled 11 percent of the total vote and won 12 seats on a Trumpesque anti-immigration platform (wall included).
It was enough for a coalition of right wing parties to oust the PSOE, which had held power in the region for generations.
Whereas during Europe’s 2011 economic crisis the Socialists were threatened by an emerging left-wing Podemos party, now the conservative PP is threatened by Vox and its gun-toting leader, Santiago Abascal.
“In the conversations that I had with Mariano Rajoy when he was prime minister, one of the things that struck me most was that he was already talking to me about the far right in Spain, about Vox. I’ve never said this before,” Sánchez said recently. “When Rajoy was prime minister, Vox was already on the radar of the right, in their opinion polls.”
If Vox threatens the PP, Abascal’s party is a welcome enemy for Sánchez and the PSOE, despite the loss in Andalusia. “The socialist party has constantly mentioned Vox to mobilize their electorate,” says Olivas Osuna . “They know that if Vox grows it will undermine the chances of the PP to get a majority.”
Sunday’s result means that no single party will be able to garner a majority and several possible coalitions could take place allowing either the left of the right the opportunity to govern. An intense round of deal-making is in the works. If Vox garners more than 10 percent of the electorate, it will likely want to have members of its party represented in government—a risky proposition not only for the PP, but also for other parties necessary for the right to return to power.
At the same time, Sánchez and the PSOE may be forced to deal with Catalan independentista parties in order to form its own coalition—the very same parties that plunged his government into crisis after rejecting the prime minister’s budget in February. Sánchez himself has said that the independentista parties “cannot be trusted.”
“They know that independence is not possible,” Sánchez said. “Independence leaders are inside their own labyrinth. When they get out, we will be waiting to find a space for dialogue.”
For the Catalan separatists who until recently have been playing a game of “Quien es mas independentista” among themselves, negotiations with PSOE-led coalition may come sooner rather than later. The independentista parties, having been savaged by the suspension of regional government, the defunding of Catalan institutions and the sedition trial of several of their political leaders, desperately need friends in Madrid. Given the choice between PSOE and a right-wing coalition that includes avowed Franco admirers, Catalan’s separatists may just support the former.