Spanish Prime Minister Pédro Sánchez of Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) and Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos are pictured before a televised debate in Sebastian de los Reyes outside Madrid, April 2019
Juan Medina / REUTERS

In the United States, growing polarization and the election of President Donald Trump have made it commonplace to bemoan the disappearance of the political center. In Spain, too, political polarization has become a serious problem, especially since the Catalan separatist crisis of 2017. This was Spain’s gravest political crisis since the demise of the Franco dictatorship in the mid-1970s, which plunged the country into an uncertain democratic transition. It was also the most polarizing event in decades. With the first general election since the crisis erupted taking place this Sunday, then, one would think that the prospects for a centrist victory would be dismal. Yet that is not the case.

Although the Catalan crisis has fed extremism across the political spectrum, it has at the same time unleashed a palpable desire for political moderation within the electorate and for keeping at bay those forces peddling radicalism. That, combined with an increasingly fragmented party system, gives centrism a real chance to prevail after April 28.

THE CENTRIST HOPE

Judging at least by the pages of El País, Spain’s leading newspaper, the most talked-about potential centrist coalition is the conjoining of the Spanish Workers’ Socialist Party, or PSOE, the party currently in power, and ahead in the polls with about 30 percent of the vote, and Ciudadanos, or Citizens, a relatively new center-right party presently running third in the polls with 16 percent. Founded in Barcelona in 2006 on an anti-corruption platform, Ciudadanos is best known today for its opposition to Catalan independence. Coming from a Catalan party, this opposition has endeared Ciudadanos to Spaniards who value national unity above any other political issue. Indeed, Ciudadanos is currently challenging the Popular Party, or PP, which is running second in the polls with 20 percent of the vote, as Spain’s leading right-wing party.

According to El País, the collective PSOE/Ciudadanos vote, paired with the vote of Compromís, a regional coalition of progressive parties that supports the PSOE, could net as many as 180 seats. This would be enough to meet the required threshold of 176 seats in the Congress of Deputies to form a government without any support from separatist parties from either Catalonia or the Basque Country.

Contributing to the drive toward centrism is the fragmentation of the Spanish political party system. What was once a stable two-party system has splintered into no fewer than five parties with national reach. With each successive election, it becomes harder for Spain to form a governing coalition. In 2015, no party was successful in putting together a government, forcing a do-over election in 2016. This left the country without a government for close to a year. If the leading forecasts are correct, this weekend’s elections could have a similar outcome, since no coalition made up of exclusively left- or right-wing parties will have enough parliamentary seats to form a government of its own.      

A CRISIS AND ITS AFTERMATH

But the electoral math is only the beginning of the story. Arguably, the main catalyst behind the rise of centrism in Spain is the Catalan crisis, which peaked in October 2017 when the region’s government organized an independence referendum that Spain’s Constitutional Tribunal had already ruled unconstitutional. After the region declared independence following the referendum, the administration of conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy responded by suspending Catalonia’s autonomy charter and imposing direct rule from Madrid. Autonomy was restored in May 2018, after new regional elections were held. Since then, the Catalan separatists have been a thorn in the side of every other political group in Spain, especially the Sánchez administration, in office since only last June. Pédro Sánchez replaced Rajoy after the latter was forced out of office by a no-confidence vote stemming from corruption charges.

The main catalyst behind the rise of centrism in Spain is the Catalan crisis.

Last month, Catalan parliamentarians in Madrid brought down the Sánchez administration by siding with the right-wing opposition to defeat the government’s national budget. The Catalans, already upset with Madrid over the trials of the architects of the illegal referendum on charges of secession, treason, and misuse of public funds, were retaliating against Sánchez’s unwillingness to support an official referendum for independence. Their move in Parliament, which came despite Sánchez’s willingness to negotiate with the Catalan separatists over extending their autonomy from Madrid, quite in contrast to the Rajoy administration, forced Sánchez to call for early elections.

A centrist coalition that brings the PSOE and Ciudadanos together would end the PSOE’s reliance on separatist parties to keep power in Madrid. It would also allow Spain to focus on matters other than separatism, including playing a more prominent role within the European Union. But just as important, a centrist coalition would diminish the influence of the political parties on the margins of the left and the right, which, not surprisingly, espouse positions on Catalan independence at odds with the political mainstream. On the far left is the populist Podemos (We Can), the only political party that supports an independence referendum for Catalonia. On the far right is the upstart Vox, a party best known for its extreme anti-immigration politics, with proposals such as banning the teaching of Islam in public schools and deporting all undocumented immigrants.

Vox’s popularity, however, stems primarily from the party’s extreme positions on Catalan separatism. Vox advocates the complete dismantling of the system of regional governments that Spain created after the end of the Franco dictatorship and banning separatist parties altogether. These positions explain why other parties refer to Vox as “unconstitutional.” Vox made a splash in last December’s elections in the southern region of Andalusia, gaining 12 seats in the Andalusian parliament. According to the polls, in the coming general elections, Vox could win as much as ten percent of the vote. This would mean the entry, for the first time in the post-Franco period, of a far-right party into the Spanish parliament.     

THE OBSTACLES AHEAD

A lot stands in the way of the emergence of a centrist coalition government, which is why this has not happened yet. During the electoral gridlock of 2015, the PSOE and Ciudadanos were unable to overcome their policy differences to form a government. Paradoxically, a key point of contention is what drives centrism in the first place: Catalonia. The PSOE is a historic defender of autonomy for Spain’s separatist communities; indeed, the party has historically advocated for the federalization of the country. These stances put the party directly at odds with Ciudadanos’ uncompromising hard line against the Catalan separatists. Ciudadanos’ chairman, Albert Rivera, has charged that Sánchez cannot be trusted to deal with the Catalans. Seeking to allay such concerns, Sánchez has stressed that he would not hesitate to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy charter, just as the Rajoy administration did in 2017.

A PSOE/Ciudadanos alliance also poses significant political risks for both parties. Bringing Ciudadanos into a PSOE-led government would give Spanish progressives heartburn. Many on the left blame Ciudadanos’ strong advocacy for national unity and reverence for national symbols, such as the Spanish flag, for the rise of nationalism in recent years. Indeed, for many Spanish liberals Ciudadanos is nothing more than a Spanish nationalist party. On the other hand, for some in the membership of Ciudadanos, partnering with the PSOE, an establishment party with a long history of corruption and unsavory politics, would be a betrayal of Ciudadanos’ roots as an anti-establishment and anti-corruption movement.

Not surprisingly, Rivera has already said that he is ruling out a coalition government with the PSOE. But this could well be political posturing stemming from the fierce electoral competition prevalent within the Spanish right, now split into three different parties. After the elections, Rivera would be freer to entertain an alliance with the PSOE—if the decision even remains his to make. It has been reported that should PSOE make Ciudadanos an offer to form a government, the business community in Madrid and Barcelona would put tremendous pressure on the latter to accept the offer and move on with the business of governing Spain. This could entail removing Rivera from the leadership of the party in favor of Inés Arrimadas, the head of Ciudadanos in Catalonia. She is believed to be more enthusiastic about the idea of partnering with the PSOE and determined to keep Vox from entering government.     

THE BEST WAY FORWARD

Should the center prevail, it would be a rare occurrence in Spanish political history. Few countries are more infamous for their extreme partisanship than Spain, a country synonymous in the twentieth century with civil war and dictatorship. The closest precedent for centrism in Spain is the series of governments that consolidated democracy between 1977 and 1982, in the wake of the dismantling of the Franco regime. This effort was led by the now-defunct Union of the Democratic Center, or UCD. The party, which was a loosely based coalition of some ten conservative and liberal parties, faded quickly, and was soon replaced by the more ideologically pure PSOE and PP.

Still, the emergence of a centrist government in Spain would buck the right-wing populist trend that has swept through Europe and the Americas for the better part of the current decade. In these times of intense political polarization, centrism might prove to be a winning strategy at the polls. This is, in fact, what the numbers are showing. Recent surveys suggest that a majority of Spaniards favor “a moderate government formed by a pact between the PSOE and Ciudadanos.” They view this government as the best way to prevent the breakup of the country, keep the current economic recovery afoot, and protect European integration.

We will soon find out if the politicians will listen to the voters in Spain. If they don’t, they will confirm what some political scientists have long suspected: that ordinary citizens are more moderate than those who seek to lead them.

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