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On Tuesday, Spain’s acting prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, announced that his center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) would seek to form a minority government in cooperation with the far-left party Unidas Podemos. Six weeks after elections in late April left no party with a clear majority, the country is edging closer to a new left-wing government.
In the international press, the national election made headlines for two reasons, each offering a different picture of the state of Spanish—and, by extension, European—politics. The shocking entry into the lower house of parliament of the far-right nationalist party Vox appeared to augur a potential new threat to liberal democracy in a country long considered immune to right-wing populism after 40 years under the rule of fascist dictator Francisco Franco. By contrast, the victory of the PSOE, which came in first with some 29 percent of the vote, seemed a sign of democracy’s resilience (and a rare win for Europe’s beleaguered social democrats).
Few expected the PP’s near-complete collapse this April.
Both of these developments were actually the outcome of a far more momentous shift: the stunning implosion of the center-right People’s Party (PP), the Spanish right’s home for the last 30 years. Founded in 1989, the PP united camps on the right that ranged from centrist fiscal conservatives all the way to a far-right minority nostalgic for Franco’s dictatorship. The party took somewhat of a hit in 2015, when upstart leftist parties such as Podemos began chipping away at Spain’s traditional two-party system. Yet few expected the PP’s near-complete collapse this April. The party won only 17 percent of the vote, gaining a mere 66 seats in the 350-seat parliament—its worst-ever result and a dramatic comedown from the 186 seats it held at its height in 2011. In municipal, regional, and European elections in May, the PP’s downward trajectory continued, the party averting complete disaster only because of strong results in Madrid.
How did this bastion of the Spanish right crumble? The PP’s failure to ward off a new far-right, anti-immigrant rival, and the broader malaise gripping many Western establishment parties, surely damaged the party’s fortunes. But ultimately, the PP’s implosion is a uniquely Spanish story—one that centers around a secessionist crisis and a sprawling corruption case.
As the election results came in on the evening of April 28, two very different scenes played out in a wealthy corner of central Madrid. At the PP’s headquarters on the Calle de Génova, each news update described an increasingly grim return for the once formidable party. The PP won 66 seats in the 350-seat parliament, losing more than six million votes since 2011. It was, one journalist quipped on Twitter, like watching the Roman Empire collapse.
A few blocks away, at the upmarket Phoenix Hotel, a radical far-right movement, led largely by former PP figures, was rising from the ashes of its forebear. Formed in 2013 but largely irrelevant until a sudden regional success in late 2018, Vox now managed a respectable ten percent of the national vote.
Vox’s choice of venue seemed imbued with symbolism. A few months earlier, the plaza outside the Phoenix Hotel had hosted a giant rally of unionists protesting Catalan separatism—the defining issue in Spanish politics since a controversial independence referendum two years ago, which was deemed illegal by Madrid courts. The referendum in late 2017 triggered a months-long standoff between Madrid and the Catalan regional government, which ended only after Madrid took direct control of the province and jailed several former Catalan politicians. The crisis provoked a fierce backlash in other parts of the country, and Spanish nationalism, long tainted by its association with Franco, returned with full force. Hard-line unionists blamed former PP leader and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for mishandling the secession crisis by allowing the referendum to take place at all. The PP worked desperately to shore up its unionist credentials, even sharing the stage with Vox at the Madrid rally. But in the final weeks before the vote, polls showed, the party lost support.
The Phoenix Hotel was also the site where, a decade earlier, a whistleblower had secretly recorded a key businessman with close ties to the party and PP leaders confessing to an enormous corruption scheme involving high-ranking PP members. The recording, revealed in 2009 after the first of a string of high-profile arrests of PP figures, detailed a secret party slush fund that collected large donations from business and used the funds to finance campaign events. The case, known in Spain as el caso Gürtel, was the most visible of a series of graft scandals that revealed systematic corruption within the party. It painted a garish image of a corrupt, arrogant, and debauched circle of chancers either in office or bribing those who were. Satisfaction with the political system, which for many years had remained high as Spaniards reveled in their relatively young democracy, gave way to resentment of a flawed political class—a self-interested set belonging to what the left-wing populist party Podemos memorably branded “the caste.”
For many years, the PP looked set to weather the storm. Mariano Rajoy, the PP leader elected prime minister after a landslide victory in 2011, was dubbed “the Survivor” for his uncanny ability to outlast the kinds of crises that toppled his counterparts in other countries. But the combined weight of the Gürtel case and the Catalan secession crisis proved too much even for Rajoy. In May 2018, a long-awaited ruling in the Gürtel case came down, convicting a slew of former party members of corruption and naming the PP itself as a direct beneficiary of a vast kickbacks-for-contracts scheme in operation since the party’s inception in 1989.
Rajoy was dubbed “the Survivor” for his ability to outlast the kinds of crises that toppled his counterparts abroad.
The PP had survived similar shocks before, but this time the center-left PSOE saw its chance and called a no-confidence vote against Rajoy. The move was a gamble: the PSOE held only 84 seats in the 350-seat parliament, and no such motion had ever succeeded in the Spanish parliament. But the Socialists managed to narrowly scrape together the support they needed—in part thanks to the votes of Catalan separatists intent on toppling the prime minister who had thwarted their independence bid.
In the wake of Rajoy’s shock ouster, the PP opted not to address the systematic corruption in its ranks directly. Officials refused to apologize for the Gürtel scandal, choosing to blame only “a few shameless individuals who betrayed the party.” Instead, the PP sought to dispense with the old guard by appointing 37-year-old Pablo Casado as its leader. But the party, which for its entire history had appealed to conservatives across the spectrum, now found itself squeezed from both sides. On one end, Vox was calling for a reconquista to save Spain’s supposedly Christian character from Muslim immigrants, leftists, and Catalan separatists—and found itself kingmaker in the state of Andalusia after regional elections in late 2018. Slightly to the left of the PP, the new party Ciudadanos—whose leader, Albert Rivera, has been compared with France’s Emmanuel Macron—courted centrist but staunchly unionist voters.
Casado sought to elevate his profile by striking a bellicose tone. He dubbed Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez a “traitor” and “felon” for having relied on Catalan nationalist parties to oust Rajoy. But Casado’s strategy of confrontation and polarization backfired. While Ciudadanos broke off the center-right, the PSOE presented itself as the only credible bulwark against a coalition beholden to its most reactionary component, the anti-immigrant, anti-feminist Vox.
Vox utterly dominated the election campaign, drawing disproportionate media coverage and pulling the political debate toward polarizing issues such as gender violence, abortion, and gun ownership. But the PP’s collapse casts new light on Vox’s rise. The right-wing group’s entry into parliament invites comparisons to the populist surge sweeping much of western Europe, but whether Spain really fits this trend is questionable. Vox has tried to whip up anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment, but immigration is still a fairly marginal issue in Spanish public opinion, as are opposition to globalization and skepticism toward the EU.
“If we hadn’t seen such systematic corruption and if Rajoy . . . had taken a more assertive position on Catalonia, I don’t think [Vox’s rise] would have happened,” David del Val, an analyst at Spain’s AFI consultancy, told me. Unlike Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, Vox has failed to attract traditionally left-leaning working-class voters. Rather, Vox voters are largely male, educated, and middle-class. Many are former PP voters. The PP’s implosion, in other words, allowed Vox to capitalize on ultraconservative religious and nationalist sentiments that had always existed but previously been incorporated into the PP.
The PP’s disastrous campaign tells of the dangers of allowing relatively small populist parties to dominate the political conversation. But the lessons for the outside world end there, because Spain still stands out from the rest of Europe with its idiosyncratic national politics. The traditional political and economic division between right and left remains fairly intact, national politics are defined by questions of centralization and regionalism, and mass immigration is still a much more recent phenomenon than in many neighboring European countries. As a result, the Spanish case doesn’t fit easily into anxious accounts of the inexorable advance of right-wing populism: in Spain, the rise of the far right is the symptom of a collapsing center-right, not the cause.