A New Spain Emerges That Drives Conservative Opponents Crazy

Pedro Sanchez’s budget deal will shore up the foundations of his minority government and offer the chance of some political stability in Spain after five years of division and gridlock.

It’s a fragile alliance but the potential to roll over budgets and the high bar for no-confidence votes in Spain means that even if there is more friction between the parties, the premier is likely to survive at least until the next election, which isn’t due until 2023.

What’s more, in the patchwork coalition that has formed around Sanchez’s budget, it’s possible to make out the beginnings of a path forward for a country that has been paralyzed by the question of how to deal with Catalan demands for independence. The prospect has left Sanchez’s right-wing opponents furious.

Ideological divisions run deep in Spain. The prime minister has already been vilified by conservatives for sealing a coalition agreement with the far-left group Podemos in January. To pass his spending plan, he’s cut deals with nationalists from Catalonia and the Basque Country, considered toxic by the right because of their calls for independence.

Sanchez says he aims to make Spain greener, better equipped to engage with the digital economy and more equal as he rebuilds an economy battered by the coronavirus. He’s due to receive 73 billion euros ($87 billion) of recovery grants from the European Union before the next election to deliver on that promise.

But he’s also going to have to weather a barrage of personal attacks as Spain’s culture wars look set to ramp up.

Isabel Diaz Ayuso, president of the Madrid region and one of Sanchez’s most acerbic critics, accused the premier of using money from taxpayers in the capital to buy support from regional allies -- a practice that is as old as Spanish democracy. All the same, she vowed to become “the worst nightmare of those who want to steal from Madrid.”

Ayuso’s People’s Party and many of its supporters remain angry at Esquerra Republicana’s efforts to split Catalonia away from the rest of Spain in 2017. Sanchez’s willingness to do business with both Esquerra and Podemos has seen him frequently attacked as a “traitor” by opponents.

Now he’s added Bildu to his alliance, and that makes the situation even worse. Bildu’s origins are in the left-wing separatist movements of the Basque-speaking northern region from which the terrorist group ETA also emerged and Ayuso’s PP regularly accuses the party of supporting terrorists.

In fact, the party has denounced violence on various occasions, but it’s reluctant to let its opponents set the agenda by forcing it to constantly discuss Basque terrorism of the past.

The Socialists argue that bringing Bildu into their orbit is a sign of Spain’s growing democratic maturity and the capacity for people with different viewpoints to work together.

The fact that Bildu supports the budget “is part of this country’s democratic normality,” Socialist spokeswoman Adriana Lastra told lawmakers in Parliament earlier this month. “It is a success of Spanish democracy that left-wing Basques are part of the political institutions.”

Spanish democracy could do with some successes.

A series of political storms over the past decade -- from the global financial crash and the European debt crisis to the turmoil in Catalonia -- has swept aside the old two-party system dominated by the Socialists and the PP. Since 2015, the country has had no stable government and the 2019 election saw the winning Socialists 56 votes short of a majority and five major national parties taking up blocks of seats.

Nevertheless, the five-party alliance behind Sanchez’s budget claimed 50% of the vote between them, compared with 43% for the three main opposition parties spread across the political right.

What’s brought them together is a program where Spaniards can aspire for their homeland to be independent from Madrid without being disqualified from the political process.

Esquerra and Bildu have traditionally been wary of negotiating with the central government. But after seeing Catalonia’s path to independence blocked and senior Esquerra leaders jailed for their role in the illegal referendum, the party’s new leadership has opted for pragmatism.

“Today is the culmination of a change of the paradigm of the past 40 years,” said Gabriel Rufian, Esquerra’s spokesman in the Spanish Parliament. “The state in its most progressive form of government possible is forced to depend on, to negotiate with republicanism, with left-wing pro-independence Catalans and Basques.”

As observers of U.K. politics will testify, handing more powers to regions can end up fueling separatist movements rather than satisfying them. And in Spain it is likely to fuel the rage that is embodied by the far-right group Vox, which won 15% of the vote last year.

Sanchez is betting that instead, he’ll be able to persuade the millions of separatists that they can prosper within Spain and demonstrate to skeptics on the right that his choices won’t lead to the break up of the country.

It’s a potentially dangerous path. But with the result of last year’s election, it’s probably the only way possible to take the country forward.

With this week’s deal, Sanchez has bought himself three more years to make it work.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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