The Historical Roots of Spanish Political Division

12 MINS READJun 5, 2015 | 09:31 GMT
Supporters of Spain's ruling Popular Party march behind a Spanish flag in Madrid on May 30, 2015 during a demonstration following the party’s loss of votes in the recent regional and municipal elections.
Supporters of Spain's ruling Popular Party march behind a Spanish flag in Madrid on May 30, 2015 during a demonstration following the party’s loss of votes in the recent regional and municipal elections.


  • Spain will remain politically divided largely along its historical lines of fragmentation.
  • The rise of anti-establishment parties will inevitably lead to an increasingly complex political picture.
  • This dynamic will continue to foster steep governance challenges as the Spanish system struggles to digest even greater complexities

Fragmentation has become the defining characteristic of Spanish politics over the last six months. Regional elections held May 24 have further highlighted this reality. The ruling center-right Popular Party lost every one of its regional majorities, and its share of the vote fell to just 27 percent from 46 percent in 2011. That the party finished first in most assemblies provides scant comfort — rivals can still form coalitions to take the actual majorities.

The direct causes of this fragmentation are obvious to an observer with even a passing interest in Spanish politics: The ascent of Podemos and Ciudadanos, two insurgent parties with anti-establishment views, has left the Popular Party and its center-left counterpart, the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), scrambling to recover. Fragmentation, however, is not a new feature of Spanish politics. In fact, the arrival of these new political forces, important as they are, have added only another level of complexity to what has historically been a divided country. The roots of Spanish fragmentation extend much further back than January 2014, when Podemos was founded as a political party, and have origins in the formation of Spain itself.


The first reason for Spanish fragmentation is regionalism, which is a product of the manner in which the nation came into being. In 711 A.D., the northern mountainous regions of Asturias and the Basque Country were the only parts of the Iberian Peninsula that had not been seized by an invading Muslim force from North Africa. Over the next 800 years, Christian armies gradually reclaimed the peninsula, fighting their way downward in fits and starts in a process that was far from uniform.

Separate kingdoms, each forcing their way south, undertook this process, which came to be known as the "Reconquista," or reconquest. The forces of Aragon fought down the east coast from Barcelona while simultaneously building a small maritime empire based on Barcelona's thriving cloth trade. This empire ultimately incorporated Sardinia, Sicily and southern Italy. The Galicians focused on the western part of the peninsula, which would eventually become Portugal. Lastly, the Castilians retook territory in the center, forming the geographic core. Alliances were made and broken, sometimes bringing the kingdoms in alignment with the Arabs and against one another.

The Reconquista created strong, unique cultural identities in the north. On the other side of the battle line, Arab influences were infused into the culture of what would become Andalusia. Already well established, meanwhile, was the identity of the Basques, a people who can trace their language and presence in the Franco-Spanish border region to before the arrival of the Indo-European migrations, which began in 4,000 B.C. The survival of the Basque people with minimal outside influence, as with much of Spain's regionalism, can be attributed to the nation's rugged topography. Such rough terrain inhibited communication and favored the formation of strong, distinct cultures over national homogeneity.

So when Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon united Spain by first marrying and then jointly evicting the last of the Moors in 1492, the unified country that resulted was less united than it seemed, and calls for regional autonomy have dogged Madrid ever since. (Madrid was officially made the capital in 1606.) These fissures remain evident in the current political system, in which Spain's regions — the Basque Country, Galicia, Catalonia (a decisive piece of historical Aragon, dominated by Barcelona), and Andalusia — hold their own elections that do not always concur with national ones. These regions did not take part in Spain's May 24 vote, having negotiated during the shaping of the post-dictatorship democratic system the right to schedule the timing of their elections.

A Battle of Ideas

The second aspect of Spain's fragmentation is social. A deeply religious country throughout its history, Spain allied with the Roman Catholic Church, creating conflict when the forces of liberalism spread across Europe at the end of the 18th century. Two Spains emerged. The first was clerical, absolutist and reactionary. This Spain was represented by the church, the monarchy and the landowning class. The other Spain was secular, constitutional and progressive, represented by the peasants, artisans and members of the working class. These two opposing sides repeatedly clashed; reactionaries known as Carlists (often headquartered in conservative Navarre, whose highly religious inhabitants sided with the traditionalists) launched rebellions, monarchs were deposed, republics were established and dictatorships were declared. In this contest of ideas, subtle battle lines were drawn all over the country rather than just between regions, although certain regions were strongholds of specific ideologies.

Though most of the country was still agrarian and thus, in theory at least, conservative, the pockets of industrialization in the country were a different story. Agrarian populations were rarely able to organize meaningful resistance against their masters, but Barcelona's cloth trade had developed into a thriving textiles industry, and the city became a hotbed of anarchist sentiment for workers opposing oppressive institutions. Meanwhile, the resource-rich Basque Country and Asturias were advancing thanks to the iron trade, and socialist movements prospered in both regions. In fact, Madrid was the birthplace of anarchism and socialism in the country: the first Spanish anarchist chapter was established in the city and the socialist Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, or PSOE, was founded there in 1879.

Finally in 1936, the two Spains went to all-out war when the army rose up in rebellion and the workers and peasants stood and faced them. The regional distribution of sympathies became clear as the two sides mobilized. The people of Asturias had launched a socialist rebellion in 1934 that was quashed by the army under Gen. Francisco Franco, and it was he who led the military rebellion two years later, notably supported by the conservative Carlists of Navarre. Catalonia meanwhile was dominated by the anarchist National Confederation of Labor, the CNT, and it became an important center of Republican resistance. Madrid did not join the rebels because Republican forces successfully subdued the Nationalists. But when Franco's victorious army finally entered Madrid in 1939 following a three-year siege, the number of Nationalist flags hanging from balconies demonstrated that many in the city had been concealing their true loyalties. When the ensuing dictatorship ended with Franco's death in 1975, an initially precarious democracy emerged. The Popular Party mopped up Spain's conservatives, and the PSOE took control of the progressives. The two Spains had been co-opted into the democratic system.

At the turn of the century, a new currency was created for continental Europe, and seven years of prosperity ensued. But the crash of 2008 brought with it a sense of general malaise and frustration across Europe, and over the last seven years various anti-establishment parties have flourished in France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The Spanish political manifestations of this trend — Ciudadanos and Podemos — represent the third and most recent layer of fragmentation in Spanish politics. A series of corruption cases involving members of the Popular Party and the PSOE have further eroded voter confidence in establishment parties. Although Podemos and Ciudadanos have both emerged to fill the void created by this disaffected electorate, the two parties perform slightly different roles. With its more radical manifesto and links to Greece's ruling Coalition of the Radical Left party, known as Syriza, Podemos is the party for the truly disaffected, who radically oppose the policies of existing parties. Ciudadanos, by contrast, presents itself as a safer version of Podemos, a centrist party untainted by the corruption of the PSOE or the Popular Party. Its most strongly held position is resistance to Catalan independence, and it was originally formed in 2006 to campaign against that threat.

The Elections in Historical Perspective

Armed with this historical perspective, it is now possible to analyze the results of the regional elections and to try to understand which of these forces are working in which assemblies.

In Asturias, historically a mining region and a socialist stronghold, the leading party was the center-left PSOE, which won 14 out of 45 seats. In total, leftist parties won 28 seats; Podemos gained nine seats in comparison to Ciudadanos' three. Thus one of Spain's traditional leftist strongholds remains alive and well, though the arrival of the new parties has split the PSOE's vote and has robbed it of the prospect of a clear majority (23 seats). To judge the full import of this split one must compare these results to those in the past. In 2011 the results were somewhat skewed by the one-off success of a new local party that has since disbanded, but step back further to 2007 and the outlook was very different. That year, the PSOE won 21 seats, just two short of the 23 required for a majority, and because another traditional leftist party, the United Left, won four seats, a coalition was relatively easy to form. Clearly, the insurgent parties have disrupted the PSOE's historical dominance in the region.

In Navarre — home to the reactionary Carlists in the 19th century and during the Spanish Civil War but with a sizable Basque population as well — the winner was the local Popular Party equivalent known as the Navarrese People's Union, which is heavily anti-separatist. This party took 15 out of 50 seats. The combined winners, however, were the Basque nationalist parties Geroa Bai and Bildu, which obtained 17 seats between them. The Navarrese People's Union's strong performance speaks to Navarre's historical conservatism, showing that traditional political biases remain alive and well; while the Basque parties' success demonstrates the entrenchment of regional identities born from the country's fragmented history. These two forces have dueled over Navarre in the past. In 2011, the Navarrese People's Union won 19 seats to the Basques' 15, but that time the conservative Navarrese People's Union was able to form an uncomfortable alliance with the PSOE (nine seats). This time around, Podemos has won seven seats, adding a new player to what was already a complicated assembly — a clear example of how the introduction of new political actors has turned a difficult situation into a seemingly insoluble one.

Regional identity is a central theme in political discourse in Barcelona and in the wider state of Catalonia. In recent years, this regionalism has been led and promoted by the local Convergence and Union government. But this year the incumbent Convergence and Union mayor was replaced by Ada Colau, a newcomer backed by Podemos. Catalonia has long leaned toward the left, a vestige of its Republican stronghold status during the civil war. PSOE equivalents won the mayoralty in 2007 and came second in 2011, but this time the leftist vote seemingly shifted to the vocal newcomers, and the PSOE won just four seats out of 41. Thus in Barcelona the traditional forces did battle — the left versus the separatists — and an additional layer of fragmentation was averted by the fact that Colau seemed to almost directly replace the influential PSOE vote. The newcomer's victory points toward an even more specific historical parallel: Colau's anti-institution, anti-bank rhetoric has a tinge of the anarchism that dominated Barcelona in the civil war. Her victory suggests that Barcelona is returning even more emphatically to its roots.

In Madrid's mayoral elections, the dominant right suffered a sizable setback, again bringing to mind civil war divisions. As Madrid is the holder of the leashes from which Spain's regions struggle to escape, regional separatist parties are not a factor here. In fact, the local dominance of the Popular Party (24 years of local governance) can be partly ascribed to that party's hard line against separatism. This local dominance was disrupted this time around, however, by another Podemos-supported candidate, Manuela Carmena. The battle within the city between the left and right – the same on show during the civil war — seemingly remains relevant today. Here however, as in Barcelona, the likelihood of this creating a harmful impasse appears small. The PSOE appears to be willing to support Carmena's mayoralty, given it will finally loosen the Popular Party's stranglehold on the nation's capital.

Muddying the Waters

Since 1978, Spain's fragmented political system has been largely manageable. By allocating power to its regions, Spain has dissipated some of the separatist tension. That said, a potentially significant official independence referendum in Catalonia was only narrowly averted in 2014. Likewise the two-party democratic system and a historical national policy of not discussing the civil war has broadly managed to keep Spain's two sides tenuously united, with power passing back and forth between the two. So long as Spain enjoyed economic success, the problems were largely kept under control.

But the economic crisis and the subsequent emergence of the new political insurgents have upset this delicate balance. Assemblies now see themselves split along three axes — regional separatist versus Spanish nationalist, conservative versus socialist and now establishment versus alternative — and these axes do not necessarily align: A voter can be both conservative and separatist, or anti-establishment and nationalist, creating a deeply complex electorate. In Asturias, the PSOE's strength was diminished when Podemos split the left-leaning vote. In Navarre, Podemos' arrival is confusing the already-fractious political situation to the extent that it is possibly ungovernable. And Barcelona and Madrid see insurgents shaking up their traditional power structures. Spain's fragmentation runs deep, but time and strife had conspired to create workable understandings between the parties. The new entrants have thrust themselves into the middle of these uneasy truces, compromising them. Spain, already a difficult country to govern, looks set for even greater problems in the coming years, as the system struggles to digest still more complexities. 

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