Spain is preparing for an early general election that will mark a new chapter for the country. The vote on April 28 appears likely to result in a hung parliament and long coalition talks, furthering the process of political fragmentation that began earlier this decade when the two parties that dominated the country for the past 40 years (the center-right People's Party and the Socialists) lost ground to emerging political forces. But the April election will have an additional peculiarity, as it may well result in the right-wing nationalist Vox party, which has grown powerfully since the general election in 2016, when it earned just 0.2 percent of the vote, entering the Spanish parliament for the first time.
For years, Spain was an exception in Europe, unaffected by the rise in nationalist political parties taking place in other parts of the Continent. However, recent events in Catalonia have prompted the re-emergence of nationalist calls to put an end to Spain's semi-federal system and recentralize the country.
Propelled by factors such as the global financial crisis, rising economic inequality, growing skepticism about globalization, and fears of the economic, cultural and security effects of immigration, nationalist and populist political parties have made gains in national elections across Europe over the past decade, and in some cases have entered government coalitions. Spain had remained an exception — until now. The country is finally joining its European neighbors in experiencing a rise in nationalism. But the process is taking a very distinctive shape, setting Spain apart in a new way.
Nationalists Are Back
In December 2018, Vox became the first right-wing party to enter a regional parliament in Spain in more than three decades when it won 11 percent of the vote in the southern region of Andalusia. Vox helped the People's Party and centrist Ciudadanos form a government, putting an end to decades of Socialist rule in the region. Then in February, Vox joined the People's Party and Ciudadanos in an anti-government protest in Madrid, confirming that the party had gained a seat at the table with Spain's main conservative forces. Current opinion polls put Vox's national popularity at around 10 percent, which, in a fragmented parliament, is sufficient to allow this former marginal party to play a critical role in forming a coalition government after the general election.
Vox's sudden rise is primarily in reaction to the independence movement in Catalonia, one of Spain's autonomous regions. Catalan secessionists have been active during the past decade, holding large demonstrations in Barcelona and other cities and repeatedly demanding a legally binding independence referendum. Catalonia's push for secession reached its peak in October 2017, when the regional government held an illegal independence referendum and then declared independence. Madrid reacted to these events by dismissing the rebel government and taking temporary control of the region.
This development had two consequences. First, Catalan independence parties had to reassess their political strategies after their plans to build a republic proved deeply flawed and many of their leaders were either incarcerated or fled the country. Now, the secessionists still govern the region, but they are internally divided. The second consequence was that Vox's popularity skyrocketed. The party shares some elements with nationalist forces from other EU countries because it wants to expel irregular immigrants, supports increased protection for Europe's external borders and is critical of the European federalization process. (This last platform means that a Spanish government including Vox would certainly make Brussels nervous, as Madrid has traditionally supported EU integration.) But Vox's main focus is to recentralize the Spanish state so that Madrid regains full control of areas such as education, health care and the police, which are currently managed at the regional level.
Vox's popularity is forcing Spain's main parties to adapt to a new political environment. The People's Party sees Vox as a threat to its decadeslong domination of the conservative electorate, while Ciudadanos, a party that was born in Catalonia but gained popularity because of its anti-independence positions, now has a rival that is strong on the same issue. As a result, both have toughened their position on Catalonia, even promising to take direct control of the region if they win the general election. The Socialists and left-wing Podemos, meanwhile, will defend the need for dialogue with Catalan separatists, hoping to attract moderate voters. This may prove a hard sell because outgoing Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez sought to appease Catalan separatists through dialogue and promises of greater investment in the region, but the pro-independence parties still voted against his budget bill, forcing him to call an early general election.
Spain's Complex Relationship With Nationalism
These developments are only the latest in Spain's long and complex relationship with nationalism — driven in large part by the country's geography, which tends to produce cultural, political and economic fragmentation. The Iberian Peninsula is a mountainous region home to multiple population pockets that, over the centuries, developed their own cultures and languages. This history explains why efforts by political, economic and intellectual groups to create a single "nation" (in the sense of a group of people sharing a common sense of belonging and aspiring to be sovereign) in the peninsula have traditionally encountered obstacles. It also explains why Spanish nationalism is strong in the country's center but weak in the periphery, where it coexists with other national identities and narratives.
Spanish nationalists tend to identify the union between the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon in the late 15th century as the birth of the Spanish nation. But while this dynastic union did create a state that covered most of the Iberian Peninsula, it did not create a nation in the modern sense of the word. More concrete efforts to establish a common Spanish identity came in the 19th century, largely correlating with similar efforts taking place in other parts of Europe. Spanish leaders attempted to implement legislation and education, introduce national symbols, monuments and holidays, and promote Spanish music and literature. But 19th century Spain was plagued with unstable governments, economic decay and the loss of colonial possessions, which made it hard for the country to consolidate a national identity. Moreover, Madrid's attempts to create a shared Spanish identity competed with similar efforts that were taking place in places like Catalonia and the Basque Country.
This history makes Spain different from Italy, a country where geography also contributed to divisions along political, economic and cultural lines. The 19th-century emergence of the Risorgimento, a cultural, social and political movement, led to a proliferation of Italian art, literature and music and gave birth to a political process that was crucial for the unification of the country in the 1860s. Spain is also different from France, where the French Revolution propelled French nationalism and was followed by government homogenization efforts in the 19th century. Spain experienced no similar developments.
In the 20th century, dictatorships made a stronger push to consolidate a common Spanish identity, defending a vision of Spain based on traditional values, Catholicism, administrative centralization and cultural homogeneity around the Spanish (that is, Castilian) language. The left, in the meantime, struggled to find a balance between Spanish patriotism and its calls for an international workers' revolution. After the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), Francisco Franco's dictatorship sought to consolidate a homogeneous "Spanish" identity, banning regional languages and cultural expressions. As a result, Spanish nationalism became closely associated with right-wing ideologies, authoritarianism and political centralism, a perception that to some extent continues to this day and partially explains why it took so long for openly nationalist parties to re-emerge.
Again, Spain is different from Italy and France in this regard. During the first half of the 20th century, Italy and France participated in two world wars. War efforts tend to bring a nation together, creating a shared experience that leaves long-term social and political effects. Unlike Italy or France, Spain fought only one war in the 20th century, and it was against itself. Moreover, Benito Mussolini's fascist regime in Italy only lasted for two decades (half the duration of Franco's dictatorship) and was not the result of a civil war, contributing to the reasons nationalism in Italy is not as closely associated with right-wing authoritarianism and fratricidal war as it is in Spain.
Where To Next?
Aware of their country's complex relationship with nationalism, the writers of the Spanish Constitution that followed Franco's death in 1975 sought a delicate compromise. The constitution declares Spain an indivisible country where national sovereignty lies in the hands of "the Spanish people," an argument that Madrid has used to reject independence referendums in the country. But the constitution also created a system of autonomous regions with different degrees of self-government, which were progressively given control of areas such as education and culture. Regional governments in places like Catalonia have used these attributions to promote their identities and language, as well as their own (sometimes negative) interpretations of Spanish history.
This model brought stability to Spain for four decades but is now being questioned across the political spectrum. Some support introducing a federal system. But what many in the "federalist" camp actually propose is transferring additional policy areas from the central government to the regional administrations, ignoring the fact that a federation is based on a pact that is signed by political entities that recognize each other as equals. A true federalization of Spain would have to start by accepting the country's heterogeneity, and then seek as much unity as possible; reforms that assume unity as the starting point and then seek to address heterogeneity are representative not of federalism, but of decentralization. Additional decentralization could generate stability for a few more decades, but it would not address Spain's structural issues. And even a modest reform to clarify the powers of the national and regional governments would require a degree of consensus — both across the political spectrum and across the regions — that seems unlikely in the current atmosphere of political fragmentation and conflicting nationalisms.
Additional decentralization could generate stability for a few more decades, but it would not address Spain's structural issues.
The events in Catalonia have also reignited support for a recentralization of the country. Opinion polls suggest that around 30 percent of Spaniards would like for the country's regions to either lose some of their attributions or be directly abolished — a notable increase from the roughly 10 percent that supported these positions in 2005. Spain's conservative parties exploit these sentiments when they argue that Madrid should once again take direct control of Catalonia. But if a federalization of Spain is unlikely in the current context, a recentralization is even less likely, as it would be contested not only by the political left but also by regions beyond Catalonia. (Support for Basque independence is modest these days, but it would be reignited should Madrid seek to regain some of the powers it transferred to the region.)
Finally, Catalan nationalists are having debates of their own. The events of 2017 revealed the obvious limitations of their plans, especially without international support. (Here's another history lesson: external assistance, particularly from the United Kingdom, was key for Portugal's quest to break free from Castilian domination. However, when Catalonia declared independence, the European Union rushed to side with Madrid.) While some secessionist leaders still defend unilateralism, others argue that independence cannot happen without negotiation with Madrid. Some even argue for putting more effort into growing support for independence, as elections in recent years have shown that support for pro-independence parties is consistently close to, but not quite at, 50 percent of the electorate. These internal debates will probably continue for years, though a nationalist government in Madrid, giving Catalan secessionists a common rival to oppose, could help reunite them.
The situation in Catalonia helped trigger the April 28 election, and the region will be a central topic in the upcoming electoral campaign. The debate will, for the most part, remain superficial, as issues such as nation, identity, federalism, centralism and the role of nation-states in an increasingly globalized world are too complex to address in a modern electoral campaign. But they will be the underlying themes of the election, and the results will show how Spaniards feel about them, even if people are not completely aware of it when they cast their votes.
However, a divided electorate, lack of consensus on how to address the shortcomings of the Spanish Constitution, and competing nationalisms mean that the general election will not put Spain any closer to solving its centuries-old territorial disputes. The upcoming election will likely lead to a fragmented parliament, making it difficult for Spanish lawmakers to reach agreements on reforms of the country's territorial model. And if the central government that is formed leans more toward nationalism, which is quite possible, this would reduce the chances for Madrid and Barcelona to reach a negotiated solution to their conflict. While Spain's territorial unity is not under an immediate threat, the questions about its future will remain unanswered after the election.