Spanish Elections Highlight the Post-Franco System's End

8 MINS READDec 19, 2015 | 15:11 GMT
Campaign posters are on display in the streets of Parla, near Madrid, Spain, on Dec. 17, 2015.

Spanish voters go to the polls Dec. 20 in a vote that underscores the end of an era. The country's current political phase can be said to have started with the 1975 death of Gen. Francisco Franco, Spain's military dictator for 36 years. Immediately after, the young King Juan Carlos I surprised the country by overseeing a swift process of democratization. The 1978 enactment of a liberal constitution ushered in three decades of stable two-party democracy, with power passing back and forth between the center-left Socialist Party and the center-right People's Party.

Now, for the first time, everything is different. Juan Carlos abdicated in 2014 in favor of his son, the untested Felipe VI. If polls are to be believed, the comfortable two-party system has now splintered into four parties, with the insurgent Ciudadanos and Podemos mounting strong challenges. And the 1978 constitution is being attacked from all sides, with three of the four contesting parties in agreement that it needs to be reformed. If Spain is now entering a new phase of its history, what can the country expect?

Efforts to understand where Spain is going should, of course, begin with considering how it reached its present inflection point, starting with geography. Spain is the third-highest country in Europe after Switzerland and Austria and has just one navigable river, the Guadalquivir in the south. This has resulted in a history of poor communications between regions and a high level of territorial fracturing. And with its more productive regions scattered around the coast, Spain lacks an obvious geopolitical heartland.

The Center vs. The Regions

Thus Castile, the central hub that has tried to control the country from its position on the Meseta Central — the long plain divided by mountains that bisects the Iberian Peninsula — has found itself having to negotiate its relationships with coastal provinces such as the Basque Country, Catalonia and Andalusia, rather than being able to dominate them. That said, Madrid has also proved willing to use force whenever these regions have become restless, using armies raised in other parts of the country to keep order, as the Basques and the Catalans can testify. Portugal, which was briefly joined to the whole in the 16th and 17th centuries, ultimately proved too powerful and broke free.

Through the centuries, Castile has found various ways of keeping the other regions tied to it. Andalusia, for example, was co-opted by becoming a conduit for Spain's imperial wealth, while the Basques were usually granted high levels of autonomy. Aragon (then containing Catalonia), which was rich but getting poorer when it joined with Castile, was granted similar autonomy. This autonomy declined, however, as the region weakened. As poorer regions, Galicia, Extremadura and Murcia have rarely created problems for the center because of their relative weakness.

The Industrial Revolution created new issues for Spain and Castile, bringing as it did new wealth to Catalonia and the Basque Country, thus empowering them relative to the rest of the country. The strengthening of these regions resulted in a push toward devolving autonomy to the peripheral areas, an initiative that began to take place under a new liberal government in 1931. This prospect encountered resistance from nationalist forces in the shape of the army, which took control of the country in a bloody civil war and installed Franco in power from 1939 until his death in 1975. The military regime overseen by Franco was committed to centralism. It attempted to iron out the country's regional differences by force, banning the usage of separate languages and the observance of regional traditions.

The Post-Franco System

Upon Franco's death, the country acted as if had just been freed from an elastic band, with the new constitution granting increased freedoms not just to the Basques and Catalans, but also to the Andalusians, the Galicians and indeed all the territories, making the entire country a great deal more decentralized than before.

Meanwhile, after 40 years of running the country, the army was sharply depoliticized. Wide-ranging reforms subordinated the military to a role of service rather than rule. In the face of these changes, the military attempted a coup in 1981 but failed, largely because of the resistance of the young king. Since then, Spain has had a functioning democracy; its liberal-conservative frictions have played out in the ongoing struggle between the center-left Socialists and the center-right People's Party, and regional interests have been somewhat met by the regional governments.

The 2008 financial crisis brought new challenges to this post-Franco arrangement. The spiraling debts and high unemployment that struck Spain have weakened its core. A symptom of this has been the emergence of Podemos and Ciudadanos, insurgent parties that have taken advantage of the establishment parties' corruption scandals to galvanize a disillusioned populace. Meanwhile the regions, particularly Catalonia, have seen a resurgence in separatist thinking, as the Catalans have come to wonder whether they would be better off independent. And most political parties agree that the constitution no longer meets the needs of the times, but they differ on how they would amend it.

The insurgent Ciudadanos, which began as an anti-separatist party in Catalonia, wants to recentralize the country, amending the constitution to take power back from the regions and return it to Madrid. Meanwhile, Podemos — the more radical of the new insurgent parties — wants Catalonia to be able to choose whether to stay or go and aims to abandon the monarchy, turning Spain into a republic. The Socialist Party of Spain, the traditional center-left party, has long advocated a more federalist vision for Spain, in which regional autonomy is officially formalized. And the incumbent People's Party recently claimed that it is open to discussion over constitutional reform but would first need to see an overall consensus on the government's potential new shape.

And herein lies the problem: To undertake constitutional reform, Spanish law requires either a three-fifths majority in both the upper and lower house or a two-thirds majority in the lower house. Polls generally have shown support for the top four leading parties ranging between 16 percent (Podemos) and 28 percent (People's Party), which makes for a relatively balanced playing field. With three of the parties wanting to reform the constitution in different ways, and the fourth requiring consensus, the chances of reaching the 60 percent threshold look very remote.

Thus the country enters these legislative elections racked with division and uncertainty. For the first time in post-Franco history, the Spanish government looks as though it will be formed from two (or more) of four national political parties, meaning the players will have to swiftly learn how to build coalitions or minority government agreements. Even if the coalition-building process goes smoothly, this is a recipe for weak government.

The king's inexperience will not help. While Felipe appears competent enough, he has yet to be tested in his role of stabilizer for the country. Moreover, many Spaniards long referred to themselves not as monarchists but as "Juancarlists," meaning their loyalty was to King Juan Carlos I himself rather than to the overall institution. (Spain had had an uneven track record of monarchs before Juan Carlos, but his achievements during the transition to democracy earned him great respect.) Should Spain enter a period of political uncertainty, it is not clear whether Felipe will be able to perform the same guiding role his father did, especially considering that at least one of the political parties involved would like to do away with the monarchy altogether.

In a previous era, the weakness of the center and the ongoing rebelliousness in Catalonia might have triggered an assertive response from the military in its role as defender of national sovereignty. But that institution is now much reduced and largely tamed by post-Franco reforms. In 1975, the Spanish armed forces boasted 304,000 personnel out of a population of 35.3 million, whereas today that figure stands closer to 86,000 of a population now reaching 46.1 million, and there is zero tolerance for any kind of mutinous behavior. For example, in 2006 a Spanish general who reacted to a Catalan push for increased autonomy with threats, warning of "serious consequences for the armed forces as an institution," was immediately placed under house arrest. A repeat of the 1936 military uprising therefore looks extremely unlikely.

A Continuation of Trends Ahead

Instead, what lies ahead for Spain is a continuation of the trends described above. The political center, which is the latest iteration of Castile, has been steadily weakening, particularly since the 2008 crisis. The latest phase of that weakening is likely to be the emergence of an unwieldy coalition government. This government will be unable to undertake the constitutional changes that might reduce some of Spain's internal inconsistencies, and the country will continue to move forward rife with abundant, discordant calls for change without implementing any actual reform.

The upshot of this will be a boost for the regional nationalists, seen most clearly in Catalonia, but possibly spreading to other regions. The Basque Country's separatists have shifted from a militant to a more political approach in their quest for more political autonomy, and this drive may accelerate in the coming years. Some factions in other parts of the country, for instance in Valencia or Galicia, may also vie for autonomy. But these regions are less affluent than their Catalan and Basque counterparts, and it may take more sustained weakness in the center before they feel empowered enough to want to separate.

How this process is managed will heavily depend on the identity of the government that emerges from the upcoming election. A government dominated by the People's Party or Ciudadanos would likely try to resist these separatist forces, and though the army is unlikely to rise on its own, it could still be used as an arm of the government to maintain order. With the Spanish Civil War still fresh in the national mind, there will be little public tolerance for such actions, and any attempts to use force in this way would likely lead to the electoral ouster of the government in question. A Socialist- or Podemos-dominated government, by contrast, might offer more concessions to the regions. In either scenario, regional drift from central control is likely. In these elections, then, the real question being answered by the Spanish public is this: How painful do voters want this diffusion of power to be?

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