Frankenstein and the Corpse Bride
Ten days is a long time in Spanish politics. The political landscape can seem to have been transformed beyond all recognition but at the same time painfully similar.
The Rajoy-led triumvirate of the Partido Popular (PP), the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) and Ciudadanos – the parties hitherto supporting direct rule in Catalonia – has fallen and been replaced with a PSOE-led minority government, as Pedro Sánchez’s no-confidence motion received support from almost all political forces in Spain except, of course, for Ciudadanos. The PP had been found to be civilly liable in the Gürtel corruption case – the early years (1999-2005). Although the PP complained that civil liabilty was tantamount to innocence, nobody was convinced. In fact, criminal liability for illegal financing of political parties was never a possible outcome of the case, the law not having changed to allow this until 2012 and 2015. It made the main plank of the PP’s argument to be allowed to continue in government look very creaky.
This was as favourable a scenario as Sánchez, the ‘traitor’, the ‘Judas’, could have hoped for, an irresistible incentive for him to break ranks with the pro-article 155 alliance and make a grab for power. This was a no-brainer for Sánchez considering the permanently tenuous nature of his position as PSOE leader and with his party languishing in third place in the polls. The result of the motion of no confidence was by no means a foregone conclusion, though. Until the very last minute there remained the possibility that Rajoy might resign, scupper the no-confidence vote and allow the PP to continue in power. That long night I wondered about a 23-F for 2018 – a 1-J, if you will. As it turned out, Ciudadanos ended up in wilful isolation – the only significant political force to remain loyal to Rajoy. Despite Ciudadanos’ much vaunted zero tolerance stance on corruption, it has to be understood that Ciudadanos’ tolerance of regional diversity in Spain is less than zero.
Ciudadanos had also had a bad time of it in the days following the tabling of the no-confidence motion, with their insistence on an ‘elections or nothing’ strategy that not only betrayed an ignorance of the Constitution, but also the complete absence of a plan B. Ciudadanos’ preference for immediate elections is as opportunistic as Sánchez’s power grab, with polls currently putting them neck-and-neck with the outgoing PP government; an irresistible, but ultimately impossible opportunity.
In the no-confidence debate, Rivera seemed disconcerted by his party’s sudden irrelevance and stuck with his standard monothematic one nation speech. The Ciudadanos’ leader and his henchman competed to see who could come across as most contemptuously inhumane: Albert Rivera mocked Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias’ tears as he remembered victims of torture, then sneered, and Carlos Girauta clapped ironically when Joan Tardà of Esquerrra Repúblicana de Catalunya (ERC) remembered Carme Forcadell’s imprisonment with sadness. Such ugly celebrations and macho contempt should worry those bent on Ciudadanos’ achieving power; statesman-like they are not.
Over this ten-day period, the noise from the right has warned of deals with the ‘heirs of terrorism’, of left-induced financial meltdowns, of ‘zombie’ and ‘Frankenstein’ governments, only to watch in horror as the left and a diverse band of regional nationalist forces threw them out of power. No-confidence motions are not about opinion polls, they are about confidence in a government on all sides of a chamber, and almost all of those forces, apart from Ciudadanos, censured the PP for their performance during this legislature. If Spain now has a ‘Frankenstein government’ then Ciudadanos has become the ‘Corpse Bride’. The message fom Congress was: anything is better than the PP, although a significant part of the Spanish electorate might disagree. Sadly, recent repression in Spain seems to have been a lot of fun for those not on the receiving end.
Rajoy’s government was the only thing that gave Ciudadanos power on a national level and now that the PP government is a corpse and elections in Spain are hopefully some way off, they will sit in opposition, as they rudely do in Catalonia. The knowledge that those elections might resuscitate the corpse at some time in the not too distant future is another reason for the muted celebrations from the PP government’s opponents. As it is, celebrations in Spain have been muted to say the least. The relief at seeing the back of the heirs of Franco, at least for some time, is tempered by the realisation that Franco’s other heirs have taken their place and that the future is no clearer.
PSOE as a party is as fiercely unionist and nationalistic as the PP, though probably falls short of Ciudadanos’ almost Falangist passion for the unity of Spain before all else. PSOE seem unlikely to deliver much joy to Spain or the Catalans. ‘Out of the frying pan into the fire’, or vice-versa, is the attitude of the many in Spanish society on both the left and the right, and especially in the regions. Whichever way you look at it, it does not look promising for pro-independence Catalans. Sánchez faces much opposition from within his own party and the positions of other political forces range from outright opposition to scepticism, which does not bode well for the chances that the government inaugurated today will prosper. Sánchez has two years at best.
Sánchez was himself forced to resign from the leadership of PSOE in 2016 following the mass resignation of the PSOE executive in response to the party’s poor showing in elections since he had become leader in 2014, and also in an attempt to lift PSOE’s block on Rajoy forming of a government. He wrested back the leadership of the party a year ago when he comfortably defeated Susanna Díaz in a leadership battle where PSOE’s rank and file defied the barons and the party apparatus.
Since regaining the reins, Sánchez has been loath to defy them again and become, like Ciudadanos, a more than compliant partner in government to the PP, an eager supporter of direct rule in Catalonia that, in recent weeks, has been more vociferous even than either the dark lord or his apprentice. The continued enmity of erstwhile and would-be leader, Díaz, and the ‘barons’ of his own party – González, Guerra, Ibarra and company – make his task at the helm all the more challenging.
An early sign of appeasement has been the rumour of a comeback for PSOE baron and Catalan Spanish nationalist hardman, Josep Borrell as Foreign secretary. If appointed, the 72-year-old Borrell could make his UK counterpart, Boris Johnson, look like a fine diplomat and ambassador. Borrell popped up repeatedly during the 21 December election campaign, not so much in support of the Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC), PSOE’s Catalan branch, as on behalf of Ciudadanos and Spanish nationalist civil organisation, Societat Civil Catalana (SCC) as he called for Catalonia to be ‘disinfected’. Although the 155 bloc has split in Spain and direct rule will be lifted, in Catalonia expect unionism to remain united. The no-confidence motion in Badalona council presented by PSC against the mayor in an attempt to govern the city with the support of Ciudadanos and the PP is testimony to this.
The final major development was the inauguration of the Catalan government after five months of deadlock, with direct rule from Madrid automatically lifted. To the relief of some and the annoyance of others, president Torra was at last allowed to form a government after dropping the imprisoned or exiled nominees. Although blocking these nominations was unconstitutional, the formation of a government had become an urgent necessity. It is clear from the outset that the nine political and civil leaders in prison 500 kilometres from home and seven political leaders and representatives in exile will not be forgotten. It is unclear, however, whether this issue or the Catalan question in general will be addressed by the Moncloa.
In a display of absolute contempt for the institution and the results of the 21 December regional election, Ciudadanos refused to attend the inauguration, alongside the PP. Neither party has shown itself to be a great respecter of democratic processes in recent years so yet another churlish spectacle came as no surprise. Ciudadanos did not accept that they cannot just demand a general election in Spain because they are doing well in the polls, that there is due procedure to be followed, still do not accept the result of the 21 December elections in Catalonia, and have not been able to accept with good grace their increasing irrelevance as events have unfolded in Spain and Catalonia over the past ten days, with or without them. Ciudadanos, like PP and PSOE, only like democracy when it suits them.
In opposition, Ciudadanos have deliberately turned the Catalan parliament into a circus tent with their frequently staged interruptions, walkouts and absences. There has been little respect for parliamentary rules, the rest of the Constitution beyond Article 155, democratic processes that do not go their way, and plenty of abuse for Catalan secessionists. Out of a greater respect for Spanish institutions, it seems unlikely that the party will ‘Ulsterise’ Congress from the opposition benches in quite the same way as they have the Catalan parliament, but it is not impossible. Ciudadanos and the PP will do everything within their power to promote chaos and make Spain ungovernable in the run-up to the inevitable elections.
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Over the ten days, the least important player among Spain’s party leaders has ended up being Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos. Rajoy, Sánchez, Iglesias, Urkullo, Puigdemont (from exile) and Junqueras (from prison) have all had more decisive hands to play than the suddenly and uncomfortably irrelevant Mr Rivera.
PNV, founded in 1895, is variously described as a centre-right Basque nationalist, European federalist, civic nationalist, regionalist, Christian democrat, conservative and conservative liberal party, which seems to cover it. The description of Ciudadanos, founded in 2006, as a centre/centre-right liberal, populist, secular, post-nationalist, radical centrist and Spanish nationalist party is less clear. Many would add neofalangist and ultranationalist to that list. If you want to understand Ciudadanos, you have to look at the names they call the people and politicians that oppose them, a kind of transference. Accusing others of their own faults is a deliberate strategy of distraction and obfuscation.
In the days leading up to the no-confidence vote one would have expected the focus of the international press to have been on the main players – Gürtel, Rajoy and Sánchez – but some English-language mainstream media – in particular the Guardian – continued to focus more atttention on Ciudadanos, mostly in a positive light, as if they had jumped the gun, as if assuming elections would be called and pre-empting a Ciudadanos victory. Ciudadanos’ irrelevance made this particular Rivera puff-piece look embararrassing. A rare and exclusive interview with Mariano Rajoy, on the other hand, would have been sensational.
The media’s insistence on referring to Ciudadanos as a liberal, centrist, pro-European party is baffling for those in Spain that have followed their rise since 2006. Ciudadanos is a Spanish nationalist and supremacist party founded in Catalonia in 2006 with the goal of hispanicising/decatalanising Catalonia. They have come a long way and upset a lot of people with their controversial confrontational style in the past twelve years, nowhere more so than in their native Catalonia, where they opportunistically poke away at the wound of cultural difference in Catalonia and lie about their experiences there, the horrors they have experienced. What is horrible is the use of abuse, disrespect and provocation to foment tension, division and confrontation in parliament and on the streets. Spanish unionism should be more than this.
They disrespect and incite hatred of Catalan, Catalan institutions, the Catalan school system, the Catalan media, and all Catalans who are not also Spanish nationalists. They also disrespect all of the Catalans’ Basque equivalents, but Basque voters simply will not touch Ciudadanos with a barge pole. More than a million Catalans, however, approve of the orange formation’s shiny, well-marketed ideological ambiguity, their particular brand of neoliberal (or is it neoconservative) Spanish nationalism. They actually believe in nothing and love nothing but Spain, its unity and its homogeneity. They will also be and do whatever the money and the power wants them to be and do, these amoral puppets.
The souflé would never have risen this far without the support or contributions of the mainstream media in Spain and abroad, many banks and IBEX 35 companies, Aznar and the FAES, the PSOE barons, Libertas, the EU, ALDE, Macron, conservative Catalan unionists, PPC, PxC, UPyD and PSC defectors and voters, SCC, La Falange, other random fascists and hardcore hispanists, hooligans, Franco nostalgics, Tabarnians, Spanish-speaking monolingual migrants, and people that find Rivera and Arrimadas prettier than their opponents. They are a rag-tag pro-establishment force that uses patriotic populism to move the masses, hence the recent foundation of España Ciudadana by Rivera, whose speech at the launch gave off more than just a whiff of his namesake, José Antonio Primo de Rivera. It’s less ‘make Spain great again’ and more ‘Spain has always been great and we will make it greater.’
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So the power and the money imposed elections in Catalonia but lost and the international community, the EU and the Spanish judiciary have allowed them to block every proposed Catalan government until now in revenge. The illegalisation of Catalan secessionist political parties and the imposition of a Ciudadanos government in Catalonia were even discussed. It is the same money and power that has been pushing elections in Spain to get Ciudadanos into office, a plan which has also failed.
The past nine months have not been much of an advertisement for Spanish democracy, and at the moment PP and Ciudadanos are the big losers. The success of the no-confidence vote is a major setback for the right in Spain. Those hoping for more democracy under PSOE, however, would be well-advised not to hold their breath. Nor should they rule out a return by the right at the next elections whenever they are held. If they were to return, they would do so with a vengeance. There are tentative hopes for dialogue in Spain and a window of opportunity to right a few wrongs, but it will be, as it always is in Spain, very complicated.