CIVICUS speaks about the recent election in Spain with Núria Valls, president of the Ibero-American League of Civil Society Organisations (Liga Iberoamericana), a platform that brings together 29 civil society organisations from 17 Ibero-American countries, specialising in human, social and community development. Legally incorporated in Spain, the Ibero-American League has worked on childhood, youth, education and labour issues from a human rights perspective for 20 years, by providing advice to governments, monitoring and evaluating programmes and building networks and doing public policy advocacy at the local, domestic and international levels.
What were the causes of the political instability that required Spain to hold two elections in 2019?
The widespread rejection of the political system that was established following the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970s led to a significant deterioration of the two traditional parties: the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the Popular Party (PP). These political parties were very used to bipartisanship and ruling with the support of large majorities. When other parties appeared on stage, pacts and coalitions became necessary, which until then had only been a feature of local politics. It became necessary to include more minority parties and nationalist parties from the country’s periphery, which does not always pay electorally.
In addition, the political conflict in Catalonia had radicalised the positions of parties present at the state level, which entered into a sort of competition to show who was the most Spanish. Even leftist parties do not dare to speak in recognition of Spain’s national plurality because the media, and particularly those from the capital, Madrid, criticise them aggressively.
In the first elections of 2019, held in May, the PSOE felt uncomfortable when negotiating with the leftist and independent parties that had supported the motion of censure leading to the replacement of the conservative government led by the PP. On top of this, the personal ambitions of the leaders of both the PSOE and Unidas Podemos, the left-wing coalition formed in 2016 by the Podemos political movement and several other political forces, made a pact impossible at that time.
The PSOE misread the polls and believed that a second election would give them the majority, and therefore the possibility of governing alone. But ahead of the November elections, people were angry because, as they saw it, due to their leaders’ personal egos parties had not done their job, and instead had made us waste time and money. All of this further deepened dissatisfaction with politics.
Would you say that the extreme right party Vox benefited from this?
Vox was one of the parties that benefited the most from the second election. It doubled its number of votes and became the third most represented party, with 52 seats, right behind the two major parties.
Traditionally in Spain it was considered that there was no extreme right because the PP encompassed the entire right wing. But Vox emerged with great force and with a Francoist, aggressive anti-human rights discourse, presenting itself as the guarantor of the unity of Spain against separatism. In fact, the way the situation in Catalonia has been handled has been a breeding ground for the acceptance of increasingly right-wing discourse, justified in the need to preserve the unity of Spain.
Another electoral result worth mentioning is that of Ciudadanos, a seemingly liberal party, which not long ago thought it would soon be in government, but which practically disappeared given its meagre results. Ciudadanos had focused its discourse on territorial conflict and on the unity of Spain. Voters who prioritised this issue preferred Vox, which has a more radical stance.
Despite the good results obtained by Vox, however, it was the left that won the elections and this time they worked fast. In just 24 hours a pact between the PSOE and Unidas Podemos was forged, which had previously been impossible to achieve. Citizens found it hard to understand why what a few months ago had been impossible was now possible. But what is important is that the formation of a government was prioritised against the feeling of instability and paralysis that has prevailed in recent years. Faced with this broad pact among leftist parties, the right wing reacted with a very aggressive discourse, strongly rooted in the Francoist tradition.
Finally, due to the abstention of Catalan pro-independence parties, it was possible to form a government. Governing will not be easy, but it promises to be a very interesting experience, which offers the possibility of creating change. It will be a very broad government, with 22 ministerial portfolios, notably characterised by gender parity.
How would you characterise Vox as a political force and ideological trend?
Vox is a far-right party that does not hide its xenophobic anti-human rights discourse. It prioritises two major issues: the unity and centralisation of Spain, and the elimination of gender policies.
This is a worrying phenomenon that is not only happening in Spain. Extreme right parties arise in times of citizen frustration in the face of economic and social inequalities in a globalised world. There is an international movement – which spans Brazil, France, Italy, Norway, the USA and many other countries – that focuses on stigmatising and criminalising migration and so-called ‘gender ideology’. The support for these speeches by some religious congregations should also be analysed.
These parties use democracy’s rules to promote an anti-human rights ideology. It is paradoxical that democracy, which was born under the values of participation and respect for rights, is currently being used to strengthen and foster an ideology that is totally opposed to those values.
How did this right turn take place just a few years after so many people had taken part in protests for economic and social justice?
An element of this turn has to do with the anger that a section of the population feels toward politics. Corruption of political parties has had a great impact on society, as people think that politicians are in politics only to enrich themselves. There is no idea of politics in the broader sense as linked to the common good.
In particular, there is a bloc of young people who see a very difficult future for themselves. They have very low expectations and view a vote for Vox is an anti-system choice. This is the vote of those who think that migration will deprive them of jobs and state resources, and that gender policies are an exaggeration. Vox is very apt at using social media with direct messages often based on falsehoods but that are reaching the population.
The territorial conflict between Spain and Catalonia has also functioned as a catalyst for this anger. The message of ‘we’ll go after them (‘A por ellos’) used to despatch police units from the rest of Spain towards Catalonia to try to prevent the referendum on 1 October 2017, later reinforced by a message from the King, aroused an anti-Catalan sentiment. The right bloc, and especially Vox, appropriated the defence of the monarchy against republican leftist parties.
How is this process being experienced by civil society? Do you think that the space for civil society is being degraded in Spain?
Organised civil society was caught a little off guard. On the one hand, we did not believe that electoral support for Vox would be so strong, and on the other hand, we had a debate about whether we should respond to them, and therefore give them more media coverage, or whether it was best to ignore them. The second option prevailed, among political parties as well. And the strategy of ignoring them contributed to the increase in votes for Vox. There was nobody left to respond to their expressions bluntly and with clear arguments.
Now civil society debate revolves around the need to defend human rights clearly and forcefully and respond to any expression that hurts or stigmatises any population group.
In the territories where it is governing together with the PP and Ciudadanos, such as Andalusia, Madrid and Murcia, one of Vox's first actions has been to press for the end of aid to organisations working with women or vulnerable groups.
We are experiencing a risk of regression in freedoms and therefore it is necessary for us to work in a more united way than ever as civil society. A clear communication strategy must be developed to reach all people. Often we in civil society remain locked in our own spheres and find it hard to take our message beyond our circles.
Another strategy used by the right wing, and especially by Vox and the PP, is to use the justice system to settle political disagreements. Much of the judiciary in Spain is still very ideological, since many conservative judges remain as heirs of the Franco regime. As a result, sentences have abounded against the freedom of expression on social media, including censorship of songs. And many people have also been convicted for protesting publicly, especially in Catalonia.
How has the situation in Catalonia evolved since the 2017 referendum?
The referendum of 1 October 2017 was an act of empowerment by a section of the Catalan population that participated very actively, with a collective sentiment of civil disobedience, to achieve a better future against a state that did all it could to prevent it from happening. The violent state repression unleashed during the referendum and afterwards increased the collective feeling of a big section of the population in favour of independence, and especially in favour of the right to decide through elections.
After the referendum, repression against Catalan pro-independence groups increased, and the state put all its police and judicial machinery in motion. In addition, it launched article 155 of the Constitution, which provides the state with a coercive mechanism to bind the autonomous communities that breach constitutional or legal obligations or seriously undermine Spain’s ‘general interest’. Article 155 suspended the autonomy of Catalonia from 27 October 2017 until 2 June 2018, when new regional elections were held. It amounted to almost a year of political, financial and administrative paralysis in Catalonia.
Previously, on 16 October 2017, the leaders of the two most representative Catalan pro-independence groups, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sánchez, had been imprisoned for mediating in a spontaneous and peaceful demonstration in front of a building of the Generalitat, the Catalan government, where the police were conducting a search. They were imprisoned preventively, with no possibility of release before their trial.
Following these arrests, judicial repression against the government of Catalonia increased, culminating in the detention of the vice president and five government ministers plus the president of the parliament of Catalonia, all of whom were placed in pre-trial detention. For his part, the president of the Generalitat went into exile in Belgium along with four more ministers, and two other politicians went into exile in Switzerland. The government of Spain made statements affirming that it had decapitated the pro-independence movement.
This entire judicial and repressive process further complicated the political situation in Catalonia. The ruling issued on 14 October 2019, which sentenced independence leaders to prison terms of between nine and 13 years, amounting to a total of 100 years, caused new street protests to break out.
Unlike all previous pro-independence demonstrations since 2012, the latest protests caused many riots and faced police repression. In addition, young people were the protagonists and adopted a more radical attitude towards repression. In that context, the anonymous Democratic Tsunami movement emerged. Inspired by the Hong Kong protests, this movement uses social media to call for large peaceful mobilisations in various locations, such as the border or the airport. The police have tried to discover who is behind this movement, but it really is just an instance of collective empowerment by pro-independence civil society.
At present, following the latest Spanish elections in which the PSOE and Unidas Podemos required the abstention of the pro-independence party Republican Left of Catalonia to be able to form a government, the picture has changed. The government has pledged to initiate a dialogue with the government of Catalonia and to bring any agreements reached through dialogue to a citizen vote. This will not be easy because right-wing parties, using any judicial remedy at their disposal, are trying to boycott the process. An effort must be made to find a solution for the situation of pro-independence prisoners that facilitates a peaceful and political way out and allows a process of real dialogue to begin.