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Spain’s elections may further divide the country

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Voters in Spain will elect a new national government this Sunday. The vote will be the country’s third general election since 2015, a tumultuous period in Spanish politics that has included a dramatic no-confidence vote in 2018 that forced the collapse of a right-wing government dogged by corruption scandals. Its successor, a minority coalition led by Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, lost support from Catalan secessionist parties this year, prompting Sánchez to call snap elections.

Opinion polls point to another fragmented contest, with Sánchez and his center-left Socialists projected to win 120 to 130 seats in the country’s 350-seat Congress of Deputies — more than any of their rivals but hardly enough to form a government on their own. The results may lead to a tense deadlock between Spain’s right- and left-leaning camps.

Sánchez’s potential return to power has been shadowed throughout by two other major developments. First is the long-simmering crisis involving the Catalan secessionist movement, some of whose leaders are on trial on charges of rebellion, disobedience and misuse of public funds. Second is the sudden ascendance of Vox, a far-right party founded within the decade that went from obscurity to potentially rivaling the People’s Party, the country’s traditional right-wing faction, to which some of Vox’s top leaders once belonged.

The two story lines are, to an extent, interrelated: Vox gained momentum on the back of widespread anger in other regions of Spain over Catalonia’s controversial 2017 independence referendum. The vote, deemed illegal by Madrid, led to harrowing scenes of chaos and violence in the streets of Barcelona and triggered a constitutional crisis in which the central government briefly put Catalonia under emergency rule.

Tensions have somewhat calmed, but a pro-independence bloc remains in control of the northeastern region’s local government, and millions of Catalans still harbor aspirations for greater freedom from Madrid. The trial of 12 Catalan secessionists has turned politically divisive.

For those sympathetic to the secessionists, the trial seems a vindictive display aimed at punishing Madrid’s opponents. Oriol Junqueras, a former vice president of the Catalan regional government now in the dock, described the trial as “an action against an ideology and against political dissent.”

But Spanish authorities insist that they have no choice, that the Spanish judiciary is impeccably independent, and that they are simply asserting the rule of law in response to the Catalan secessionists’ unconstitutional moves. “Nobody is on trial for what they think,” Santiago Cabanas, Spain’s ambassador in Washington, told Today’s WorldView this year. “They are here because they broke the law.”

Vox’s politicians take a far more strident line. They argue that politicians to their left have been far too tolerant of the behavior of the secessionists and revile Sánchez for his perceived willingness to entertain dialogue with Catalonia’s pro-independence camp. They want to ban separatist parties, scrap the Catalan regional government and drastically reshape the relationship between Spain’s central government and the country’s regions. They style themselves the redeemers of the Spanish national project, even dubbing their political campaign a “reconquest” — an invocation of the 15th-century push by Catholic monarchs to defeat the Iberian Peninsula’s last Muslim kingdoms.

“We need a radical change,” Santiago Abascal, Vox’s leader, declared before thousands of supporters at a recent rally in Barcelona. “Vox has come to defend Spain above all else.”

The party espouses a hard-right agenda not dissimilar to that of other nativist or populist movements on both sides of the Atlantic. To keep migrants and asylum seekers out, it wants to scale up fortifications around Spain’s North African exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. At home, it has vowed the mass deportation of tens of thousands of undocumented migrants.

Vox’s officials have also taken a stand against “leftist” gender equality laws — opposing abortion and Spain’s legalization of same-sex marriage, while claiming that existing legislation discriminates against men. Critics say the party’s ideology is racist, homophobic and bigoted — accusations that Vox’s leaders reject.

Since the advent of Spain’s democracy, many assumed that the country, unlike much of Western Europe, was relatively immune to the siren song of the far right. Just last year, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell suggested to Today’s WorldView that his country had “been vaccinated” against far-right politics by the traumatic memory of its civil war and “the long years of [Francisco] Franco’s dictatorship.”

Now, some of Vox’s potential parliamentarians include retired generals who defend elements of Franco’s legacy. But if the nation’s immunities do not look quite as strong as they once did, there’s a chance, at least for now, that it won’t be the political left that suffers. Instead, Vox has siphoned away support both from the People’s Party — which is on the brink of its worst electoral showing in years — and the Citizens, a center-right, libertarian party that not long ago was itself seen as the ascendant, anti-establishment force in Spanish politics.

Sánchez and the Socialists have pressed this to their advantage, arguing that a vote for any of the parties on the right raises the prospect of Vox’s entering a coalition government. Their opponents make the parallel claim, warning of the risk of a coalition that includes leftists and Basque and Catalan nationalist parties. People’s Party leader Pablo Casado denounced a putative alliance of “separatists, coup-plotters, terrorists, communists” and sympathizers with the Venezuelan and Cuban governments.

Analysts hardly view Sánchez as an extremist. His rise to power has been likened to that of French President Emmanuel Macron, a suave centrist reformer who casts himself as a unifying figure against the far right. But Sánchez has little hope of securing an electoral mandate of the scale of Macron’s.

Instead, his mostly likely path to power will require him to cobble together a coalition with Podemos, a far-left party whose own support has dipped, and a number of smaller regional factions, possibly including Catalan separatists. With Vox likely to be represented in Madrid, experts expect more polarization and gridlock.

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