The UK’s politicians are advancing towards Brexit like wounded beasts – charging ahead falteringly, blindly and panicked. Last week, though, the academic and political writer William Davies summed up the national mood as a “mixture of anxiety and boredom”. It’s a confusing feeling, worrying about the chaos many believe will ensue after the March 29 deadline, while also being sick and tired of the relentless political infighting and just wanting it all to be over.
However, Britain is far from the only European nation in a state of disarray. In what looks like a misguided expression of solidarity, Spain has ratcheted up its own ongoing constitutional crisis. Amid an increasingly fractured political landscape, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Friday called the country's third general election in three and a half years. The vote will be held on April 28.
Students of British history will know that annual general elections formed one of the six demands for electoral reform made by the pioneering Chartist movement in 1839. After several failed attempts to influence parliament, the Chartists disbanded in the late 1840s. However, their legacy was powerful. Eventually, all of their requirements – from universal suffrage to secret ballots – were enshrined in British law. Except for one. With good reason, as Spain’s toxic blend of instability and stasis, exacerbated by near-yearly ballots, clearly illustrates.
Mr Sanchez, leader of the centre-left PSOE, did not want to call this election. His hand was forced when Catalan secessionists voted with opposition right-wing parties against a radical budget, which, among other measures, would have increased the country’s minimum wage by 22 per cent, pumped €1.3 billion into unemployment and disability benefits, and a further €1bn into science and education. This move has effectively brought down Mr Sanchez’s government and occasioned the dissolution of the Spanish parliament.
The Catalan parties were motivated not by any great ideological animosity to Mr Sanchez’s spending programme. Their real objection is to the prime minister’s refusal to recognise their demands for self-determination. After decades simmering away in the background, the “Catalan question” – much like Britain’s relationship with the EU – is now an issue that has polarised Spanish society. It is also one in which ideas of sovereignty and national identity have driven wedges between communities that had previously managed to coexist.
The decision of the Catalan parties comes on the back of a historic trial that began last week in Madrid. Twelve of Catalonia’s political and civic leaders were arraigned before supreme court judges, accused of illegally organising the October 2017 referendum that resulted in the region’s declaration of independence. If found guilty, they could serve up to 25 years in jail. The irony is that, of the major party leaders, Mr Sanchez was probably the secessionists’ best hope for freedom, albeit of a more personal nature, given that he had previously refused to rule out pardoning the accused after the trial’s conclusion.
Spain is not a mature democracy, relatively speaking. It was only re-established in 1977, following the death of the fascist dictator General Franco. During that period of transition, there was much debate about what Spain really was. Some regions – Catalonia and the Basque Country in particular – sought independence, while others wished to remain part of a wider Spanish state. Eventually, a compromise was found between Balkanisation and absolute absorption. Spain was divided into 17 "autonomous communities", each with tax-raising and legislative powers, and their own parliaments, but answerable to Madrid. This all-things-to-everyone approach was given a persuasive slogan: "Cafe para todos" – coffee for everyone.
Unfortunately, it now appears that the pot is down to its dregs, and the patience of Spain’s citizens, on either side of the table, is running out.
Much could change before April’s elections, but polling suggests a result that is far from clear. Just like those of December 2015 and June 2016. On each of those occasions, the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) won the most seats, but failed to secure a majority, or form a workable coalition. The problem is that the deepening divisions Spain has experienced in the past five years have not been confined to the relationship between its regions – they also exist within its political structure.
In every one of the first 11 general election since the restoration of democracy, the two main parties – the PSOE and PP, or their closely linked predecessors – secured 280 or more of Spain's 350 congressional seats between them. Other parties were mostly restricted to single figures. Since 2015, however, that number has barely crept above 200, with newcomers, the left-wing Podemos and the centre-right Ciudadanos, having broken the two-party status quo. With the far-right Vox party now regularly securing 10 per cent of the vote in regional polls, Spain's next general election will be a five-way race, meaning that coalition horse-trading will be more likely than ever.
As with Brexit’s triumph of ideology over the practical realities of government, the toppling of Mr Sanchez’s budget privileged emotive issues of nation and identity over meaningful policies. Backed by Podemos, Mr Sanchez’s budget was meant to herald a bright new and inclusive future for Spain. If the Catalans had also lent it their support, it would have passed. Instead, the nation is headed towards yet another general election, in which old enmities will play out, little will change, and its people will remain trapped in a similar state of boredom and anxiety to their friends in the UK.
Dan Hancox is a journalist and author based in London