In Elections, Spain Is Going to Be Absolutely Fine


A choice between democracy and autocracy.

That’s how Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s center-left prime minister, is framing the coming election on Sunday. When justifying his call for a snap election, Mr. Sánchez drew parallels between Spain and other countries whose recent votes were dominated by the specter of an illiberal regime from the right. “The coming election,” he declared, “will clarify if Spaniards want a government on the side of Joe Biden or Donald Trump, of Lula da Silva or Jair Bolsonaro.” Not to be outdone, Mr. Sánchez’s main opponent, Alberto Núñez Feijóo of the conservative Popular Party, has accused Mr. Sánchez and his leftist coalition partners of “acting totalitarian” and cozying up to Latin American autocracies.

Both messages play into a larger story that sees the election as a contest between two polarized blocs, right and left, each housing extreme elements that will doom the country. Much of the angst centers on Vox, a far-right party that could enter government as a coalition partner of the Popular Party, potentially — in some accounts — imperiling Spanish democracy itself. But this narrative is wildly off the mark. Sunday’s election will determine the political direction of Spain in the coming years, not the fate of its democracy.

For one thing, Mr. Sánchez is not running against a Trumpian candidate. Mr. Feijóo, a former president of the Galicia region, is an old-fashioned conservative politician best known for his calm and understated demeanor. Since taking control of the Popular Party last year, after the scandal-prone and right-wing leadership of Pablo Casado, he has steered the party toward the center while cultivating a reputation for being boring. “I am the serene alternative” is Mr. Feijóo’s unofficial campaign slogan.

According to polls, Mr. Feijóo can wrestle power away from Mr. Sánchez only by entering into a coalition with Vox, the third force in the Spanish Parliament, which is polling at around 13 percent. It is the prospect of a Popular Party-Vox coalition that has set alarm bells ringing, and justifiably so: Vox opposes feminism, L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights and any attempt to revisit the human rights atrocities of the Spanish Civil War and Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. It also calls for erecting a wall around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa to keep immigrants out. Ominously, it has proposed a national referendum to ban separatist parties.

Vox’s bombastic rhetoric and toxic policies pose a serious threat to Spanish democracy — but not as existential a threat as many presume it to be. Joining a mainstream conservative government could normalize the party, for example. Even if this is wishful thinking, it helps to keep things in perspective. Vox entered the Spanish Parliament in 2019 and it first entered a regional government in 2022, in a coalition led by the Popular Party. These are important breakthroughs, especially because Spain previously had no far-right representation in the national legislature. But they testify to the inexperience of the party, which would occupy a junior position in a coalition.

There’s a wider point. Vox’s emergence — however eye-catching — did not signal any significant shift for the Spanish right and politics in Spain. Contrary to common wisdom, the far right did not disappear with Franco’s death. During the democratic transition, from 1977 to 1982, it coalesced around Alianza Popular, a neo-Francoist party that won 16 parliamentary seats in the 1977 elections. Its ultra-Catholic and right-wing founders were known as the Magnificent Seven, because all seven were former Franco ministers, including Manuel Fraga, Franco’s information and tourism minister who, as a member of parliament, helped draft Spain’s 1978 Constitution.

In the late 1980s, with the creation of the Popular Party, the far right folded itself into the new party and went on to influence future conservative governments — including pushing a humanities curriculum during José María Aznar’s administration that whitewashed conservatives’ role in the rise of the Franco dictatorship and encouraging the unsuccessful attempt by Mariano Rajoy to curb abortion rights. Lately, encouraged by the surge of right-wing, populist parties all over the world, Spain’s far right decided that it is safe to come out of hiding. But it was there all along.

Most important, Spanish democracy is strong enough to withstand the involvement of a far-right party in a conservative government. Although no longer the exception in Europe when it comes to the far right, Spain remains different for another important reason: It is remarkably free of the dreaded political pathology known as democratic backsliding, or the erosion of democratic norms. The absence of such problems in Spain is reflected in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report, which ranks Spanish democracy among the most developed in the world. This is particularly striking given that Spain meets the two conditions most commonly found in backsliding countries: a short history as a democracy and extreme polarization. Yet Spanish democracy, served by steady leadership, social and economic advances and a lively multiparty political culture, has held firm.

It is not impervious to threats, of course. A big unknown is what role separatism will play in the next government and, indeed, in the country’s future. All of the nation’s political forces exploit separatism for political gain. In recent years the right, including the Popular Party, has won elections by railing against the separatists, even at the expense of collapsing in Catalonia and the Basque Country, home to Spain’s leading separatist movements. The left in turn uses Vox as a boogeyman to raise the ghosts of Franco, especially in the separatist regions, in the hope of energizing its supporters. For their part, the separatists play the right against the left to advance their narrow objectives, while unfairly depicting Madrid as an oppressor to bolster their claims of victimization.

None of this is good for democracy — in fact, it’s downright perilous. In 2017 Catalan separatists plunged Spain into its most serious political crisis since Franco’s death by holding an illegal referendum on independence. That the country managed to weather the crisis — largely thanks to Mr. Sánchez’s skilled leadership — showed the world that Spanish democracy, though fractured, can still more than function. But it also served as a warning that one of the greatest dangers in a democratic society, even one as successful as Spain, is to take democracy for granted.

Omar G. Encarnación is a professor of politics at Bard College and the author of “Democracy Without Justice in Spain: The Politics of Forgetting,” among other books.

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