Polarization will put Spain’s young democracy to the test

Voters in Spain will go the polls in a snap election on July 23. The Socialist government could fall to a surging rightist coalition. This is hardly shocking: A European country enacts a basic ritual of democracy and accepts the principle of alternation in power. The current election campaign, however, is tearing the country apart. Vitriol has displaced civil debate.

This election is a good moment to appreciate the near-miracle of Spanish democracy.

No country in Western Europe has had a more improbable rise out of despotism. The brutally repressive Spanish Inquisition, in which errant believers were stretched on racks or burned at the stake, lasted for centuries. Spain exported its intolerant and repressive culture to Latin America, bequeathing to the continent a poisoned legacy of rigid class structures, deep racism, and ruthless violence. Spain’s fascist leader Francisco Franco, who ruled for four decades until his death in 1976, embodied those values.

As Franco approached death, he named one of his close collaborators, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, to succeed him. That seemed to guarantee a continuation of fascist rule. But on a December morning in 1973, terrorists blew up Carrero’s car as he drove to church. This was one of the most effective assassinations in modern times. The assassins said they did it because Carrero had become “irreplaceable.” They were right. With him gone, no one was strong enough to keep the fascists in power. His murder opened Spain’s path to democracy.

A new political system emerged, centered on an elected parliament and a figurehead king. Spain held its first modern election in 1977, but that didn’t seal the deal. Diehard fascists were determined to restore the old dictatorship. In 1981, 200 soldiers charged into Parliament, took legislators hostage, and called on the king to support a return to absolutism. He refused. That ended the uprising.

Although democracy survived, two regions of the country sought to secede. Basques intensified a terror campaign, killing more than 250 people in the late 1970s. Catalan separatists, from the region around Barcelona, also tried to break away from Spain. Through long and bloodstained negotiations, which led to grants of substantial autonomy for both regions, the country was able to hold together.

The crowning moment in Spain’s transition came when it was admitted to the European Union in 1992. That was its ticket to stability and prosperity. Large EU subsidies have transformed the country into a seemingly stable democracy of 47 million people.

This spring, however, a far-right political party called Vox won sweeping victories in local elections. The far-left party suffered heavy losses. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, a self-described feminist who has a majority-female cabinet, responded by calling an early election. Polls suggest he may lose. That could mean not just a change of government but a seismic political and social shift.

Polarization has reached levels not seen since the days of dictatorship. Spaniards, like voters in many countries, are in an ornery mood.

Rightist politicians are winning votes by declaring that immigration is out of control; subsidies for the unemployed are so high that they encourage laziness; rights granted to gay and trans people are excessive; sex education in schools has gone too far; and laws against gender violence discriminate against men. Bestselling books echo the backlash against “woke” ideology. One, called “The Trap of Diversity,” argues that identity politics divides working people in ways that only benefit the elite. Another, “Against the Victim,” asserts that people love to claim they are oppressed because that “immunizes them against all criticism and certifies their innocence.”

This polarization has led some Spaniards to fear that their democracy is in danger. “Spain is reaching levels of confrontation like those in the United States and Britain, but without the solidity that comes from centuries of democratic experience,” the commentator Andrea Rizzi wrote in the Madrid daily El País. The newly emergent far right, she observed, “suggests that the adversary is an enemy of the nation and is destroying it” and uses “a vocabulary reminiscent of authoritarian regimes.”

Spain’s democracy is not yet in danger of collapse, but political debate has degenerated into a level of bitterness the country has not seen since the dictatorship ended nearly half a century ago. This month’s election may mark the beginning of a new era for Spain — not just a change in government but a deepening division that bodes ill for the country’s future.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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