The Apocalypse Has Not Arrived to Spain Yet

Juan Rodríguez Teruel

12 mins - 5 de Febrero de 2023, 07:00

It should come as no surprise that some citizens, looking ahead to the electoral calendar of 2023, are feeling weary about what lies ahead. By the end of the year, we will have accumulated a decade of political turmoil, both inside and outside Spain. A period of changes, innovations, disappointments... and noise.

A lot of noise, provoked by the rhetoric used by politicians and opinion-makers, where coarse, adjectival words are losing their original lustre by sheer force of grinding repetition: coup d'état, tyranny, illegitimate government... One of the most conspicuous speakers on the conservative spectrum established the renewal of the Constitutional Court as the first day of the new left-wing 'dictatorship'. Weeks before, the Minister of Equality attacked judges for ‘breaking the law (...) because of their machismo’ in order to excuse her own mistakes in the legislation on gender violence. At a breakfast briefing on 16 January, the president of the Community of Madrid branded as 'fools' those who did not realise what she considered a strategy of ‘totalitarian and illegitimate’ institutional degradation by ‘Sanchezism’. Shortly afterwards, a manifesto was published by former PP and PSOE ministers, along with other intellectuals and politicians, traditionally located in moderate circles, accusing the government of ‘favouring a process of demolishing the Constitution’ in order to turn Spain into an illiberal regime.

It is not surprising that many analysts have designated polarisation as emblematic of the new public scene. We may emerge from this decade with little political reform, but with a citizenry more politically divided than ever, and a public conversation that has deteriorated to unprecedented levels. Recent publications corroborate this drift. Political scientists Mariano Torcal (De votantes a hooligans, Catarata) and Lluís Orriols (Democracia de trincheras, Península) certify the increase in polarisation and partisanship in political opinions. Linguist Beatriz Gallardo (Signos rotos, Tirant lo Blanch) analyses the mechanisms by which the function of language as an instrument of communication between politicians and citizens is breaking down.

From this point of view, the current left-wing coalition legislature would be the dreaded culmination, with its acceleration of frontal inertia, governmental instability and underestimated risks to our institutional balances. 

And yet there are many signs that could suggest a different, more nuanced picture. After this decade of massive electoral realignments, and in a legislature marked by extraordinary events, Spanish politics has produced much more continuity than change, especially around the unprecedented left-wing coalition.

Political Jadedness
Of course, citizens have not changed their deep convictions. If at the worst moment of the financial crisis there were signs of hesitation against the democratic system, those doubts soon vanished. If in some nearby countries the electoral rise of populist or extreme right-wing parties has been related to ideological changes in voters (on immigration, gender, authoritarianism), these are hardly observable in the Spanish electorate. 

One note: despite the international turbulence generated by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, concerns about the economy and employment are 20 points lower than in January 2020, when the current government was formed. Even more significant is the lack of concern about corruption. Between 2017 and 2018, almost half of Spaniards considered it one of the country's three main problems. After the motion of censure (motivated precisely by this issue), the problem went into decline until reaching the testimonial levels collected by the latest CIS barometer.

This evolution highlights what has worsened in citizens' perceptions: the growing and intense worry towards politics. Two out of every three citizens now consider political issues to be a major problem. This is an unprecedented level of dissatisfaction in our country. In the past, there have been attempts at concern in tense legislatures or in anticipation of a change of majorities. But the arrival of the new parties and the procés in Catalonia catapulted this dissatisfaction to the level at which it has remained throughout the legislature. 
Figure 1.- Evolution of citizens' concern about politics (1985-2022)

The latest CIS barometer has once again triggered public concern in this regard, although the peak was reached in autumn 2020, as a result of the parties' inability to act together in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, healthcare has been the other major concern that has emerged in recent years, as citizens have become aware of the setbacks in the quality of the healthcare system.

Polarisation, the New Mantra
Spaniards' growing unease with politics has gone hand in hand with the increase in ideological differences between citizens and parties. But it also helps to qualify what this means. Polarisation has become the catch-all argument used to explain all kinds of contemporary political disagreements and frustrations. Everything polarises, and at the same time everything is a product of polarisation.

Polarisation refers to the growth of ideological distance between groups. In a number of countries, a growing alienation between citizens on ideological grounds has been detected. Recently, the term affective polarisation has also been used to refer to the emotional inclinations between these groups. A study by American political scientists Noam Gidron, James Adams and Will Horne (American Affective Polarization in Comparative Perspective, 2020) ranked Spain as the most polarised country among Western democracies. It has been frequently cited in the Spanish media to demonstrate the extent to which politics is dividing us.

However, this study compared very different time frames. In the Spanish case, it also referred to the Aznar and Zapatero era, not to subsequent years. And with similar data from the CIS for that period, the estimate of polarisation was reduced to more temperate registers, as another recent study by the aforementioned Professor Torcal also confirms

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We often refer to polarisation in an impressionistic way to designate two distinct phenomena: a greater tension in political life, and a greater alignment of citizens with the parties. Certainly the arrival of new forces had a mechanical effect on the country's political polarisation: as new groups of voters appeared, the distances between them necessarily grew. Even the emergence of a centrist party was polarising at the time. Moreover, the emergence of Vox has intensified this perception: it is the party placed furthest to the extreme on the left-right axis by the rest of the voters. And its electoral stagnation further accentuates its impact on polarisation, due to the abandonment of moderate voters, contributing to enhance the right-wing profile of its base.

However, this general impression of polarisation should be qualified. Unlike in countries such as the United States, where the increase in political differences stems from an ideological realignment of the electorate away from the centre and towards the extremes, in Spain citizens have hardly changed their ideological positions. Spaniards have become less polarised than we think, but they do see their parties as more polarised, aligning their affective inclinations accordingly, although they continue to observe this process with concern and weariness.

More Cohesion Than Dissent
This panorama of citizens' opinions helps to better understand the other focus of continuity: the stability of Pedro Sánchez's government and its assessment by citizens. In contrast to the extraordinary events that have punctuated this legislature, it is striking how little extraordinary its development has been. 

For the first coalition government at the state level since the Second Republic, stability could not have been greater. Despite the reverberation projected by the media, what was branded as a Frankenstein government will end the legislature with few scars. The legislative agenda has returned to the frenetic activity of earlier times. The only moment in which the legislature was on the verge of collapse (the vote on the labour reform) was more due to ERC's speculative miscalculation - which it would end up regretting - than to disagreements between partners. The executive has operated with a high degree of ministerial continuity (not so much of its senior officials). Internal discrepancies have often ignored party boundaries to align on substantive differences, something that is very empowering in government coalitions. And so, contrary to many initial predictions, the executive will run out the legislature, something that has only happened on four previous occasions. 

To get a more accurate assessment of this governmental stability, we can look at what has happened during this period in our environment. When Sánchez came to power, Donald Trump had been in office for barely a year and a half, and the European chancelleries were being run by Teresa May, Paolo Gentiloni and Angela Merkel. 
Figure 2.- Evolution of trust in Spanish prime ministers (1986-2023)
Since then, Sánchez has known three prime ministers in France, and has seen three different government formulas in Italy, from left to extreme right. Germany changed chancellor and coalition format. The United Kingdom is better left unmentioned. And in the United States, Trump has had time to be ousted and try again for a comeback. Only Portugal has experienced similar stability, although Antonio Costa has recently experienced his first major internal crisis. In all these cases, the governments enjoyed absolute majorities or, at least, greater parliamentary support than Sánchez.

Stable Ratings for and Against
This stability is also reflected in social support, and not only in terms of voting intentions. Despite the curves experienced, the persistence of confidence in the head of government is striking, anchored at around 30%. Always higher than Rajoy's, it is closer to that of his predecessors before the financial crash.
Figure 3.- Levels of reject and enthusiasm for Pedro Sánchez and Alberto Núñez Feijoo
Perhaps for this reason, Sánchez's rating today remains close to what it was at the beginning of the legislature, both in terms of rejection (those who give him the worst possible rating) and enthusiasm (giving him the highest ratings), both of which are on the rise. It is interesting to contrast this with the evolution of Alberto Núñez Feijoo. The leader of the opposition generates less rejection, but his image has deteriorated very quickly. Already since the summer, the level of rejection exceeded that of enthusiasm, and the first barometer for 2023 widens the gap. Unlike Feijoo, Sánchez generates more rejection among those who will never vote for him, but more enthusiasm among those who will. And, importantly, also among the voters of the parties that will decide majorities. One example: among PNV voters, preference for Sánchez is eight times higher than for Feijoo, who also generates four times more rejection.

The assessment of the ministers also suggests that they are well received by the coalition's social base. The level of rejection of the ministers in general is low and reflects well what PSOE and UP voters reward: management without fanfare. Vice-President Yolanda Díaz is one of the ministers most highly valued by the socialist electorate, as well as by UP voters themselves, who systematically reject Irene Montero the most.

This moderately favourable image of the government's performance is not only Sánchez's heritage, but also extends to a large extent to the regional governments of different political persuasions. According to the CIS, citizens also rate the performance of the regional presidencies over the last year very positively, with a predominantly positive assessment, with only three exceptions: Madrid, Cantabria and Extremadura. It is in Madrid where opinions are most controversial. Isabel Díaz Ayuso is the president whose administration generates the most enthusiasm, but also the most rejection: one in three Madrilenians judge her very badly. It is also in Madrid where the weakness of the opposition is most evident: it is where the gap between the PSOE's voting intentions in the general elections and those in the regional elections is widest.
Figure 4.- How citizens evaluate the regional executive performance of the last year (November 2022)
This picture of political stability is at odds with the portrait of trench politics, where a Vietnam seems to be fought every day. That, rather than this, will be the backdrop against which the next electoral cycle will unfold. It is not possible to deduce from it simple continuity. On the contrary, in many cases, such as Sánchez's, the survival of governing majorities (or minorities) will depend on a narrow margin of movement. But it does suggest ruling out major realignments or waves of change, unlike what has happened over the past decade. 

In times of intense personalisation, the personalist leadership of Sánchez and most regional presidencies has so far proved effective in maintaining the loyalty of their voters and those who prefer them as rulers. Often at the cost of winning new support from less convinced voters. It is worth asking whether this formula will prove sustainable in the face of a citizenry that is less polarised than the political strategies applied by its representatives, and whether the opposition's discourse, based on the delegitimisation of plural coalitions, has more to offer than pure melancholy for the past times of a bipartisanship that is more apparent than real.
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