Last Wednesday Spain reached 1 million Covid-19 cases and the numbers are steadily rising. With official government sources admitting that the real data might be even higher –around 3.5 million cases- and the country immersed in a second wave, the implementation of new stricter restrictions were hardly a surprise. In almost all regions we can find municipalities which are now not allowing travel to or from them -with examples as diverse as Madrid, Zaragoza, Burgos, Ponferrada, or Pamplona- and the idea of a nighttime curfew is gaining supporters. Other places might not have censored movement, like Barcelona, but life is still limited: colleges have switched to online classes once again, bars and restaurants are closed except for takeaway and hospitals have started to fill up.
This is the heavy context that preceded the parliamentary session held on October 21st in which Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox, started a no-confidence motion against Pedro Sánchez – the current PM and leader of PSOE (the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party)- for his handling of the pandemic among other reasons.
Vox was founded in 2013 with the main idea of promoting “an alive, free, brave Spain”. In short, their program promises to oppose pro-independence parties and to protect Spanish symbols especially the crown and flag. They pride themselves on not needing to “look at surveys or read newspapers” to form their opinion and “having a clear message”. Some of their attitudes such as their disregard for mainstream media and xenophobic views on immigrants earned them the label of far-right party both in Spain and abroad. However, it was not until 2019 that they were represented in both the Congress and Senate. After the repeat of the 2019 elections -due to the lack of agreement to form a coalition– they won 15% of the vote, a far cry from the 0.23% of 2015.
On top of their political program and using Levitsky and Ziblatt’s  theories there are other danger signs. Calling for a no-confidence vote and claiming that the government is not only against “national unity and constitutional order” but is in fact “the worst government in 80 years” including therefore Franco’s dictatorship was a denial of the legitimacy of political opponents. This being one of the political scientists’ key indicators of authoritarian behavior.
Nevertheless, and even though they are the third political force, their no-confidence motion blatantly failed with only their 52 votes in favor and 298 against. This was an expected result considering PSOE and his left-leaning and regional nationalist coalition partners held the majority and the other right-wing parties had rejected the motion. What was noteworthy, however, was not the calling of the vote per se –PSOE also called for such a motion in 2018 by which Pedro Sánchez became President- but what happened during the debate preceding it.
Thursday’s surprising and relevant moment came in the form of Pablo Casado’s speech. The leader of PP (the conservative Popular Party) was extremely critical of Vox and accused them of helping the government by focusing the attention on other affairs, an opinion shared by Ciudadanos (right-wing party with 6.9% of the vote). Claiming to be the “real opposition” and the only alternative to a “Frankenstein government” he told Vox it was “time to lay the cards on the table, we have had enough”.
Why is this moment relevant?
PP and Ciudadanos have both made local coalitions with Vox in several regional autonomies to form a government. As a direct consequence, they gained control of Madrid, Murcia, and Andalusia. This goes against one of the five gatekeeping techniques part of what N. Bermeo calls “distancing”  or, in other words, ways to prevent democratic erosion. The gist of the critique is that to avoid legitimization of a possible threat, pro-democratic parties should avoid all alliances that while successful in the short term might have devastating consequences in the long term. PP and Ciudadanos decided not to do so and have been attacked on this front relentlessly by the other parties.
PP’s speech and subsequent public “break-up” with Vox could signify that Spain’s second political force is willing to make a statement to support democracy. By voting no they are opening the door to at least two of Bermeo’s techniques to prevent would-be autocrats. First, to the isolation of extremists by not offering their support and, secondly, being open to collaborate and pact with other pro-democratic parties even if they have ideological differences. PSOE’s offer to PP to stop the Executive Power reform they were undertaking and restart negotiations with them seems to be a step at least on the latter.
What should be expected?
Regretfully, things are not so promising. Vox and PP still govern together in three local governments, and Vox’s goal of proposing a vote they could not win might have been for publicity all along. Of the latter, they got plenty, with two days of full coverage of the voting process and speeches. Furthermore, and although this would warrant a post of its own, other signs of democratic erosion are still present in Spain even if we were to take Vox out of the equation. This could be seen in the blockage that forced Spain to have four elections in four years -from 2015 to 2019- due to the impossibility of forming a coalition. We cannot forget that Spain has the highest affective polarization scores of Europe and that many political scientists have risen the alarm to the rising polarisation in Spain’s multiparty system since 2015.
Still, such a clear negative statement from PP was not expected, nor has it been well received. Vox has encouraged a tweeting campaign under the hashtag “#PPnosvamosAVOX” (PP we are leaving to VOX) and have bragged about their rising number of affiliates on their official social media. PP officials have stated that there has been no big number of movements and have denounced telephone harassment coming from Vox so we will have to wait to see the real impact of PP’s stance on voters.
To conclude, although this recent turn by PP is a positive sign in preventing democratic erosion the fact that Vox has been given a two-day-long platform to spread their ideas is a clear tradeoff that might not be worth it if Spanish political parties lack the willingness to continue to isolate Vox and start collaborating with other pro-democratic parties due to the current polarization of Spanish politics. Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How democracies die. New York: Crown, 2018.
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