Spain’s accession to the EU has spurred the country to economic growth, yet the financial crisis has hit the country hard in recent years. While high unemployment rates have not led to a rise in extreme right-wing parties, a possible trend toward leftist populism may be a key feature of the 2014 EP elections. By Roisin Berghaus


Spain’s Political History

Spain’s twentieth-century history was dominated by the totalitarian Franco regime. On 29 September 1936, General Francisco Franco, a prominent actor in the Spanish Civil War of the preceding years, was named Head of Government and Supreme General of the Armies. This regime was characterised by repression of republican sympathisers and devastating poverty. Although the Franco regime maintained a policy of neutrality, Serrano Suner, a Germanophile, was responsible for the country’s foreign affairs, and Hitler and Mussolini often found audience with Franco and his cabinet. Franco remained strongly anti-Communist during the aftermath of the Second World War and the ensuing Cold War, but his regime was strongly condemned by the UN and generally excluded from Europe’s period of reconstruction. Franco’s brutal and isolationist regime remained in power until the early 1970s. Increasing uprisings by the ETA in 1973, frequent cabinet reshuffling, the crowning of Juan Carlos I and, most significantly, Franco’s death on 20 November 1975, led to the end of Spain’s dictatorial history and paved the way for its democratic future.

Spain’s transition to democracy resulted in a parliamentary monarchy which continues to function today. The monarch is the head of state and the prime minister is the head of government. Executive powers are vested in the prime minister and cabinet, with legislative power vested in the General Courts, and a bicameral parliament consisting of a cabinet of 350 seats and a senate. Spain is a multi-party system, though two parties, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and the People’s Party have occupied the vast majority of seats in congress since the 1990s. Because of the strong regionalist character of many areas of Spain (most significantly the Basque and Catalan autonomous regions), a number of regionalist parties control a handful of seats in congress as well.

Spain and the EU

Whether the shift toward democracy in Spain fuelled EEC accession, or EEC accession spurred the Spanish regime toward stronger democratic institutions is unclear. Indeed, the two events were mutually reinforcing. Franco first applied for EEC membership in 1962, but his application was rejected. It was only after democracy was restored in 1978 that accession talks were reopened. After joining the EEC on 1 January 1986, Spain made strong progress in its economic development. Agriculture, industry and the services sector were boosted, largely due to the regional and cohesion funds provided to the majority of the country as a result of accession. Spain has also joined the Schengen Area and the Eurozone since its accession.

The attitude of the Spanish populace toward the EU has, as is the case with most EU countries, has become increasingly negative since the financial crisis. While 59 percent of Spaniards were in favour of the leadership of the EU in 2008, only 31 percent expressed the same sentiment in 2013. A 2014 Gallup poll cites economic insecurity as being the primary contributing factor to this development. This is perhaps unsurprising, considering that unemployment levels in Spain are today astonishingly high, including a youth unemployment rate of above 50 percent.

Notably, though, Spain’s current economic volatility does not appear to be drawing citizens toward the far right, as is the case in many parts of the EU. This is revealed by examining the results of the 2011 federal election, in which extremist parties made no significant gains. On the contrary, the Partido Popular, a centre-right party, holds the majority of seats in Spain’s congress (185/350). The centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party serves as the current opposition (110/350). The centre-right Convergence and Union party and the left-wing Plural Left party have the third- (16/350) and fourth-highest (11/350) number of seats in congress respectively. Out of these four parties, only the Plural Left maintains a policy of euroscepticism, and their form of euroscepticism is considered to be relatively mild.

Furthermore, in the 2009 EP elections, 24 of Spain’s 54 seats went to the European People’s Party, 23 to the Party of European Socialists, and the remaining seven seats went to a number of smaller parties. This again demonstrates that the Spanish electorate maintains a hesitance toward voting for populist or extremist parties, which may very well continue into the next EP election, if the 2011 federal election tells us anything.

Yet whether the results of the most recent EP and federal elections in Spain can fully predict voting behaviour in 2014 is unclear. Indeed, Yves Bertoncini and Valentin Kreilinger, two analysts at the Jacques Delors Institute think tank, forecast that the European United Left will make significant gains in Spain in the next election. The analysts suggest that, while the party won 2.9 percent of the popular vote in 2009, they may gain as much as 11 percent of the vote this year. This would increase their seat share from one to eight. Although such an increase would, in and of itself, not be enough to dramatically alter politics at the European level, this development would signify that leftist populism is gaining a foothold in recession-hit southern Europe.

In the next European Parliament elections, Spain will send 54 MEPs to represent them at the Union level. While it seems unlikely that a large number of right-wing populists will be among their ranks, it remains to be seen what effect the ongoing financial crisis and unemployment rates will have on voter behaviour.

Image: Flag Spain, courtesy of fdecomite, via Flickr under Creative Commons 2.0 share alike.

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