Spain In The Electoral Storm: My Kingdom For A Horse


Fernando Gonzalez Urbaneja | I don’t want to assign the role of Richard III in the Spanish political drama, but the main contenders, Pedro Sánchez and Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, although with different intensity, are doomed to opt for whatever it takes to succeed and fail, like Richard III. The recent debate (combat) in the Senate between the two politicians with pretensions to rent La Moncloa showed desperation, obsession, determination to get ahead of their adversary in the next electoral contest. Whatever it takes.

There is consensus on the seriousness of the current economic, political and social crisis. A national but also a global crisis. A crisis that requires concentration, consensus, determination and talent to confront it. It does not seem that the Prime Minister, and leader of the Socialist Party, has the management of the crisis at the forefront of his concerns. In view of his speech in the Senate and his instructions to his MPs a few days later, Pedro Sánchez’s priority is to destroy his adversary, to disqualify Núñez Feijóo as an incompetent and malicious politician, promoted to leadership by obscure powers.

Núñez Feijóo’s response was between pondering and astonished. However, in keeping with his character, he entered his adversary’s dialectical game with less bad intentions, but with clumsiness and inability to alter the script of the rowdy brawl to which his adversary challenged him. The session was the closest thing to a lowly spectacle, not at all befitting a political debate at a time of difficulty. And the woolly, sheepish applause of the senators and deputies present in the chamber was enough to cast a further shadow over the picture.

Politics has slid in a good number of countries described as democratic towards a polarisation and confrontation led and capitalised on by the extremes. They do not correspond to the ideological map of the population, but it is imposed because it excites the media who assume that polarisation is good for audiences.

The government faces three challenges by which it will be weighed and measured, sooner or later. These challenges are called: inflation, the energy crisis and the management of European funds. The three are intertwined, until they form a virtuous circle of success or the opposite.
With regard to inflation, which is not just a Spanish problem, the diagnosis is deficient and the measures are overdue. Apart from the effectiveness of the ECB’s monetary policy, which, as the president of the Fed warns, will be initially painful, it is up to the government to explain and apply economic and budgetary policy measures and to persuade the public to avoid the inflationary spiral.

The first signs in this direction are not encouraging or even hopeful. The attempt to control prices (price caps on basic foodstuffs) is in the worst possible textbook. It may be popularly accepted as it sounds good, but it has been proven to be counterproductive. The photo of the proposing minister with the head of one of the big supermarkets (perverse capitalists) is somewhere between comical and pathetic.

The government is very satisfied with its energy management, pretending that it is the leading reference for what Europe is proposing, but this is a hypothesis that is as theoretical as it is voluntarist. The Iberian exception is not consistent with this claim to leadership; Spain’s chronic energy dependence does not help either, and the confrontation with the energy industry does not add up to leadership credentials either. But the government is selling its wares well in order to win editorial support.
Long-term solutions to the energy crisis are within reach, requiring significant investment and effective complicity. But in the short term it requires recognising transition costs, which involve assimilating real costs (e.g. gas) and passing them on fairly to consumers.

Finally, there is the challenge of managing European funds, a blessing in disguise for tackling the crisis and building a stronger and less dependent Europe. If the previous round of European aid changed Spain’s physical infrastructure for the better, this second round should serve to improve productivity, if the seeding is right.

A year after the funds began to arrive, little information is available on their implementation. The government has opted for the “Juan Palomo” strategy (I’ll take care of it, I’ll eat it), overestimating the capacity of the official bureaucracy to manage and allocate these funds. Once this first phase is over, the government will probably be able to argue that it has got it right in the management of these funds and that their distribution is correct and bears the desired fruits. But there are also reasons to imagine a mediocre result, similar to the management of European aid over the last decade, which shows a deficient percentage in the use of these resources.

The government’s argument, which forms a central part of its electoral programme, and which it repeats ad nauseam, offers an astonishing presumption: it does everything well and the results are excellent. Sánchez is tantamount to a miracle. They do not pay attention to the saying “tell me what you boast about and I will tell you what you lack”. He boasts of the greatest economic recovery in Europe, but he is one of the laggards when it comes to reaching the per capita income of the pre-pandemic. It boasts of the labour reform that has stopped the casualisation of work, but the rates of precariousness in the public sector and national unemployment are still the highest in Europe. There are regulatory changes, but with nominative cosmetics. It boasts of an exercise in deliberative democracy and consensus, but records an overwhelming statistic in the use of decree-laws and a botched legislative practice (long, rectified, confusing and inapplicable rules) unworthy of competent and prudent politicians.

A weak government that has made a virtue out of necessity by paying other groups whatever they ask for in order to pass laws. And then accusing the opposition of being irresponsible and insidious for not blessing all the government’s proposals. In reality, the opposition has voted in favour of more than half of the proposals, but the framework set by the government is that of a militant NO to everything. The opposition has not managed to reverse this hostile, unfriendly image, due to strategic and communicative shortcomings.

It is understandable that parties and politicians live in a permanent electoral campaign, but with varying intensity. Nowadays, the campaign is permanently tense, everything runs in electoral terms, which must be exhausting for these politicians, but unbearable for the citizens. This explains why a majority of those polled approve of the government’s measures. Only for a good part of them to deny their intention to vote for them.

The obligatory electoral calendar has two milestones: next May, municipal and regional elections in half of the communities. December, legislative elections. In between, there are early elections in Valencia and Catalonia. A tense, intense calendar that requires prior decisions to designate candidates and overcome internal crises in the parties and coalitions.
A calendar that leaves economic policy and measures to tackle the crisis in the background; that does not assume the risk of a possible recession if expectations do not change. The dominant vector is tragic, my kingdom for a horse; whatever it takes for a vote, whatever it takes for the destruction of the competitor.

About the Author

Fernando Gonzalez Urbaneja
Over 30 years working in economic journalism. Fernando was founder and chief-editor at El País, general editor at the business daily Cinco Días, and now teaches at Universidad Carlos III. He's been president of the Madrid Press Association and the Spanish Federation of Press Associations. He's also member of the Spanish press complaints commission.