The old dictator who ruled Spain for almost 40 years had just been exhumed from the mausoleum he himself had ordered built. A white helicopter bore away the remains of Francisco Franco, past the biggest stone cross in the world.

Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s caretaker Socialist prime minister, hailed the events as a triumph of democracy, even though the country — one of the EU’s great success stories in recent decades — is now living through one of its deepest political crises since Franco died in 1975.

“Modern Spain is the opposite of what the Franco regime represented,” Mr Sánchez said as he celebrated the transfer of Franco’s corpse to a private grave on October 24. “Where there was isolation, there is Europe; where there was machismo and homophobia, there is feminism and tolerance.”

Yet the question now is whether that story of success is coming to an end. Spain is suffering from an extreme form of the malaise that has afflicted the EU: social and political polarisation and the fragmentation of the party system.

SAN LORENZO DE EL ESCORIAL, SPAIN – OCTOBER 24: Family members carry the coffin of Francisco Franco out of the basilica of the Valley of the Fallen mausoleum to a hearse during the exhumation of the Spanish dictator on October 24, 2019 in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain. Francisco Franco, Spain's fascist dictator, who died in 1975, is being exhumed from his purpose-built mausoleum, the Valley of the Fallen. His remains are being transferred to the crypt in Mingorrubio state cemetery where his wife is buried. (Photo by Emilio Naranjo – Pool/Getty Images)
Family members carry away the exhumed body of former dictator Francisco Franco. Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s caretaker Socialist prime minister, hailed the exhumation as a triumph of democracy © Getty

The country is contending with not only the Catalonia crisis, western Europe’s most bitter territorial dispute, but also a rupture in the old political order that has led to its fourth general election in four years this Sunday, barely six months after the last one.The result has been instability and stasis: parliaments incapable of the basic business of approving laws and pushing through budgets. The crisis in Catalonia has polarised opinion on both sides of the political spectrum, despite signs that tempers could soon cool.

“We have to end the impasse which is Spain’s principal political problem,” Mr Sánchez said during a party leaders’ TV debate on Monday. 

Opinion polls indicate that Mr Sánchez’s Socialist party will top the polls, but possibly on a declining share of the vote and with no chance of a majority in the 350-seat Chamber of Deputies. But the numbers are too close to say whether the combined forces of the left or the right will come out on top, and a majority could well be beyond either.

New political parties — such as the radical left Podemos and the pro-market Ciudadanos — that emerged in response to the financial crisis and to corruption scandals, have proved strong enough to undermine the old forces of centre-right and centre-left, but too weak to displace them.

Sunday’s poll, in which Catalonia is the dominant issue but which has also highlighted fears over a slowing economy, was triggered by Mr Sánchez’s failure to agree a coalition deal with Podemos. Ciudadanos refused even to entertain the possibility of an agreement with the Socialists until the very last moment. 

Politics in the country has long been polarised. There has never been a coalition government in modern democratic Spain. One veteran of the centre-right People’s party accuses the Socialists — banned from politics during Franco’s reign — of having an air of moral superiority. But the politics of division are spreading. The far-right is on the rise in a country long considered to be inoculated against such extremism because of the living memory of fascism. 

Catalan separatist parties, who in other circumstances would hold the balance of power after any election, are now shunned by both the Socialists and the PP. Huge, sometimes violent protests have swept through Catalonia since Spain’s Supreme Court handed down prison sentences in October to nine separatists for their part in an illegal 2017 referendum and declaration of independence.

Pere Aragones, Catalonia's vice president, speaks during an interview in Barcelona, Spain, on Friday, July 27, 2018. “We’re not giving up our political project, but it will require a different time and a different balance of political forces,” Aragones said. Photographer: Angel Garcia/Bloomberg
Pere Aragonès, deputy head of the Catalan government. The crisis in the region has polarised political opinion in Spain © Angel Garcia/Bloomberg

Catalonia’s pro-independence parties have the support of about 2m of the region’s 4m voters. But the separatist campaign has triggered a backlash elsewhere in Spain, where the far-right Vox party — which has called for a state of emergency to be imposed in the region — hopes to become the third biggest force in parliament. Meanwhile Ciudadanos, which supporters had hoped could establish itself as a liberal centrist party, has seen its support plunge in the polls. 

Felipe González, Spain’s Socialist prime minister between 1982 and 1996, has contrasted the country’s political instability with the long-lasting post-Franco governments, when Spain focused on joining first the European Community and then the euro. Speaking last month, he argued that Spain has an “Italian parliament” in terms of fractured party support — but no “Italian politicians” to master it. 

His comparison was a wounding one. Until recently, Spain was seen as an exemplary democracy, Italy a dysfunctional one. His point was that Spain needs to move beyond polarisation. Yet the opposite appears to be the case.

“Now we have two kinds of polarisation feeding off each other,” says Ignacio Torreblanca of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “One is the ideological divide between left and right, the other is the debate over Catalonia.”

Spanish polling chart showing how tight the race is, with no party polling above 30%. The Socialist party has a slim lead over the People's party

At first sight, the Socialist headquarters in Barcelona looks more like a police station under siege than a nerve centre of the country’s ruling party. The building is marked by splashes of yellow paint — the colour of Catalan independence protests — while the walls on either side have been daubed with separatist graffiti. Even at midday, the shutters are down.

Yet, if Mr Sánchez is to form a stable government, his Socialist party needs a strong result in Catalonia.

“The party has never had a good victory in the general election without doing well in Catalonia,” says Salvador Illa, the Socialists’ campaign manager in the region. He highlights Catalonia’s status, together with Andalucía, as the country’s most populous regions and his party’s two biggest vote banks.

In the April general election, the Socialists won 29 per cent of the national vote, putting the party comfortably in first place but denying it the number of seats it wanted to form a stable government. In Catalonia, it won 23 per cent, coming within 60,000 votes of the triumphant pro-independence party, the Catalan Republican Left, or ERC, and netting 12 seats. Despite the polls’ indications of slippage in the Socialist vote, Mr Illa says he expects to equal or better that result as a result of divisions in the separatists’ ranks and support for the socialists “proportionate” response to the crisis. 

Pablo Casado, leader of Partido Popular (PP), from second right, Pablo Iglesias, leader of Unidas Podemos, and Albert Rivera, leader of Ciudadanos, arrive to take part in an electoral debate in Madrid, Spain, on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. A slew of opinion polls published Monday by Spanish media signals that the country’s political stalemate continues in the week before elections on November 10. Photographer: Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg
The party leaders arrive on stage for a TV debate © Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg

Nevertheless, the paint stains and graffiti are testimony to the strength of feeling among his opponents. “Our party leader has just been sentenced to 13 years in prison,” says Sergi Sabrià, head of the ERC group in the Catalan parliament, referring to the verdict against Oriol Junqueras, the former vice-president of the regional administration. “We are not going to have any problem with voter mobilisation; people are furious.”

The conflict between Catalan separatists and Madrid has deep roots. One of the more accurate predictors of whether a voter favours separatism is whether most of their grandparents were born in Catalonia or instead migrated from other, typically poorer, parts of Spain. 

There are radically different accounts of why the independence campaign has gained support over the past decade. Many separatists cite a 2010 Spanish constitutional court ruling invalidating parts of the statute setting out the region’s powers — a decision that still infuriates pro-independence supporters who often denounce the Spanish state as “fascist”.

But critics of separatism link the movement’s rise to a string of corruption scandals; in reaction, the region’s political establishment rebranded itself, embraced separatism and tried to outbid pro-independence groups on the issue.

The People’s party also talks of what it sees as a basic error by Madrid in the democratic era: the central government’s decision to take a lower profile in everyday life in Catalonia. 

Catalan pro-independence protesters scuffle with by Catalan police, as they try to block the entrance of the main train station, during a demonstration in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Oct. 28, 2019. The protest organised by the Committees for the Defense of the Republic, also known as CDRs, have prompted police to form a security perimeter around the train station to block demonstrators from disrupting travellers. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Catalan pro-independence supporters clash with police in Barcelona © Emilio Morenatti/AP

“In the last 30, 40 years in Catalonia, Spain had a policy of appeasement of nationalism,” says Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, the PP’s lead candidate in the region. “The [Catalan] nationalists were given all the power in education, culture and communication.”

The PP, which has been critical of what it sees as Mr Sánchez’s passive approach towards Catalonia, is only a minor player in the region. At the last election, it won just one seat and less than 5 per cent of the vote. But now, many national polls are showing the PP narrowing the gap on the Socialists, a trend that Ms Álvarez de Toledo attributes to, among other factors, her party’s tough line on separatism.

Recent surveys show Vox winning around 13 per cent of the vote. The party predicts its supporters, attracted by its tough line on Catalonia, will turn out in force on Sunday, even as overall participation falls. 

“Very few of our voters are disappointed with us,” says Ivan Espinosa de los Monteros, Vox’s number three in command. “We have been very hard with the left and with separatism, which in our opinion are the two threats facing Spain.”

31 October 2019, Spain, L'hospitalet De Llobregat: Leader of Vox Santiago Abascal speaks during a party election campaign ahead of the November 2019 Spanish general election. Photo: David Zorrakino/Europa Press/dpa
Santiago Abascal, leader of the far-right Vox party, which hopes to become the third biggest force in parliament © David Zorrakino/DPA

There are indications that the forces of polarisation in Spain may yet ebb. The clearest is that the confrontation in Catalonia appears to be losing its edge. Protests continue, but the large-scale violent exchanges between protesters and police of the first few days after the prison sentences have not yet returned.

A senior ERC leader argues that there is no point in further stoking tension with the central government and no prospect of independence in the immediate future. Instead, he says, it is a time for dialogue and consolidation. Madrid says the separatists’ demands for discussion, including an amnesty for prisoners convicted of secession, are not open for negotiation.

But Mr Sánchez’s team does suggest a way to move beyond the impasse for Spain as a whole. It believes that as long as the Socialists remain the largest group in parliament, that fatigue will become a factor and allow them to form a government. Their bet is that, such is the public’s exhaustion with voting, the opposition will not dare trigger a fifth election in five years. After that, passing laws, approving budgets and attempts at structural reform will depend on formal or informal coalition building.

There are other reasons to suggest that Spain could bounce back. Despite unemployment of 14 per cent — and twice that for younger people — over the past decade, the country has staged an impressive recovery from its devastating economic crisis and ranks as one of the fastest growing economies in the eurozone. 

It had previously successfully accommodated millions of immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere in the EU. Today one in eight people living in the country was born outside Spain.

SEVILLE, SPAIN - OCTOBER 31: President for Partido Popular (People's Party) and candidate in Spain's general election, Pablo Casado attends a party meeting on October 31, 2019 in Seville, Spain. (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
Pablo Casado, leader of the centre-right People's party, which many national polls show is narrowing the gap with the Socialists © Aitor Alcalde/Getty

Mr Sánchez’s critics accuse him of stirring up Franco-era divisions by digging up his body, which they depict as an electioneering stunt. But the exhumation passed reasonably smoothly, without noticeably inflaming the election race, which has featured less incendiary rhetoric than April’s contest. Instead, the PP and Socialists are concentrating on scooping up disaffected centrist voters from Ciudadanos. 

Javier Cercas, an author who has explored the ruptures caused by the civil war, dismisses the idea that Franco’s legacy is still divisive in Spanish society — and hails the country’s transformation since the dictator’s death as an enduring accomplishment. “Despite their enormous problems and defects, these last 40 years have been, in terms of liberty, prosperity and equality, the best in Spain’s modern history,” he says.

Yet, there is also plenty of pessimism ahead of Sunday’s vote. 

“The polls suggest that the impasse will go on, with a rise in support for the extreme right,” says Pablo Simón, professor of politics at Madrid’s Carlos III university: “It’s hard to see how a majority of deputies in the new Congress will agree on any common plan. Spain’s problem is not who will be the next government; it is whether the country can be governed.” 

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