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The attitudes of Non State-Wide Parties in Spain during the Covid-19 crisis

Ayoze Corujo

Covid-19 has exposed the fragility of the Spanish Government led by Pedro Sánchez. Mr Sánchez presides over a coalition cabinet made up of the social democrats (PSOE) and the extreme left (Podemos) with a combined number of 155 seats, in a 350 seats national parliament. Lacking an absolute majority in parliament, the government of Pedro Sánchez had, since the beginning of the legislature, to negotiate point by point every new piece of legislation and major decision with various parties such as the Basque nationalists of the PNV or the Catalan sovereigntists of the ERC. 

Albeit Spain’s majoritarian model has prevailed since the transition to democracy in 1978, in recent months, it has been transformed into a de facto consociational model. Spain’s territorial organisation and subsequent emergence of multilevel parties – national, regional and local – has  been crucial in determining the strategic behaviour of the political parties represented in both electoral and institutional spaces. Thus, the Non State-Wide Parties (NSWP) represented in the national parliament tend to position themselves strategically according to the degree of costs and benefits that their decision brings to their main level of action, the regional one. As Juan Linz has argued, among the Non State-Wide Parties there are dynamics of loyalty, semi-loyalty and disloyalty towards the state depending on the degree of opportunity for the regional/territorial minority they represent.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, NSWP have behaved according to the categories proposed by Linz displayig support, abstention or rejection of the declaration of the state of emergency (Table 1). In Spain, the state of emergency is declared by the Government, which needs to be ratified in Parliament by a simple majority. The high ideological polarisation that exists at present in Spain, with the extreme right-wing party VOX and the centre-right party PP taking a firm anti-government stance, forces the Government to rely on the regionalist political parties for support.

We can identify three stages in the behaviour of NSWP. The first stage, which begins with the first declaration of the state of emergency proposed by the Spanish Government on 14th of March to its third extension in Parliament on 22nd of April, was characterised by maximum loyalty among the majority of the regional political parties, with the Catalan ERC and Basque EH-Bildu sovereigntists remaining in a position of semi-loyalty and the anti-system CUP in a position of disloyalty. Overall, this first stage is marked by a consensus on health measures, confinement of people and the territorial closure of the Autonomous Communities.

The second stage takes place between the fourth extension on 6th of May and the fifth extension approved on 20th of May. Here, NSWP begin a harsh criticism of Pedro Sanchez’s executive, denouncing re-centralising policies that did not respect the self-governing territories. The Basque nationalists of the PNV argued in favour of co-governance, while the sovereigntists of ERC choose to vote against the extensions of the state of emergency, claiming that competences were being taken away from the Government of Catalonia. Other regional parties such as the Valencian party Compromís hardened their position denouncing the lack of sensibility of the Spanish Government with respect to its Autonomous Communities.

In the case of the last vote on the state of emergency on 3rd of June,  both the Catalan sovereigntists of ERC and the Basque nationalists of the PNV displayed semi-loyalty attitudes demanding from the Spanish Government that the health competences, as well as management of EU funds, be returned to the governments of the Autonomous Communities in Phase 3 of de-escalation. It was also agreed to activate the negotiation table between the Government of Catalonia and Spain.

Table 1. Non State-Wide Political Parties’ voting on the proposed emergency measures in Spain.

In conclusion, although the Coronavirus crisis has in many ways increased the sense of loyalty to the state, the truth is that regional political parties have used support, abstention or rejection of the state of emergency measures to maximise their benefits at the regional/territorial level. In this context, it is evident that in multilevel systems there are difficulties in maintaining consensus and stability, more so in a situation of high ideological and national(list) polarisation and multipartyism. The case of Spain is a useful case in point.

Ayoze Corujo is a PhD student in Political Science at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED) in Spain.