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  • -Spain will remain politically divided largely along its historical lines of fragmentation.
  • -The rise of anti-establishment parties will inevitably lead to an increasingly complex political picture.
  • -This dynamic will continue to foster steep governance challenges as the Spanish system struggles to digest even greater complexities

Fragmentation has become the defining characteristic of Spanish politics over the last six months. Regional elections held May 24 have further highlighted this reality. The ruling center-right Popular Party lost every one of its regional majorities, and its share of the vote fell to just 27 percent from 46 percent in 2011. That the party finished first in most assemblies provides scant comfort - rivals can still form coalitions to take the actual majorities.

The direct causes of this fragmentation are obvious to an observer with even a passing interest in Spanish politics: The ascent of Podemos and Ciudadanos, two insurgent parties with anti-establishment views, has left the Popular Party and its center-left counterpart, the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), scrambling to recover. Fragmentation, however, is not a new feature of Spanish politics. In fact, the arrival of these new political forces, important as they are, have added only another level of complexity to what has historically been a divided country. The roots of Spanish fragmentation extend much further back than January 2014, when Podemos was founded as a political party, and have origins in the formation of Spain itself.


The first reason for Spanish fragmentation is regionalism, which is a product of the manner in which the nation came into being. In 711 A.D., the northern mountainous regions of Asturias and the Basque Country were the only parts of the Iberian Peninsula that had not been seized by an invading Muslim force from North Africa. Over the next 800 years, Christian armies gradually reclaimed the peninsula, fighting their way downward in fits and starts in a process that was far from uniform.

Separate kingdoms, each forcing their way south, undertook this process, which came to be known as the "Reconquista," or reconquest. The forces of Aragon fought down the east coast from Barcelona while simultaneously building a small maritime empire based on Barcelona's thriving cloth trade. This empire ultimately incorporated Sardinia, Sicily and southern Italy. The Galicians focused on the western part of the peninsula, which would eventually become Portugal. Lastly, the Castilians retook territory in the center, forming the geographic core. Alliances were made and broken, sometimes bringing the kingdoms in alignment with the Arabs and against one another.

The Reconquista created strong, unique cultural identities in the north. On the other side of the battle line, Arab influences were infused into the culture of what would become Andalusia. Already well established, meanwhile, was the identity of the Basques, a people who can trace their language and presence in the Franco-Spanish border region to before the arrival of the Indo-European migrations, which began in 4,000 B.C. The survival of the Basque people with minimal outside influence, as with much of Spain's regionalism, can be attributed to the nation's rugged topography. Such rough terrain inhibited communication and favored the formation of strong, distinct cultures over national homogeneity.

So when Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon united Spain by first marrying and then jointly evicting the last of the Moors in 1492, the unified country that resulted was less united than it seemed, and calls for regional autonomy have dogged Madrid ever since. (Madrid was officially made the capital in 1606.) These fissures remain evident in the current political system, in which Spain's regions - the Basque Country, Galicia, Catalonia (a decisive piece of historical Aragon, dominated by Barcelona), and Andalusia - hold their own elections that do not always concur with national ones. These regions did not take part in Spain's May 24 vote, having negotiated during the shaping of the post-dictatorship democratic system the right to schedule the timing of their elections.

A Battle of Ideas

The second aspect of Spain's fragmentation is social. A deeply religious country throughout its history, Spain allied with the Roman Catholic Church, creating conflict when the forces of liberalism spread across Europe at the end of the 18th century. Two Spains emerged. The first was clerical, absolutist and reactionary. This Spain was represented by the church, the monarchy and the landowning class. The other Spain was secular, constitutional and progressive, represented by the peasants, artisans and members of the working class. These two opposing sides repeatedly clashed; reactionaries known as Carlists (often headquartered in conservative Navarre, whose highly religious inhabitants sided with the traditionalists) launched rebellions, monarchs were deposed, republics were established and dictatorships were declared. In this contest of ideas, subtle battle lines were drawn all over the country rather than just between regions, although certain regions were strongholds of specific ideologies.

Though most of the country was still agrarian and thus, in theory at least, conservative, the pockets of industrialization in the country were a different story. Agrarian populations were rarely able to organize meaningful resistance against their masters, but Barcelona's cloth trade had developed into a thriving textiles industry, and the city became a hotbed of anarchist sentiment for workers opposing oppressive institutions. Meanwhile, the resource-rich Basque Country and Asturias were advancing thanks to the iron trade, and socialist movements prospered in both regions. In fact, Madrid was the birthplace of anarchism and socialism in the country: the first Spanish anarchist chapter was established in the city and the socialist Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, or PSOE, was founded there in 1879.

Finally in 1936, the two Spains went to all-out war when the army rose up in rebellion and the workers and peasants stood and faced them. The regional distribution of sympathies became clear as the two sides mobilized. The people of Asturias had launched a socialist rebellion in 1934 that was quashed by the army under Gen. Francisco Franco, and it was he who led the military rebellion two years later, notably supported by the conservative Carlists of Navarre. Catalonia meanwhile was dominated by the anarchist National Confederation of Labor, the CNT, and it became an important center of Republican resistance. Madrid did not join the rebels because Republican forces successfully subdued the Nationalists. But when Franco's victorious army finally entered Madrid in 1939 following a three-year siege, the number of Nationalist flags hanging from balconies demonstrated that many in the city had been concealing their true loyalties. When the ensuing dictatorship ended with Franco's death in 1975, an initially precarious democracy emerged. The Popular Party mopped up Spain's conservatives, and the PSOE took control of the progressives. The two Spains had been co-opted into the democratic system.