(CN) – With his left-wing coalition government fractured over Catalonia's drive for independence, Spain's Socialist prime minister was forced Friday to call for a new general election in April.
A new election likely will result in a far-right political party taking seats in Spain's parliament for the first time since the nation's transition to democracy after the Franco dictatorship ended in the 1970s.
Vox, as the party is known, has grown in popularity along with other radical right parties in Europe as voters become disillusioned with traditional major parties on the left and right.
Recent polls show Vox, which expounds an anti-immigration, nationalistic and pro-family rhetoric, could obtain 11 percent of the vote in a general election, according to El País, a major Spanish newspaper.
Under that scenario, Vox could end up with 26 seats, making it even possible for it to form a right-wing government with Spain's other conservative parties, the Popular Party and Ciudadanos (Citizens, in English).
The rise of Vox became a sober reality for many Spaniards when it won seats in Andalusia's regional parliament in a December election. In Andalusia, a socialist stronghold, Vox is now part of a new right-wing government.
Now Spain faces the prospect of Vox making it big on the national stage in the April 28 election.
“This is a tragedy; it is a tragedy and I mean my words,” said Eduard Salsas, a Spanish lawyer who does political commentary for the French news broadcaster France 24.
“For the first time in the democratic history of Spain we will have an extreme right party, with xenophobic purposes, anti-abortion (views),” Salsas said, speaking in English. “If this party is in the parliament, it's the failure of all the other political parties.”
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was forced to call early elections after Catalan pro-independence parties said they were fed up with the Socialist government's unwillingness to enter talks about giving Catalonia independence. Catalan leaders want to hold a legally binding referendum on independence.
Sánchez's government took a softer approach to Catalan demands than the previous conservative government, but he was apparently not willing to go far enough for the secessionists.
“We are prepared to talk and find a solution within the constitution but not outside of it,” Sánchez said Friday in calling the elections.
The Spanish constitution states that Spain is a single nation that is indivisible. Secessionists argue that an independence referendum can be done in a lawful manner if Spain's politicians allow it to happen.
Mireia Borrell, the Catalan government's foreign relations director general, accused the Sánchez government of ignoring the Catalan issue since taking office nearly nine months ago. She said Sánchez became prime minister with the support of Catalonia's pro-independence parties and then failed to listen to them.
“We have tried to negotiate but to no avail so far,” she said during a France 24 debate in English.
Borrell chided the Sánchez government also for ignoring a trial of independence leaders who face lengthy sentences if convicted of charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of funds. The high-profile trial started on Tuesday before the Supreme Court in Madrid.
“What I think the Sánchez government has forgotten during this time,” she said, “is the elephant in the room here, which is a political trial ongoing right now.”
In rebuttal during the debate on French television, Tony Fernandez, a Spanish Socialist party member and vice-chair of its European chapter, said the Catalan separatists wanted Sánchez to interfere in the judicial process in favor of the defendants.
“You cannot be above the law,” he said. “You cannot ask the government to put pressure on the judiciary. There is a separation of powers.”
Borrell denied that pro-independence parties wanted Sánchez to interfere. But she charged that the judiciary is not independent.
“We can't say the whole judiciary system is rotten, but there is clearly something very wrong in there,” she said. “We wished there was true independence and that the judiciary system wasn't that conservative.”
The clash over Catalonia came to a head on Wednesday when the pro-independence parties rejected Sánchez's proposed 2019 budget. Sánchez relied on the Catalan parties to get his agenda through Spain's parliament, the Congress of Deputies.
The pro-independence parties also brought Sánchez's government down to show their anger over the high-profile trial of the Catalan independence leaders. They are on trial for their roles in a 2017 referendum on independence that was ruled unconstitutional. Spain's then-ruling Popular Party sent in thousands of police to block the referendum by forcefully removing ballot boxes and stopping voters.
“Without budgets, I cannot govern,” Sánchez said.
He became prime minister after parliament voted out the Popular Party, which was racked by corruption scandals.
“A government has to do what it has to do,” Sánchez said, adding that his government could not “move forward because the opposition has decided to block it.”
Sánchez could have continued operating under a budget passed by the preceding conservative government, but he said that was not a good option for him. His budget called for increased spending on social programs.
For conservatives, the new election may prove to their benefit. Polls suggest support for them is increasing, in part due to their tough stance on the Catalonia issue. Conservatives are strongly opposed to Catalan independence.
Pablo Casado, the leader of the Popular Party, said his party was “ready return to the government.”
“We have an agenda of freedom, lower taxes, improving education, social services and the competitiveness of the economy,” Casado said on Friday.
This will be Spain's third general election in four years, and it underscores the country's volatile political state. Political fragility and fragmentation is hardly limited to Spain and it has come to define politics in a number of major European countries where a number of newer and smaller parties are challenging the establishment parties.
Political analysts trace the turbulent state in Europe to the financial crisis in 2008 and a loss of trust in politicians and institutions. The crisis hit Europe very hard, and Spain was among those hit the hardest.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.