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The next Spain

It’s by no means certain that the Spanish state set up in 1978 will survive to hold general elections in 2015. Could Mariano Rajoy’s government be the last ever?


Spanish flag.

“In the scenario of constant decline, the end comes on slowly and incrementally.”

There’s an overwhelming consensus all across Spain that “we can’t go on like this”. Yet there’s an equally determined belief within the Rajoy government that we can, and in fact will, go on like this until it somehow gets better. Which means that someone – either the government with its faith that everything will come out well, or the entire population of the country, who believe that it won’t – has got it wrong.

In this article I will take it as an assumption that the existing state of Spain will not be able to survive long enough to hold general elections again in 2015, and that therefore Rajoy’s Partido Popular government will be the last of the 1978-model Kingdom of Spain. How will the final act play out? We can imagine four possible scenarios.

Scenario 1 – Financial meltdown

Some time during 2013 or 2014, the risk premium shoots up again, and further borrowing on the markets becomes impossible. Bailout time.

The troika imposes the most stringent bailout conditions to date, and effectively dissolves the Spanish government to rule directly. There may be a fig leaf of national sovereignty left, but nobody will be fooled. The troika forces restructuring of the state, maybe even imposing a system of independent judiciary over the heads of the elected so-called “representatives”. Of course, this liberation from the clutches of the Spanish establishment will come at a severe social cost, making more than half of the country unemployed. Which brings us to…

Scenario 2 – Tahrir del Sol and the Constituent Assembly

It’s no secret that 15M/Indignados and others plan to make this a hot summer. They are energised like never before by disgust at the Super Sleaze Tsunami as the Bárcenas and Gürtel portions of it become apparent. If protest becomes permanent in Madrid and other major cities, the government will move to close it down by force. There then follows a familiar pattern of resistance and escalation of protest to a critical point.

The armed forces will probably sit this one out as they did in Egypt, only declaring themselves on the side of the rebels when it becomes clear that the civil government has failed to restore order. After that, Spain will become a shaky new republic. But it will remain in the EU and can expect some support to complete the transition to democracy with the minimum of instability. And if the armed forces do indeed stay out of it, it’s even possible that the 2014 transition will achieve what the 1978 one never did, and provide a modern democracy with accountability and an independent judiciary.

Scenario 3 – Mad Max and the Eternal State of Emergency

We’re already quite far along the road in this scenario, which seems the most likely and in many ways the grimmest. This is simply the tale of a failed state which fails slowly, so each day is incrementally worse than before. One day someone steals all the copper cable on your street, and there’s no money for more, so the street remains dark. Nobody pays the nurses, so they wander off. Policemen do a little private security work on the side for the guy who runs the local whorehouse.

The first phase in any scenario like this is that the legal system ceases to function predictably and you don’t know what the rules are at any given moment. Today I went to a pharmacy to get a prescription, and they charged me the €1 Catalan surcharge, which has been overturned by the Constitutional Court. I politely refused to pay it. They said “OK, not everybody pays anyway. We’re not even sure we’re allowed to charge it legally any more.” This is the grey zone, where laws are only as strong as the belief you have in them, and if you cease to believe in them, they just evaporate.

The recklessly arbitrary way that the justice system has been implemented in the last year shows all the signs of a state just on the brink of collapse. All the myriad little irregularities add up to a state failing, transitioning to an arbitrary condition of lawlessness. No law at the top, where important people walk away from criminal acts, and no law at the bottom, where the pharmacies don’t know if they’re collecting a tax or committing robbery.

In this scenario of constant decline, much more time is bought than any other, because without a single event to define it, the end comes on slowly and incrementally. Piece by piece, emergency powers are assigned to the government and underpaid police officers are tasked with keeping everything going. There’s no one day when you can say “the state dies”. It just attenuates until it offers no services, no security, nothing but patchy control over the scrabbling population.

Scenario 4 – Balkan Breakup

This one is just not convincing, at least in its full Balkan version. Sure, the Constitutional Court could issue a warrant for the arrest of Artur Mas and put him in jail. Sure, the Catalan government could unilaterally declare independence. But then what?

For a war to break out you need to have people ready to fight and die for a cause. I think you’d be hard put to find more than five Catalans today who would be prepared to risk their lives for Artur Mas. Sullen passive resistance is more likely than armed opposition, especially since Catalans don’t have weapons.

Though it was favoured by Tom Clancy in his day in the thriller Balance of Power, with Catalans taking the place of nasty Serb militia, this scenario reads pure Hollywood.

Not that some elements of this scenario can’t appear to trigger the other ones. If the secession of Catalonia goes ahead at the same time as a massive street protest and the royal succession destabilises Spain, the tension level will go off the scale, making any one of the previous scenarios more likely.

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Published: Jan 23 2013
Category: Politics, Featured
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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12 Comments for “The next Spain”

  1. A republican appetite colours this article a little. That Spain must change and corruption in the political system must be tackled is understood but that could happen in much less dramatic ways than envisaged here.

  2. While it may be easy to dismiss some of these scenarios as implausible, I think Mr. Murphy is on to something here. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to me that a combination of financial insolvency and a governing party unwilling to take serious measures against corruption could lead to an EU intervention.similar to what we saw in Italy. I know it’s terribly undemocratic to say this, but Spain might need the EU to save it from itself.

  3. Come on,a bit excitable in places but 15M or Indignados being any more than lazy sitdowners is comical.They’ve had 2 years to create a movement rather than a bickering botellón.

  4. Thanks for your comments, much appreciated. I’m struck by the fact that the elites sitting in Davos this week are thinking exactly the same as me. I’ve been reading a paper presented at the World Economic Forum called “The Vulnerability of Elites”, in which the WEF experts clearly manifest their deep concern that the party’s over for them.

    Some interesting quotes:

    “First, the ‘Occupy’ movement may have run out of steam, but the slogan “we are the 99%” has put an end to the people’s “peaceful coexistence with inequality.” While the richest have come out on top from the economic crisis, middle classes are experiencing reversals in their standards of living even in the developed world. In many developed and emerging countries, youth unemployment rates are scandalously high. A ‘lost’ generation of young people feel they have no stake in the existing system. And this development is occurring in a world where inequality is visible on a daily basis, both within and between societies. The lack
    of economic prospects has eroded people’s trust in, and support for, their political leaders, whose actions are rarely understood, let alone approved. The result is a “legitimacy deficit” and a sense that we might nearly be better off without rulers. Leaders no longer have a story to rally their followers around. The few who do fare better than others. We’re seeing this trend across countries of vastly different stages of development.
    Second, people are less willing to tolerate corruption, crime, cronyism and other forms of inappropriate behaviour by leaders.”

    “The most pressing wildcard in 2013 would be a eurozone exit—while unlikely, it
    cannot be ruled out. If a government collapsed in one of the countries relying on EU bailouts, reforms there would stall and further aid would not be forthcoming, given the restive mood in the donor countries. For example, if Greece’s fragile coalition government unravelled, the country may yet be forced out of the eurozone. The threat of a domino effect throughout the periphery is a wildcard of the first order. It could lead to the creation of a new class of “formerly rich” nations in what has been one of the most stable areas of the world for decades.”

    One “formerly rich” country of course would be Spain. At present Spain has declined to a point where it’s similar to Botswana in GDP per capita, wealth inequality, unemployment and corruption rating (tied with Spain at 31st place in the Transparency International ranking). But Botswana is improving, while Spain is evidently declining. Next stop (absent a revolution to rectify the situation, scenario 2) is Uganda, then Zimbabwe, finally Somalia (see scenario 3 above).

    The Republican-Royal succession aspect of my argument may indeed be relevant, given that the last poll on Spanish public attitudes to monarchy found only 53% support for the monarchy, with 37% against and 10% undecided (2011). This figure, dramatically down from 66% monarchist support in 1996, is unlikely to have improved in monarchy’s favour in the 18 months since the last poll was taken. Given the instability of Spain generally, a public rejection of the royal succession while other crises are ongoing could be the final nail in the coffin of the government’s perceived legitimacy.

    Conclusion: If not resolved by a forcible EU-troika “revolution from the outside” (scenario 1) or a popular uprising demanding an end to the present partitocracy system (scenario 2) then the most likely outcome is a slide into irrevocable decline (scenario 3) and the development of a parallel lawless state completely disconnected from the official state.

  5. “a modern democracy with accountability and an independent judiciary.” How refreshing that sounds. It strikes me that there isn’t really a word for “accountability” in Spanish though (‘responsabilidad doesn’t really cut it) so perhaps one should be invented..?

  6. Olwen,they do- “Rendición de cuentas”,,,but in the Spanish way they are proud of not needing to worry about things like that.

  7. I have been a little slow to realise that Spain cannot really be described as a parliamentary democracy. The penny dropped for me today when Sr. Rajoy made his statement about receiving black money at a press conference in the head office of the PP.

    In a real parliamentary democracy, this sort of crisis statement could only be made in a tense parliament with questions to follow. Such evasive manoeuvrings will only further dissolve Spain’s belief in its own government and international confidence in Spain.

    Many argue that the Spanish government is resisting an ‘inevitable’ economic bail-out because it knows that the Germans will insist on administrative efficiency as well as fiscal transparency. A truly devastating threat for Spain’s ruling class.

    Now if we go back a couple of centuries, we see that the French made some very sensible and long-lasting reforms when they took over under Napoleon. Unfortunately, they managed to overstay their welcome. Perhaps the Germans will be sensible enough to govern Spain without actually doing the shouting themselves.

  8. Spain is neither “modern” nor “democratic. That is were the problem really lies.

    Sincerely yours,


  9. Has you read History of Spain? Read please “Guerra carlista (1833-1839”, “Revolución cantonal” (1873) and “Guerra Civil” (1936-1939). Where is Spain now?

  10. Now, more than ever before, it is clear that Gibraltar will never be Spanish. Perhaps Spain should be Gibraltarian.

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