In this contest of historical visions, the left enjoyed a rare victory on Sunday. The PSOE won 29 percent of the vote, nearly twice as much as the PP. With the support of Podemos, a far-left populist movement, and a smattering of regional parties pursuing greater autonomy from Madrid, Sánchez is likely to cobble together a governing coalition—which makes him the first center-left politician in about half a decade to win a reasonably clear mandate in a major European country.
Sánchez can, then, be forgiven for overstating the significance of his victory. And yet his proclamation was at least as interesting for what it got wrong as for what it got right.
In truth, the victory of the PSOE is, at best, a qualified triumph. As recently as a decade ago, the Spanish political system had, in effect, been divided between its two major parties, which usually enjoyed a cumulative vote share of more than 80 percent. Elections often marked a peaceful transition of power between coherent ideological blocks: When the allure of the center-left faded, voters handed the baton to the center-right, and vice versa.
Over the past few years, extreme fragmentation—there are now a total of 14 political parties in Madrid’s Cortes Generales—has rendered such cohesive governments impossible. To govern, Sánchez will not only have to accommodate the populists of Podemos, who have at times fanned the flames of Euroskepticism and until recently vowed to emulate Hugo Chávez’s government in Venezuela. As important, he will also need to rely on the support of a smattering of regional parties that openly aim to break up the country.
In the best-case scenario, Sánchez will negotiate a deal that grants regions such as Catalonia and the Basque Country a little more autonomy without setting them on a path to full independence. In the worst-case scenario, which is perhaps more likely, his prospective coalition partners won’t be satisfied with anything short of a referendum on full independence, leading to a collapse of his government if Sánchez stands firm—or to Spain’s disintegration if he caves.
Moreover, far from marking a clear rejection of the fascist past, the Spanish election can just as easily be understood as a sign that the lessons of the postwar period have lost their hold over European politics. The past hasn’t lost, in other words; it’s just been forgotten.
When I spoke with leading German politicians in the fall of 2016, the refugee crisis was dominating headlines and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) enjoyed double-digit support in the polls. Even so, many of my sources predicted that the AfD would fail to clear the country’s 5 percent hurdle in national elections scheduled for the spring of 2017, and quickly disintegrate even if it did. Germany, they told me, had learned the lessons of the Third Reich. A far-right party that plays with nostalgia for the Nazi past could not possibly carve out a significant place for itself in the German political landscape.