The Return Of Spain´s Culture Wars

John Boyce reports on the latest round of the Spanish culture wars, centering on the use of co-official languages in Parliament.

In Spain’s increasingly polarised political environment it seems that every disagreement inevitably becomes fodder for the nation’s never ending culture wars.

This month it is the caretaker socialist government’s decision to facilitate the use of the country’s co-efficient languages in the national parliament, a move that led to a boycott by the right wing Popular Party and a full-blown walkout by the far right Vox party. 

The issue of linguistic expression across the Spanish regions has long been a sensitive one, with roots firmly planted in the Franco era. One of the most controversial and despised policies of the dictatorship was the banning of all languages except Castilian from the public realm.

It was a measure aimed at suppressing cultural diversity, and with it political dissent, in line with Franco’s vision of a centralised unitary state. During the transition to democracy in the 1970s, and the establishment of the federal system of government,  the right to freely speak and interact in one’s chosen language was an integral part of the democratic settlement. In the following decades regional governments, particularly of the left, have used their autonomous powers and financial resources to revive repressed regional tongues and reintegrate them into the daily lives of citizens, with varying degrees of success.

In conjunction with the central government, several regional languages including Catalan, Galician, Basque and Valencian attained the status of co-official languages, in effect enjoying equal status with Castilian within their autonomous communities. 

  While the use of co-official languages is the norm in regional parliaments, their employment in the national parliament has been routinely dismissed as impractical and unworkable. However, two developments have proven to be game changers in this respect.

On a simple, practical level, technological advances around automated translation has made the introduction of plurilingualism in parliament a less complicated and onerous task. Far more important is the second change, and one that is at the root of the dispute in which the partiees are now embroiled; the emergence of regional separatist parties as king makers at national level. 

    It is no coincidence that the measure is being introduced in the midst of delicate and difficult negotiations between the caretaker administration and regional separatists over government formation.

For Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez the use of co-official languages in parliament is a relatively easy demand to meet, and serves as a useful confidence building measure before talks move towards far more difficult issues, such as amnesties and referendums.

As with the vote to elect the speaker of parliament last month, it is another show of strength for PSOE in the run up to opposition leader Alberto Feijoo’s likely failed investiture vote, proving that Sanchez is the only candidate who has any chance of putting together a parliamentary majority.

   For the right wing opposition parties, the move to plurilingualism is about far more than language rights, and represents another challenge to the unity of the Spanish state and the primacy of Castilian as the national language.

Their difficulty is that a refusal to recognize the right of regional deputies to speak in languages which are as native to them as Castilian is to the PP and Vox comes across as petty and narrow-minded. It also places the PP yet again in the uncomfortable company of Vox, trying to reignite cultural wars on topics about which the vast majority of Spaniards have long made up their minds. Freedom of linguistic expression enjoys the same overwhelming support as equal marriage and abortion, and right wing attempts to revisit these issues tend not to go down very well with the electorate.

Many political commentators are of the view that it was the PP’s failure to distance itself from Vox, and its willingness to acquiesce to the far right agenda in return for support in forming regional governments, that saw it fall short of a majority in July’s general election. 

    Though the future of co-official languages in parliament is uncertain, it will be the norm for at least the next four months, if not the next four years. Either way, eventual abolition will be a tricky prospect for any future right wing administration.

As many governments around the world have learned to their cost, preventing the creation of a new right is often an easier prospect than eliminating an existing one.



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