Spain caught in the nets of the populism it criticised so much

El presidente del Gobierno español, Pedro Sánchez - PHOTO/AFP/JAVIER SORIANO
El presidente del Gobierno español en funciones, Pedro Sánchez, habla durante un debate parlamentario en vísperas de la votación para elegir al próximo presidente del Gobierno de España, en el Congreso de los Diputados en Madrid el 15 de noviembre de 2023 - PHOTO/AFP/JAVIER SORIANO

A few days ago, Pepa Bueno, director of El País, picked up the phone to tell Fernando Savater that he was fired: the most recent criticisms against the government of Pedro Sánchez and the editorial line of the newspaper that was his home for almost fifty years served as a pretext to dispense with his Saturday column.   

  1. Populism on the prowl 

The straw that broke Bueno's back was the publication of the book "Carne gobernada" (published by Ariel), in which Savater denounces that El País has become "the mouthpiece of the worst government of democracy". 

In solidarity with the dismissal, other notable writers have resigned to continue publishing their columns and opinion articles, the most striking case being that of Félix de Azúa, a member of the Spanish Royal Academy and whose pen was part of the newspaper since its foundation in 1976.   

In the last few months, several writers and journalists have dedicated themselves to denouncing in their spaces, a growing and harmful polarisation in Spain, which has finally fallen into the nets of populism that has been criticised so much in third countries, especially in Latin America.    

I spoke to Fernando Savater and Félix de Azúa about what is happening not only in Spain, but also in various countries around the world, whose democracies are being put to the test by populism as the sign of the times.  

Of his most recent dismissal, Savater made it clear that his case is something particular that does not imply that it is something generalised in Spain in terms of freedom of expression.  

"What is happening is that El País has become a pro-government newspaper of a very radicalised left, and I maintained my position in my column of a much more critical attitude towards the government because I think it is a very bad government... the worst we have had in democracy", insisted the Spanish philosopher.  

Currently, there is a populist government led by President Pedro Sánchez, of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), in coalition with the Sumar Party; plus the Catalan pro-independence parties and the Basque and Galician nationalists.  

In the end, the populism that was criticised from Spain has caught up with you, what do you think? 

No doubt you are absolutely right. I was one of those who naively believed that because we were in Europe and because of other circumstances and historical traditions, we were quite safe from populism. But no, Podemos burst into Spanish politics with a Bolivarian populism in full force and with all its prejudices, and we have not been able to get rid of it. Sánchez is a shameless populist capable of making pacts with the country's worst political enemies to stay in power and there we are, criticising American countries and other places for their populism, and now it turns out that we are the ones with the worst populism around.    

In addition, there is a national scenario that is politically thorny and difficult, the language itself, the messages, the policies that are carried out; the way in which different content is used to confront the population with each other.  

The scenario, according to La Moncloa, is blurred into black and white, something that Savater explains as follows: "At the moment Spain must be the only country in the world where people are divided into socialists or faças. There is nothing in between, it is Sánchez's great deception resource".   

For de Azúa there is some hope: "I am optimistic that it won't last long. At the most, the four years that the law stipulates, but it is even possible that it will sink before that". 

The two Spanish writers met in the 1980s while they were both lecturing at the Faculty of Philosophy and Educational Sciences at the University of the Basque Country, and have remained friends ever since.  

A few days ago you resigned from El País in solidarity with Fernando Savater, it seems that there are clear attempts to silence critics who make Sánchez and his government uncomfortable, are we devolving in democratic matters? 

Sánchez is not a democrat, he is an autocrat in the Venezuelan way, albeit limited by European laws. That's why he's trying to sink the legislative power. He wants to govern without control and without opposition, like Franco. 

For his part, de Azúa denounces the fact that in some media, such as El País, a commissariat has been imposed that controls information and opinions in the Soviet manner. "Democratic journalists are subjected to a white terror".   

"Sánchez has been placing his employees in all the media and control bodies he can, from the Efe Agency to El País, but also in banks, state agencies such as the Post Office or even in large companies. He is an autocrat with a totalitarian vocation and he is only limited by the European government", in the opinion of the writer of "Compulsive reading". 

Populism on the prowl 

This year is an extremely electoral year: in a total of 76 countries citizens are called to the polls, which implies clear challenges for democracies. For Europeans, the elections that attract the most attention have to do with the US election on 5 November, with the possible return of former President Donald Trump to the presidency. 

There is concern that democracies may end up being devoured by populism, what do you think?  

The problem with democracy is that citizens have to defend it, it is all very well that there are protective laws and institutions in the United States... fortunately there are some; but, on the other hand, it is the citizens who decide whether the rulers are one or the other and they can elect a sensible, centred person or they can elect a more or less colourful character, but very dangerous for the stability of the country like Trump. That depends on the citizens, it is useless to get angry and in Spain the same thing happens. I have always said that democracy is a political regime in which the citizens are to blame for what happens.  

But there are also certain characters whose narcissism, ambitions and even messianic characteristics make them feel above the laws, the institutions, the State and even democracy... 

This is very true. In Putin's Russia or Maduro's Venezuela, things are much worse... Maduro, for example, does not allow his opponents and with Putin there are no clean elections, so there is no way of confronting him with what the citizens really think; but in those countries where we are still lucky enough to have democratic elections, that is where we have to fight to prevent people like Sánchez from perpetuating themselves in power. 

Both Savater and De Azúa agree on the need for another general election so that Spain can have a government without the blackmail of pro-independence and nationalist groups.   

De Azúa puts it this way: "I believe in the possible fall of the government. The impositions of the Basque and Catalan separatists have destroyed Sánchez's credibility and his ability to govern. There are very ignorant people who fear Vox, but they are very happy with Bildu. It is the problem of the political illiteracy that has been dragging this country down for centuries... the head of the Catalan separatists, Puigdemont, is a psychopath very similar to Sánchez, an egocentric despot driven mad by his religious adoration of the Catalan region. One of them is going to lose. 

As to what has brought back these populisms that are gripping the democracies of various countries, Savater sums it up first in the number of problems that exist today.  

"Populism offers radical solutions, but naturally they are not solutions, they are only aggravations of the existing problem, but there are people who, as long as they are given a formula that seems to be magic, unfortunately believe it. That is why civic education and politically well-informed citizens are essential for a well-functioning democracy. I am in favour of correcting these evils with more education," emphasises the Basque journalist.  

Of course we cannot ignore the fact that this year there will be elections for the European Parliament and there will be a new team at the head of the European Commission and the European Council, how bad can it get? 

I am hopeful that in these elections Europe will be reaffirmed and that the most pro-European parties with the best ideas for Europe will be strengthened. And that they will not be those ideas that spoil or confront Europe. We can already see what is happening with farmers who have been overwhelmed by a series of pseudo-ecological and many absurd ideas, and of course they are bringing ruin to farmers, so they are fighting back and protesting. Let's see if the Europe that will come out of the elections is not that bureaucratised Europe dominated by intellectual fads, as we have seen so far, and is a sensible Europe. 

Savater also reminds us that there are growing problems and threats to be dealt with, such as Hamas terrorism and the threats of radical Islamism towards Europe. "The question that free people have to ask themselves is not what is going to happen, but what we are going to do and how we are going to do it". 

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