Regional languages in coalition agreements of regionalist and nationwide political parties: Spanish cases

Regional languages in coalition agreements of regionalist and nationwide political parties: Spanish cases

Evgeniia Filippova

Spain is formally a unitary but in fact a federalizing state, composed of 17 autonomous communities (in Spanish: comunidades autónomas) and two autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla. After the fall of Franco’s dictatorship, the regions of Spain acquired packages of autonomous powers in two ways: through the so-called “fast track” and “slow track”. The fast track was available for those regions (Catalonia, Basque Country, Galicia, and Andalusia) which had already exercised the right to self-government during the Second Republic (1931-1939). Additionally, one autonomous community – Navarra – retained a special historical status (in Spanish: Fueros de Navarra) and was granted autonomy as a territory that had self-government in the 19th century [1]. All the other regions followed the slow track. This devolution in course of constructing a new democratic Spain has led to the emergence of regional politics.

Along with a specific historical background, ethnolinguistic composition of the population is an important dimension of the Spanish regions’ specificity. Ethnolinguistic situations in the Spanish regions are incredibly diverse. First of all, there are two categories of autonomous communities –  regions with one official language (Castilian, or Castellano) and regions with two official languages, where the language of the territory’s eponymous group is in use alongside Castellano [2]. Then, in the first category there are autonomous communities with no widely spoken second language at all (for example, Madrid), and the regions where there is such a language but not endowed with an official status. The second category – officially bilingual regions – can also be divided into two sub-groups: with a regional language which is a dialect of Castilian (for example, in Murcia) and with a separate regional language (as in Aragon). In addition to this, one should keep in mind that several autonomous communities are bound together by the Catalan language. Catalonia maintains a steady bilingual language regime which clearly favors Catalan, and the varieties of Catalan play a less pronounced role of regional languages ​​in Valencia and the Balearic Islands [3].

Ethnolinguistic issues in a number of cases are an underpinning of regional politics, and regionalist political parties often put language problems on the list of their demands. At the same time, a characteristic feature of the Spanish political landscape is that fairly strong regionalist parties exist in more than half of the autonomous communities. In many cases, they are so successful in getting votes at the elections to regional parliaments that they participate in regional coalition governments, as a rule, acting as the partners of nationwide parties [4]. The question arises, how successful are the regionalist parties in promoting language demands through ruling coalitions?

A ground for evaluation here is the texts of coalition agreements, which play a significant role in Spanish politics as a kind of “road maps” for the ruling regional governments. A comparative analysis of coalition agreements (20 texts over the last two decades) shows that the participation of a regionalist party in a ruling coalition does not necessarily result in including language requirements into the coalition government’s agenda. One may use the degree to which language issues are specified in coalition agreement as an indicator of their impact. If the government action related to the language sphere is spelled out in the agreement in detail, this must increase the likelihood of its implementation. On the contrary, the brevity and ambiguity of the language policy statement indicates that the chances of implementation under the same circumstances would be poorer.

For example, Navarre has a specific ethnolinguistic situation and utilises Basque along with Castilian as an official regional language. In 2015, the political parties Geroa Bai (regionalists), EH Bildu (regionalists) and Izquierda – Ezkerra with the support of Podemos-Ahal Dugu (the latter two are branches of nationwide parties) formed a coalition government under the leadership of Ushue Barcos from Geroa Bai. The text of the coalition agreement contains a separate section “2.3. Política lingüística”. It states that there are problems with the Eusker language (Basque) in Navarre, substantiates its importance as a co-official language for the regional community and defines a set of measures aimed at resolving the existing problems. In particular, it lists and specifies 19 points agreed upon by the parties as planned to be implemented by the current regional government. For example: “4. Ensure the presence of the Basque language at all public events, communications, official events and, in general, in the corporate image of public institutions in the region’s provinces” [i.e. in all the provinces of the region. – EF]; “6. Renew the Eusker Council by ensuring a wider societal participation in its composition, as well as greater authority” (this item refers to the Basque Language Advisory Council which deals with linguistic normalization); “14. Take measures to guarantee the access of all citizens of Navarre to media in the Eusker language” [5].

Another example is Galicia in the period of 2005-2009, when Partido de los Socialistas (a branch of a nationwide party) and the regionalist Bloque Nacionalista Galego formed a regional government under the leadership of a socialist Emilio Turinho. In the text of the coalition pact, ethnolinguistic agreements occupy a special place (section “Lingua”) and envisage “securing progress in the normalization of our [i.e. Galician] language, as well as in the protection and reassessment of our culture and our heritage, the basic elements of our identity as a people.” [6]. As in the Navarre agreement, the text contains a block of specific ethnolinguistic provisions ranging from “the creation of an institution for the external promotion of the language and culture of Galicia” [i.e. outside of Galicia. – EF] to the “The Government of Galicia will systematically use the Galician language in all oral and written communications and promote its normal use in services of regional and local administrations” [6].

The cases of Navarra and Galicia illustrate a situation in which the ethnolinguistic component of regionalist demands occupies an important place in inter-party coalition agreement; the clauses on the language regional policy are not formal but are carefully elaborated and concretized.

The opposite case is the Autonomous Community of Aragon, where Ley de Lenguas (Language Law) is mentioned as one aspect of the agreement between the regionalist and nationwide political parties for several electoral cycles. It is important to emphasize that in Aragon only the Castilian language, which is spoken by the majority of the region’s population, has an official status, while Aragonese is an endangered minority language without official protection. Along with this, Aragonese is “the only exclusive language of Aragon recognized as its own language by various legal acts, such as the Statute of Autonomy or the current Law on the Languages ​​of Aragon” [7]. In addition, another language spoken in Aragon is Catalan, and it “is used in vast territories of other neighboring autonomous communities, and its legal position is similar to Aragonese, although its viability is much higher” [7].

The first version of the Law on Languages ​​in Aragon was adopted on 22 December 2009. At that time, Aragon was governed by a coalition of the regionalist party Partido Aragonés and the nationwide party Partido de los Socialistas. The text of the coalition inter-party agreement of 2007 fixed the need for the adoption of a language act but without specifying what status the Aragonese language should have [8]. It is not surprising that the adoption of the Law on Languages ​​in 2009 was accompanied by a confrontation between the parties which were coalition members. While Partido de los Socialistas and Chunta Aragonesista (the second Aragonese regionalist party) supported the law, Partido Aragonés and the nationwide party Partido Popular opposed it. As the Spanish media noted in this respect, Partido de los Socialistas unsuccessfully tried to agree on the bill with Partido Aragonés and, after failing to do so, fell into the arms of Chunta Aragonesista [9]. The main controversy concerned the Catalan language; the bill envisaged the same preferences for Catalan as for Aragonese, and Partido Aragonés opposed this.

Because of these contestations, Partido Aragonés after the 2012 elections refused to enter a coalition with the socialists, although before it had supported them in several electoral cycles. As a result, Partido Aragonés and Partido Popular formed a coalition government, leaving the socialists behind. In 2013, a new version of the Law on Languages ​​in Aragon was adopted, and Catalan was removed from the list of regional languages. Had the Aragonese regionalist party been able to negotiate the inclusion of more detailed and specific provisions pertinent to the language law into the 2007 coalition agreement, the subsequent problems probably would have been avoided.

*   *   *

Some regionalist parties in Spain succeed in securing their interests in the conclusion of inter-party government coalitions in autonomous communities better than others. In this context, the analyzed cases demonstrate the significance of ethnolinguistic component. Assumingly, the effectiveness of promoting regionalist, including linguistic, claims through coalition agreements with nationwide parties depends on several groups of factors. The first one is related to the characteristics of the “coalition capacity” of a regionalist party: its electoral results, its role in the coalition (“junior” or “senior” partner), the track record of the party’s presence in earlier coalitions, and so forth. The second group of factors is the content of regionalist demands: what ideology the party adheres to, what the degree of radicalism it manifests, etc. The third group concerns the contextual characteristics of the autonomous communities: the ethnolinguistic structure of the population, the current position of the regional language, the presence of intraregional or center-regional conflicts, etc. Spain, which is a beautiful and colorful research kaleidoscope, provides rich empirical material for constructing explanatory models of ethno-regional and ethnolinguistic problems.


[1] Castellа, Andreu Josep Maria. 2003. El Estatuto de Autonomía en el Estado Autonómico Español [The Statute of Autonomy in the Spanish State of Autonomies]. Kazan Center of Federalism and Public Policy.
[2] Prokhorenko, Irina. 2010. Territorial’nye soobshchestva v politicheskom prostranstve sovremennoj Ispanii [Territorial Communities in Political Space of Modern Spain]. Moscow: IMEMO RAS.
[3] Borisova, Nadezhda. 2018. Kogda yazyki v ogne. Osparivanie yazykovyh rezhimov kak vyzov balansu v mezhetnicheskih otnosheniyah [When Languages are on Fire: Disputing Language Regimes as a Challenge to the Balance in Interethnic Relations]. Moscow: ROSSPEN.
[4] Massetti, Emanuele, and Arjan Schakel. 2016. Between autonomy and secession: Decentralization and regionalist party ideological radicalism. Party Politics, 1: 59-79.
[5] Acuerdo programático para el Gobierno de Navarra, Legislatura 2015-2019 [Program Agreement for the Government of Navarra, Legislature 2015-2019].
[6] Acordo sobre bases programáticas para a acción da Xunta de Galicia que asinan os grupos políticos PSdeG-PSOE e BNG [Agreement on Programmatic Bases for the Action of the Xunta de Galicia Signed by the Political Groups PSdeG-PSOE and BNG 2005].
[7] Las lenguas de Aragón [The languages of Aragon].
[8] Acuerdo de Aragón, 2007-2011 [Aragon Agreement, 2007-2011].
[9] Las Cortes de Aragón aprueban la Ley de Lenguas Propias para iniciar la dignificación del aragonés y el catalán, 2009. [The Cortes of Aragon approve the Law of Own Languages to initiate the dignity of Aragonese and Catalan, 2009].

AuthorEvgeniia Filippova is a research fellow, Perm Federal Research Center, Russian Academy of Sciences, Department of Political Institutions and Processes.

Note: This work was supported by the Russian Science Foundation under Grant No. 19-18-00053; the project “Subnational Regionalism and Dynamics of Multi-Level Politics (Russian and European Practices)”.

Image: © Kiryl Kascian

Share this post