Economic crisis and racism backdrop to polls

Prime Minister Zapatero of the PSOE (’Socialist Party’) won the general elections in Spain on Sunday 9 March, with 44 % of the votes. The outgoing Prime Minister failed to gain an outright parliament majority, but gained seven more seats than in 2004.

The elections in 2004 took place days after the train bombings in Madrid in which 191 people died. The then ruling Popular Party (PP) to try to blame Basque nationalists for the massacre, in a crude attempt to deflect from its pro-Iraq war stance and try to use the bombings for its own electoral aims. When it became clear the massacre was perpetrated by a group with Al-Qaeda sympathies, which the PP government tried to hide, public opinion swung against the PP government. The election took place against the backdrop of mass protests, anti-war marches and popular anger against the PP government. The PSOE promised to bring Spanish troops back from Iraq. A record turn-out lead to a Zapatero victory and the PSOE withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq.

The turn-out in these elections - 75 percent of Spain’s 35 million people cast their ballots - was slightly down on four years ago. The opposition conservative Popular Party (PP) was close behind PSOE, gaining 40%.

Developing economic crisis

The election campaign was fought against the backdrop of the developing economic crisis. The Spanish economy, after economic growth of around 4% in recent years, has now slowed to a 2.5 % growth rate. Unemployment, mainly amongst immigrants who worked in the building sector, has increased. Economic growth was based on a massive property and credit bubble fuelled by the liberal economic policies of the Zapatero government.

In recent years, over 800,000 new houses were built in Spain- more than in Germany, Britain and France together during the same period. During the present crisis 200,000 workers have lost their job in construction. Inflation has reached 4% and is rising, leading to higher prices including food. Last February alone, 50,000 people lost their jobs, bringing national unemployment figures to 8.6 percent or 2.3 million people.

This increased economic insecurity amongst the general population was exploited by the PP in the election campaign. They tried to blame immigration and whipped up racism, calling for stricter rules for asylum-seekers and demanding a ban on the hijab.

In Spain the number of immigrants entering the country has grown by five million over the last ten years. This influx provided cheap labour in the construction sector, and together with cheap credit, provided some of the elements which fuelled the economic boom.

During its last four years in office, the PSOE government introduced measures to make it easier for employers to use the immigrants as a source of cheap labour. Employers are allowed to hire immigrants to the conditions of their origin country, including the pay and social security regulations of the origin country. In answering the charge of the PP, that the ’left’ had been to eager to regularise illegal immigrants, Zapatero declared that the next governments will seek to repatriate the immigrants without papers. The PSOE could target up to 250,000 people for deportation.

Nationalist parties

The election campaign became increasingly polarised between the PSOE and the PP with the regional nationalist parties and the IU getting squeezed. The PSOE government introduced liberal reforms in the last four years, such as legalising same sex-unions, relaxing divorce laws and extending abortion rights. The PP, together with the reactionary Catholic Church hierarchy, defended the "traditional family", the unity of the Spanish state and values connected with the Franco dictatorship. Many voters felt they had to turn out and vote PSOE to block the road to an eventual return of a PP right-wing government.

During the election campaign, Zapatero was attacked by Rajoy for not preparing Spain for a economic slow down, over ’illegal immigration’ and for ’negotiating’ with ETA, the armed Basque organisation, which is accused of assassinating a PSOE councillor in the Basque country, two days before the elections.

The national issues, concerning the Basque country and Catalonia, were particularly heated after the declaration of independence of Kosovo from Serbia, with backing from several EU states. Nationalists and regionalists in Spain welcomed Kosovo’s actions, while the main parties and Spanish Foreign Minister Moratinos spoke against the declaration and EU countries supporting it.

The two regional nationalist parties the PSOE relied on during the last government both lost a lot of support.

Izquierdia Unidad (IU, an alliance of greens and ex-communists) polled its worst result since its foundation. They pay the price for failing to provide a real alternative to the pro-rich policies of the PSOE and their coalitions with the PSOE on a local level. They lost about a quarter of their votes. The ERC, a left wing Catalan nationalist party, lost over 50% of its votes.

New government of crisis

The PSOE will form a government with the support of smaller regional parties. Whatever the exact composition of the next government, it is clear that PSOE will deal with the developing economic crisis by cutting back on welfare spending; attacking the working and living conditions of the working class. The impending economic catastrophe will lead to huge anger and movements of the working class. The Financial Times (London 10/03/08) quotes Gloria Pérez who blamed the PSOE government for not doing enough to help the working class: "Zapatero has not done enough to bring down the price of rents, control mortgage costs, help young people and get us workers better salaries.". She poured scorn on the tax incentives offered by both the PSOE and the PP: "What good is €400 going to do me?" she said. "That’s bread today and hunger tomorrow. We need reforms that will help us in the long term: better work, better salaries, less inflation."

The feelings expressed by Gloria Pérez are a foretaste of things to come. The world economic crisis will hit Spain particularly hard leading to thousands of working class people having to look for a political alternative to the parties of big business and capitalism and fight to defend their rights and living standards.

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