Spain: Crisis, elections, and the vacuum

20 November election approaches as situation worsens

As summer ended and autumn began, with the temperature dropping later than usual, workers, young people and the unemployed in Spain were given a chill by the reality in the country, of deterioration and increasing uncertainty. September saw the biggest avalanche of job losses since the freefall in the economy following the collapse of Lehman Brothers bank and the bursting of the construction bubble in 2008. The latest unemployment figures, which are just shy of 5 million people, come as an inconvenient interruption to the capitalist establishment’s back-slapping about the “success” of their policies. Meanwhile, the campaign for the 20 November elections, for the most part a nauseating affair reflecting the two-party system’s pro-market and austerity consensus, continues.

Officially, over 130,000 new people joined the ranks of the unemployed in October, twice the number which did so at the same time in 2010. In reality, the figure is far higher. The official figures include only those who have officially registered their unemployment – many people do not now, especially as it often entitles them to absolutely nothing in compensation or unemployment pay. Although the mantra of the capitalists is that “Spain is not Greece”, a glance at how the crisis has developed reveals that on the contrary, the same right-wing policies of austerity which have led the Greek economy to ruin and caused mass unemployment and poverty there, are being applied in Spain, with similar eventual results.

Of these new unemployed, more than one in five came from public administration, health or education alone, resulting from the continuous ravaging of the public sector spending and workforces being carried out by PSOE (“Spanish Workers Socialist Party”, ex-social democrats) and PP (“Popular Party”, conservatives) alike, state-wide and in the different regions. Others came from precarious jobs, thrown on the scrapheap after the summer tourist season. The government’s “labour reforms” which they lauded as employment-promoting, has had the opposite effect – in one year since its application, (which provoked the general strike on 29 September 2010) almost 1 million more are unemployed and the number of workers with stable contracts has fallen by over 18%.

September 29 2010 general strike

The capitalist policies which dominate the election debate are the architects of this situation, and their continuation will mean further deterioration, and the deepening of the crisis. This will mean the failure to achieve growth or debt reduction. Already, it is almost seen as inevitable that the Spanish economy will enter recession again by 2012. Hopes that the current situation is temporary are consistently undermined by comments by capitalist economists. This week, IMF sources warned of a “lost decade” of near zero growth and continuous mass unemployment (currently at 22%). The chief of the Japanese central bank, Nomura, has even warned of two lost decades!

These facts are more reliable indicators of the situation that will face the new Spanish government than the optimistic picture of being “out of the woods” which the politicians paint. The establishment is looking to end the 7-year reign of Zapatero (the incumbent Prime Minister) and PSOE, with the impression that Spain is successfully separated from Greece and the weaker periphery economies, free of ETA (Basque separatists) terrorism and braced for a stable PP government, which will chart a successful path out of the crisis. What is the truth to all of this, and how can the workers’ movement and the left trash the cosy cuts consensus?

Debt crisis: out of the danger zone?

One of the conclusions from the most recent episodes of the Eurozone debt crisis has been that the club of danger zone countries has been amended, with Spain “out of the front line” as Sarkozy said in October, much to the delight of his Spanish counterparts. However, what has happened to remove Spain from the “front line”? There has not been an improvement in the debt data of the Spanish economy. The risk premiums on Spanish debt were at 409.9 on 10 November. This is almost twice the risk premium at the beginning of 2011, when Spain was considered to be in the “front line”! Looking at the graphs and tables, what has changed is not the risk associated with Spanish debt, but its relative risk, in comparison to Italy! The fact that Italy’s political instability and uncertainty has unfavourably compared with Spain’s seemingly stable perspective of a transition to the PP’s reliable deficit-cutters has obviously been key to this. Even if Italy is closer to disaster, Spain is still one of the next likely targets for the markets and speculators, and thus developments in Italy, Greece and other countries are key to its economic fortunes. And the debt situation is fundamental to the economy: next year, it will have to raise a whopping 30% of GDP in debt auctions!

Fundamentally, the situation in the Spain’s indebted economy has not changed. The central government, and also importantly, many individual autonomous regions, remain under huge debt pressure. And still, the limited autonomy of the regions, which control 40% of public spending, represents an obstacle in the way of the government, which can not impose debt or deficit reductions as easily as it would like. This year, in order to meet its targets of regional deficit reduction, the central government has had to make an extra €7 billion of reserves available, despite a ferocious cuts programme both federally and in the regions. So the next government will preside over a heavily indebted economy, with huge financing needs. This includes the re-capitalisation of the banks at a cost of €27 billion, and the need, from a capitalist point of view, to confront regional administrations and force drastic austerity on them, which will not be universally accepted without a fight, stoking up regional and particularly national tensions.

How big a majority?

Opinion polls seem to steadily widen the gap between PSOE and the PP. A few months ago the gap was 12%, which rose to 17% in the most recent and prestigious CIS poll, and even up 19% in another recent poll. The media and PP alike are taking an absolute majority for granted, with only the scale of the hammering of PSOE in question. These figures reflect a determination by the vast majority of voters to use these elections to castigate the current government, whose anti-worker policies, and disastrous management of the crisis has earned them justified hatred. Mariano Rajoy, the PP’s President-in-waiting, is the epitome of arrogance in his public appearances. He does not even feel the need to explain the policies of the new government, so certain is his victory. In response to questions about key measures to be taken, his refrain is “it depends”!

Mariano Rajoy

But despite his attempts to hide the PP’s intentions, his friends have betrayed them for him. The PP “barons”, heads of regional governments in 11 regions including Madrid and Galicia, after PSOE’s defeat in May’s elections, have unleashed a massive cuts and anti-worker programme. For example, in these regions, public education is being massacred, with worsening conditions and mass layoffs for teachers, and cuts in spending while subsidies to private education are maintained and extended. Aguirre, the PP’s Madrid premier has also launched brutal and provocative attacks on the trade union movement, including threats to the right to organise and meet in the workplace. These regions give a glimpse of the state-wide panorama with Rajoy at the wheel. But not only in terms of the savage cuts which will be meted out. The powerful and continuing battle of education workers in Madrid, Galicia and Castilla de la Mancha, with 7 strikes accompanied by some massive student strikes as well, and a huge national demonstration of over 100,000, is a glimpse of the heroic resistance the Spanish working class will put up.

Rubalcaba, the PSOE candidate, seems set to lead the way into PSOE’s worst ever election battering. His strategy has been to attempt a “rebirth”, both of himself and his party, and astonishingly present himself as an opponent of austerity! In an attempt to provoke a tide of lesser evilism, he has tried to recuperate PSOE’s social democratic image, posing as a defender of public investment and a Keynesian strategy, alongside the cuts and austerity policy his party has administered in government. Zapatero, the outgoing PSOE Prime Minister, is doing him the favour of staying away, and not showing up at election rallies or press conferences.

But Rubalcaba’s supposed shift to the left is easily exposed as false. Following on from the government’s slavish execution of the markets’ orders, he also bases his proposed future policies on the Troika’s demands, proposing only to “ask” for some space – a moratorium of 2 years on major austerity measures. But what space have the markets given Greece? Or Italy? Already during the campaign, an EU report called on the Spanish government to make further cuts. In the context of the looming recession, its findings mean that another 40 billion of savings will have to be made, over 2 years at best, or over 1 year at worst!

Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba

Basque country

In the Basque country, Amaiur, under which name the ’Bildu’ coalition made a massive breakthrough after being legalised before the May local and autonomous elections, is set to shake up the scene. This coalition, made up of former Batasuna figures, along with other nationalist formations and elements of the Basque Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left), is predicted to take 5 seats and win its own parliamentary group in the latest poll. While reflecting on the one hand the traditional base of the “abertzale” left and Batasuna (forces traditionally ’linked’ to ETA), Amaiur’s predicted success goes far beyond this. Its profile of a protest party which opposes the cuts and austerity partially fills the vacuum left by the absence of a mass left force. This has seen it win support outside of the traditional Batasuna base, including in some Spanish-speaking areas, in which such forces would never have won support previously. The fact that the formation is the worst nightmare of the Spanish nationalist PP and traditional right with it’s anti-Basque discourse, who refuse to accept its legitimacy and opposed its legalisation initially, is also helpful to Amaiur’s image.

The end of ETA’s armed campaign and the role of the Amaiur leaders in this also boosted their credibility. The abandoning of ETA’s armed campaign after 43 years represents a welcome step, with the strategy of individual terrorism having reached a dead end of repression and marginalisation, as Marxists had warned continuously. It represents an opening of the door to the possibility of a new unity in struggle between the workers and young people of the Basque country and the rest of the Spanish state, on the basis of the need to fight against the onslaught of capitalism. A united workers’ movement and left, with a united programme of struggle and social change, which respects the right of self-determination of the Basque country and other national minorities, can cut across the divisions sowed by capitalism and its representatives. The next, and necessary, general strike must reflect this, unlike that of 29 September 2010, which saw Basque unions isolate their members from the action. On the other hand, in the absence of such a stand, the PP could stoke further division and nationalism.

Rise in Left vote but huge vacuum remains

With the exception of Bildu/Amauir, opinion polls today paint a broadly similar picture to that which they did 1 year ago. But how the situation has changed! In the last year, the mass of workers and youth have exploded onto the scene in the biggest upturn in struggle in decades. 29 September saw 10 million take part in a general strike. Then last May the Spanish indignados kicked off a world trend, and as recently as 15 October had over 1 million on the streets. But none of these developments have even come close to being fully reflected politically. There is an absence of a mass point of reference with could channel the anger and indignation of the struggles, the discontent with the political establishment and opposition to neo-liberal policies into the fight for a clear political alternative. This has seen many opt for the “useful” vote, bringing in the PP, another pro-austerity pro-banker party, to boot out PSOE. Many do this in the weak and vain hope that a new government might improve things.

The channelling of the anger, the indignation and the radicalisation of the last year into support for a political force which can change society, is the decisive task for the left. Izquierda Unida (IU, ‘United Left), the most substantial left force in the state, is set to take an important step forward in the elections. Most opinion polls put its vote at between 7% and 9%, potentially almost tripling its 2008 vote, going from 2 to at least 8 MPs and winning its own parliamentary group. And this is despite an electoral law which favours the 2-party system, without which analysts say the IU would win 21 MPs, with the same number of votes! The increase in the IU vote is a result of the economic crisis, and the class anger against the bankers and markets. However, it is also a product of a certain shift to the left within the IU itself, with a new leadership having replaced Gaspar Llamazares’ right-wing of the alliance, giving a far clearer expression to this anger. While four years ago IU posters would have slogans like “green solutions”, “for social politics” etc, this time you can see them with “Rebel! Democracy versus markets”, and a more radical and militant profile. IU’s election programme defends the nationalisation of the banks and strategic sectors of the economy, massive investment in jobs and industry, the shortening of the working week, and retirement age which are essential parts of a revolutionary socialist programme defended by the CWI.

However, IU has still not attracted new masses of workers and youth to its banner. In the 15-M movement, the IU is often not even seen as different to the rest of the political establishment. Its past and present policy, of pacts and coalitions with PSOE (and even PP!) in regional and local government, has a lot to do with this. And despite the shift to the left in programme, the current leadership follows this policy lock stock and barrel. The IU is also seen by many as representing “professional politics”, a privileged careerism which the young generation has come to detest. A recent study into the wealth of politicians identified around €400,000 in IU MP Llamazares’ bank account. When asked about it, Llamazares didn’t understand what the problem was. “Just because I am left does not been I have to live like a monkey!” he responded. For many young people, these examples, from a “new” left force, have served to reinforce an “anti-party” sentiment. Other left forces which will stand in the elections, such as the “Anticapitalistas” coalition of small far left groups, have a more radical and youthful profile, although not a programme which can be clearly distinguished from the IU’s. However, despite the fact that the overwhelming trend is towards IU on the left, Anticapitalistas will to a certain extent provide an electoral reference for those, especially some young people, who wish to vote left but will not vote IU.

Gaspar Llamazares

Other left forces have called for a blank vote or abstention. Such a position serves to isolate the left from the political debate taking place around the elections, including the hundreds of thousands who will vote for IU as a left alternative to the dictatorship of the markets. A big vote for the IU will also strengthen those within it who want to fight for a genuinely democratic mass left with an independent position. Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Spain), while supporting a vote for IU and other fighting left candidates, stands for a “re-foundation” of the left. Not the “re-foundation” from above implemented by the IU leaders in forging alliances with other small regional and left parties, but a re-foundation from below, based on the struggles developing among workers and young people. This would involve the coming together of existing left organisations and activists, including IU, along with many thousands of young and working class fighters, in a new democratic left force. It would be organised on the basis of assemblies and with full democratic accountability of representatives, who if elected should be bound to take no more than a workers’ wage. With a consistent anti-capitalist programme, such a new force could draw together the demands of the different struggles, against cuts, evictions, the paying of the debt and austerity, and argue for a genuinely socialist alternative of democratic public ownership of the banks, and key sectors of the economy. A democratic government of working people and the youth, based on such policies and democratic planning of the economy and control of decision making is the alternative which must be popularised by the left in the next period, in order to offer a consistent alternative to the rule of the markets, and fulfil the growing aspirations for a real democracy.

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November 2011