Spain: Conservatives come to power on the eve of the storm

New government faces impossible task

The map of Spain is bluer than ever before. With its parliamentary majority of over 70 MPs, and the government of 14 out of 17 autonomous regions, the PP (Partido Popular) now has the most dominant position ever held by a single party since the Franco dictatorship (where some of its MPs and would-be Ministers cut their teeth!). In councils and parliaments up and down the country their councillors and barons are drunk on triumphalism, with much foot-stomping about their “mandate to do what is necessary”. But behind this façade, the real situation facing the government ensures that its honeymoon, if it is given one, will be of the briefest nature.

As we have commented, the PP’s landslide victory does not give it as clear a “mandate” as they make out. What brought it to power was more a catastrophic collapse of PSOE, which scored its worst result ever, than a swing towards the PP. It received almost half a million votes less than former PSOE Prime Minister Zapatero did, when he and PSOE returned to power in 2008. Of the more than 3.5 million votes lost by PSOE, the PP got just over half a million. It is a government for which 30% of those with the right to do so, voted. It got the backing at the polls of only 13% of Catalans, and 12% of Basques of voting age! Abstentions and spoiled or blank votes totalled more than the PP’s vote. Statistics like these reveal how Rajoy’s (the leader of PP) parliamentary majority disguises the weakness of his position and limits of his mandate, which will reveal themselves more dramatically in months to come.

New PP Prime Minister Marino Rajoy

PSOE government punished

The electoral results reflected a co-ordinated mass battering of the outgoing government. “Lesser evilism” and last minute attempts by PSOE and its candidate, Rubalcaba, to provoke a swing back towards them on the basis of a “useful vote” to keep the PP out, had almost zero effect, such was the determination of the mass of people to punish them. They lost big in all of their strong-holds, in socialist heartlands like Andalucia and Asturias. Workers, the unemployed and young people saw straight through Rubalcaba’s attempts to present a more left image. This was a government which, after coming to power on the basis of promises to implement progressive policies, became one of Merkel and Sarkozy’s austerity champions. Mass unemployment, major wage cuts and layoffs in the public sector, attacks on benefits and the welfare state, pensions, and workers’ rights and entitlements, were the ingredients of this massacre of PSOE by the Spanish electorate. It is a defeat which they will not easily recover from, despite current talk of a “renewal”, most probably continuing under the leadership of Rubalcaba. This trashing of the “left” credentials, so often falsely flaunted by this purely capitalist party, represents an important opportunity for the the genuine, anti-capitalist left to make a sustained breakthrough.

PSOE’s Rubalacaba

In Spain we see yet another instance of a European government being punished for the way it has responded to the economic and debt crisis, after Portugal, Ireland and the UK. In each case, the two-party system which dominates the political scene and is nourished by capitalism, shaped the main trends of the elections. The main capitalist opposition parties entered government, reflecting a certain hope that a new government of a different colour would be better able to manage the economic situation and improve it. In Spain, there were illusions amongst many that putting the PP – a party seen as closer to business and the markets – in power would help to create jobs and encourage investment. In a political scene dominated by the acceptance of the markets’ dictatorship, it is understandable that the PP’s message, that they would “do what is necessary” to please the markets, received a certain – albeit limited – echo.

Devastating debt crisis awaits new government

As the elections approached, chaos reigned on the economic front. “Contagion” from Italy saw Spain dramatically re-enter the “front line” of the debt crisis, after the capitalists had bent over backwards congratulating themselves for having got out of it! Risk premiums entered bailout territory with a few days to go before the elections, only to be brought back from the brink by European Central Bank (ECB) intervention. Events seemed to be playing into the hands of the PP, with the impression of Spain heading towards catastrophe and Rajoy waiting in the wings to bring the situation under control. These developments reinforced the hammering of PSOE, seen as having presided over the economic mess, and the victory of the PP. But they may also have played a role in reinforcing the elections’ other main trend – a shift towards the left – with 700,000 new voters for the United Left (IU), as many workers responded to its defence of a struggle “between democracy and the dictatorship of the markets”.

But the idea that the PP’s arrival in government would immediately drag Spain from the front line once more has proved to be a fairy tale. The Spanish stock exchange continued to fall in the days immediately following Rajoy’s election victory. In a certain sense, the EU and market pressure on Spain has even increased. Two days after the elections, a letter from Angela Merkel encouraged the new PM to move quickly with new austerity measures. Ratings’ agency Fitch greeted the results with a demand for measures to “positively surprise” the markets with their scale and speed. At the next EU summit on 9 December, days before the new government is set to take office, pressure to announce new cuts in advance will be immense.

Rajoy’s rhetoric on the debt crisis represents a mixture of subservience to the will of the markets, and an appeal to the defence of the strength and standing of the Spanish nation. Incredibly, he equates bending over backwards to Merkel and the ratings’ agencies decrees with defence of “a strong Spain in the premier league of Europe” and a fight “to recuperate the pride in being Spanish”! The possibility of an unelected technocrat being appointed as Minister for Finance – an open agent of the markets in this key post – which Rajoy has floated, would institutionalise his acceptance of the dictatorship of these institutions for all to see.

Since being elected, the new Prime Minister has become reclusive. His lack of media appearances or public announcements has meant that the ambiguity of his election campaign has not been cleared up. However, while workers and youth wait unawares for his announcements, his real friends are well up to date. Appointments with a swathe of the country’s top banking chiefs have been among his only outings since 20-N. Rajoy clearly attaches far greater importance to the opinions (or directions) of the bankers on what policies to adopt, then to the interests of his voters.

But despite this, the savage content of the new government’s attacks has been indicated. Without giving details, Rajoy has pledged to cut “everything except pensions”. In Catalunya, the CiU conservative regional government won an important increase in votes in the elections, and in the immediate aftermath, announced a new menu of savage cuts. Measures of this type, including a further slashing of public sector wages, the dismantling of public healthcare, and the raising of university fees, will be emulated on a state-wide level by the PP, with perhaps even greater barbarity. PP regional governments, many of which have been in place since May have also given local workers a taste of what to expect from Rajoy. For example, in the region of Murcia, a bill this week abolished healthcare provision for the unemployed, millions of who receive nothing in state help.

Amaiur phenomenon in Basque country

The results scored by Amaiur, a new left-nationalist formation recently legalised by the courts, (see previous article for more info) represent a political tidal wave. The fact that it emerged as the first party in terms of seats, while the PP came fourth, gives an impression of the difficulties Rajoy will face trying to legitimise his policies before the Basque people. The PP opposed the legalisation of Amaiur in the first place, and Rajoy has refused to meet with its representatives in the traditional round of meetings between the new PM and party leaders. Amaiur favours a referendum on self-determination, although it is unclear about exactly how it would pose the question. Whatever the case, a scenario of any meaningful independence would be unacceptable to Spanish capitalism, which has in the Basque country (alongside Catalunya) its strongest industrial base.

Amaiur banner

The prospect of Rajoy’s government administering misery from Madrid will see the long-standing Basque demand for self-determination harden even further, especially if regional elections are held which put Amaiur in government in the region. This will be in a similar, but much more acute, manner to the impact of previous UK Tory governments in Scotland, which saw the national question hiked up. This would pose even more sharply the necessity for the workers’ movement and the left to build a state-wide struggle against capitalism on the basis of respect for the right to self-determination of the Basques and other nationalities. Such a stand must be linked to an internationalist perspective and the fight for a socialist Europe. Amaiur may fall into the trap of “national unity”, and follow a line of pacts with the PNV, the main right-wing Basque nationalist party, subordinating the struggle for an alternative to austerity to a secondary position. However, it is only on the basis of the building of a federal, united political movement with a fighting programme of struggle against austerity on a state-wide scale as its starting point, against the capitalists of whatever nationality, the struggle against repression and for national rights can be successful. Otherwise, national divisions can be raised and used by the establishment to weaken the resistance of the working class and subordinate social and economic questions, a tactic in which the PP holds years of expertise.

Workers must make this a warm winter!

As far as workers’ rights are concerned, the PP’s election is ominous. In the last period of the election campaign, the bosses’ organisation, CEOE, confident of their traditional party’s victory, stacked up demand after demand on the new government. These include a radical reform of labour law, including a contract for young precarious workers to work for below the minimum wage, and further attempts to build on the attacks on collective bargaining rights which Zapatero began. This would mean the dismantling of collective bargaining on an industry-wide basis, leaving individual companies and workplace bosses open to bully their staff into accepting attacks on wages and conditions. Such a threat to the hard-fought-for right of the working class and trade unions to use their collective strength surely merits a mighty response. However, Fernando Toxo, leader of the CC.OO union, Spain’s biggest, in an interview following the elections, seemed to indicate that such a response to the PP’s inevitable onslaught was not his intention. In response to being asked if mobilisations would be planned soon, he reminded his interviewer that “the winter weather is cold”, implying that the union leaders are still not prepared to fill the streets and mobilise the power of the working class. In the following days, he has spoken of his hopes in a “grand pact for jobs” with the bosses and new government!

Toxo of the CCOO

While Toxo and his kind could soon be forced to change their tune, responding to mounting pressure from below, such an approach puts in danger the credibility and strength of the trade union movement as a whole. It has already been undermined by the shameful sell-out of the massive general strike on 29 September in a series of rotten pacts with Zapatero. The indignados, in the 15-M movement, found a way past the brake of the union leaders and mobilised millions in the summer and again in October. However, the task posed for that movement remains the integration of the organised working class into it, and the mobilisation of its power in a mass movement including strike action. The potential power of strike action has been shown by the courageous struggle of the teachers in Madrid and other regions, who have paralyzed the education sector in 9 separate strikes, and medical workers in Catalunya who mounted a 48-hour strike the week before the elections.

In the face of such an offensive from capital and the markets, the unions cannot be left in the hands of these bureaucrats, but must be filled out and transformed through struggle from below into democratic fighting organisations. The right-wing union bureaucracy, which has grown fat on years of social peace and state funded high salaries, must be replaced by real fighters, democratically accountable and on no more than the average wage of those they represent. Mass assemblies, along the lines of the indignados but linked up democratically on regional and state-wide level should be extended into the workplaces, schools and universities, to build a struggle from below, to drag the leaders into action or sweep them aside. A 24-hour general strike called now, as the beginning of a sustained plan of action, would mobilise many millions and serve as a warning to the new government.

The role of the left

However, in the fight to bring down this government, there can be no illusions that a return to a PSOE government is desirable. The key responsibility in this respect lies with the left, which must fight to develop a programme for an alternative government representing an alternative policy to the “PP-SOE” consensus. The IU’s gains in the elections show the shift to the left which has been catalysed by the devastating crisis and the radicalisation of the indignados’ movement. The IU almost doubled its vote after adopting a more militant and clearly anti-capitalist stand, including in its programme key socialist demands such as the repudiation of the debt and the nationalisation of the banks and strategic sectors of the economy, even if these demands were not fully developed. Along with the example of the United Left Alliance in Ireland in which the CWI plays a key role, this experience “bucked the trend” of the new European left parties, such as those in Portugal and Greece. In failing to put forward a clear anti-capitalist message and socialist answers these parties have seen their electoral fortunes stagnate or dwindle. Importantly, the new green formation “Equo”, which was tipped to win seats and recived huge media coverage, flopped on election day. Equo includes right-wing defectors from the IU and stood on a more limited programme. This partially reflects the importance of putting forward a consistent programme which frontally challenges the logic of austerity and puts forward positive and radical socialist answers and alternative policies.

The new IU MPs have, to a certain extent, given positive indications about how their positions may be used. One new young MP for Malaga, Alberto Garzon built a strong authority as an activist in the indigandos’ movement. He has pledged to bring his first motion to parliament demanding an immediate halt to evictions, which deprive cash-strapped mortgage holders of their homes every day. Hundreds of evictions have been stopped by mass action organised by the movement already. The important gains made by the IU in the elections must be urgently built upon, most importantly outside the parliament, in the workplaces and on the streets.

As Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Spain) has emphasised, while the left has 11 seats (and Amaiur 7) in parliament, the working class and youth which it must strive to represent are an immense majority outside and hold the decisive power. The left must develop as the political voice of this majority, which will move into battle with the PP and markets. This requires a “refoundation” of the left, as a new mass democratic force, built and controlled democratically by local assemblies, and representing a coming together of fighters from the different struggles and existing left and anti-capitalist organisations. Left MPs, at the service of and democratically controlled by such a movement, could cut like a knife through the grey cuts consensus in parliament. By using parliament as a platform to popularise demands such as the non payment of the debt, linked to the nationalisation, under democratic workers’ control and management, of the banks and main pillars of the economy, the left can play a crucial role in combating the mantra that “there is no alternative”. The CWI fights for the building of a political movement which can fulfil the historic task of providing the coming class battles with a political alternative of revolutionary socialist change, through international struggle.

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November 2011