Spain: Corruption scandal leaves government on the brink

What strategy to do away with rotten government and system?

Imagine a Western European country in which 56% of young people are unemployed; where over 6 million are out of work; where 400,000 families have been evicted from their homes in the last 4 years; where almost one third of children are in poverty. Its political rulers have, in the last years, implemented one of the biggest austerity programmes in history, sentencing millions more to poverty and destitution, with more, even more brutal anti-social policies to come. Now imagine that these same rulers – many of them millionaires – including the President, are found to have been milking millions in corrupt payments, from both private donations and public money over the last decade. However, as with many previously “unthinkable” positions thrown up by the current capitalist crisis and chaos, this “imaginary” situation is a reality, now being played out in Spain.

The impact of these developments on an already explosive situation should not be underestimated. The events of the last short period testify to this. On Monday 18 February, thousands of Iberia workers staging strike action against sackings blocked up Madrid’s Barajas airport, provoking police charges and brutality. Following a spate of suicides provoked by house evictions – 4 suicides in only 48 hours – fire-fighters in the regions of Madrid, Galicia, Catalunya and the Canary islands have refused to collaborate in evictions. Madrid’s fire-fighters’ union released a statement refusing to act as “puppets of the banks, and of their servants in government”. Tens of thousands then took to the streets on a day of massive demonstrations calling for halt to all evictions. The pathetic weakness of the Rajoy government following the latest scandal is a key new element in this situation of growing struggle and radicalisation from below.

Firefighters: "We save people, not the banks"

Bárcenas scandal

At the end of January, the ‘El Pais’ newspaper published documents, allegedly detailed secret hand-written accounts covering the last 11 years (up til 2008), written by ex-PP treasurer, Luis Bárcenas. He has been under the spotlight following investigations into a previous corruption scandal – the ‘Gurtel’ case. This revealed he held a Swiss bank account, with a stash totalling over €22 million, proceeds of years of tax-free looting. However, these secret papers contained even juicier information. This has thrown the government into its deepest crisis yet, dissolving its already disappearing legitimacy in the eyes of the vast majority of people.

They detailed the paying out of regular sums of cash derived from (mostly illegal) big business donations to the party, to the top leaders of the PP, including current President, Mariano Rajoy. They indicate that over this time, Rajoy received a total of over €300,000 in payments of this character, including extra one-off sums, marked for spending on “suits”! They also detail payments of a similar scale to a wide range of PP leaders, including PP “number 2”, Maria Dolores De Cospedal, and payments to Health Minister, Ana Mato, which included entries marked “Luis Vitton”, for fashion accessories! The origins of these donations, primarily from big construction companies, but also from bosses in other sectors, are unsurprising. These are Spanish big bosses, understandably keen to bankroll the party that has since brought them gifts such as anti-worker labour reforms, and lucrative contracts in privatised hospitals and health centres among many others.

Moreover, the repertoire of policies implemented by this party over the last year alone, includes a direct gift to fraudsters and tax-dodgers alike: a fiscal amnesty allowing wealthy tax-dodgers to repatriate their winnings, avoiding the full whack of backdated tax payments. The fact that this outrageous policy was used by Bárcenas himself, to “repatriate” over €11 million last year, is an additional deeply embarrassing detail, which helps to cast light on this elaborate con job.

The response of Rajoy and his government so far, has been contemptuous, based on outright denial, and offers to provide “proof” which insult the intelligence of the Spanish people. The “proof” which Rajoy promises to present goes no further than an offer to publish copies of his tax returns – as if these would include any details of tax free corrupt cash payments! However, as the saga goes on, revelation after revelation gives further credence to the allegations. Handwriting analysis experts commissioned by El Pais, El Mundo and other establishment newspapers have confirmed that the papers were written by Bárcenas. PP MPs and key figures, including the President of the Spanish Senate, have entries in the papers. At a subsequent hearing of the anti-corruption tribunal, a former PP MP, Jorge Trias, swore under oath that the copy of the accounts in circulation was the same as a copy previously shown to him by the ex-treasurer himself.

So far, the government’s response to the allegations has consisted of a bullish attempt to close ranks, deny all knowledge, and eulogise the Presidents trustworthiness and “clean hands record”. However, given the damning indictment of the PP that these allegations represent, a layer of leaders crying foul, in an opportunistic attempt to save their political fortunes, is inevitable. Already, the outlines of a serious internal crisis are being drawn.

Internal splits and divisions in regime

Back in 2004, when Rajoy won the PP leadership, his main rival was Madrid PP leader, Esperanza Aguirre. She is a fiery politician, generally seen as to Rajoy’s right appealing to the PP’s more conservative base, with her more provocative rhetoric against the trade unions, left and Spain’s nationalities. Until recently, it seemed like Rajoy had been able to rid himself of her irritating influence. But like a flu which hits you on the morning when you least need it, the Bárcenas scandal has brought her back onto the scene. Sharply critical of the party leadership’s handling of the crisis, she offered herself to lead a democratic “regeneration”, along with calls for the dismissal of Health Minister, Mato. While at present this mini-rebellion seems confined to Madrid, as the saga unfolds and pressure mounts from all sides (not least from the workers and youth), Rajoy could become increasingly isolated.

One of the features of the current situation, of profound crisis and instability, and popular rage and ferment, is for divisions to emerge within the regime itself. This could link up with and exacerbate the already open breaches which have opened up, on a national/regional level, within the PP as well as within the state forces (army, police, judiciary, etc), which have already been a factor in the government’s underlying weakness.

While this process is accentuated by given issues and events, such as the current scandal, it is also a general feature of periods of deep crisis. Often in such periods the ruling class has no clear project to overcome the crisis and restore growth and stability, around which it can rally its forces and social base. What better description of the situation facing the Spanish government and capitalist class, on collision course with the majority in society and wedded to a suicidal austerity agenda which pushes the economy deeper into depression. Such a situation, combined with massive pressure building up from below, and the development of new struggles of the workers and youth, with some revolutionary features and traditions, is bound to strike fear into the hearts of the ruling class. It naturally provokes squabbling and splits. These fears, as well as the massive ferment and growing determination to struggle among workers and youth, show that events are ultimately moving in a revolutionary direction, as the objective situation cries out for it. However, in order for this to be anything more than abstract analysis, a struggle must be waged to establish the subjective conditions for a revolution – a powerful movement with the strategy and political programme necessary for a struggle to the end. The absence of these conditions explain an infinite amount about the present situation.

Will the government fall?

Despite the government’s rapid loss of legitimacy, the initial response of the ruling class to this crisis will be to try at all costs to maintain the current government in place, for fear of the even greater instability which any alternative arrangement would bring. In parliamentary terms, the PP enjoys a large majority, and capitalism’s second reliable state-wide force, the ex-social democratic PSOE, is going through its own deep crisis of support and legitimacy – on 23-24% in polls – with no immediate prospect of winning elections. A problem for the ruling class in any attempt to restore legitimacy to the capitalist government is that the PP’s crisis of legitimacy extends to all pillars of the establishment! There is not one prominent capitalist institution or party which enjoys the confidence of the broad mass of Spaniards, Basques, Catalans etc.

This applies to all pillars of the much-touted new Spanish “democracy” following the “Transition” from Francoism. The Monarchy is deep in its own scandals, following the case of Urgandarin, the King’s son in law, who made millions for himself and his friends through stealing the proceeds of charitable institutions, and the king’s own embarrassing revelations of elephant-hunting trips at the taxpayer’s expense. Weeks before the current scandal exploded, a Metroscopia opinion poll published in El Pais, showed that a stunning 96% of people judged the level of corruption among the political class as a whole to be “very high”. Even the model of state, the “autonomies” which after the transition to democracy were hailed as the once-and-for-all solution to the historic national question, has lost its legitimacy, with only 18% favouring the maintenance of the current model in some polls.

PSOE, along with right-wing nationalist parties in Catalunya and the Basque country, are also beset by regular corruption scandals. Indeed, a similar crisis of corrupt payments from big bosses to the PSOE party was key to the bringing down of the Felipe Gonzalez government in the 1990s. The list goes on and on, and has been a feature of Spanish politics for many decades, especially during the construction boom of the last decade. However, while a boom can quite nicely fatten up a rotten corrupt ruling class, a crisis can just as nicely expose it for what it is.

Towards a “technocrat” regime or national unity government?

In this context, any alternative to Rajoy based on early elections would bring deep uncertainty for the ruling class and capitalism. The capitalist class, in Spain and internationally, is conscious that the years to come contain many barriers to be bulldozed and battles to be waged, not least between the central Spanish government and the nationalities, especially Catalunya. And for such a period, they want a reliable government which can best resist the mass pressure and opposition to it. This entails a government with a hefty majority, and at least a modicum of legitimacy among a section of the working and middle classes. At the moment, Rajoy does not provide them with this. However, in the absence of an alternative they can have confidence in, they can hang onto him for a period.

This being said, the bourgeois and its representatives will already have extensively thought and planned out a possible ‘plan B’ scenario. Press reports already indicate that around the PP, the options of Rajoy’s resignation to be replaced by his deputy, and even of early elections, have been contemplated. A possible, even a likely, perspective is that if the pressure on Rajoy does not recede, in an attempt to prevent new risky elections, the question of a national unity government, or “grand national pact” – an idea with strong resonance and history in Spain following the 1970s’ “Moncloa pact”, comes back onto the agenda. In Italy and Greece, we have already seen the imposition of such governments, headed by technocrat figures. Under the current conditions, events in Spain seem also to be moving in this direction, although any technocrat or national unity government would obviously in no way bring stability or a period of “social peace”.

Organise from below to force a movement capable of toppling government

Any such solution should meet with mass organised resistance by the workers and social movements, with a determined struggle demanding the fall of the government and new elections. As Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Spain) has pointed out, with the current weakness of the PP government, a workers’ movement with a serious strategy and a leadership worthy of the name could bring it down through a new calendar of mobilisations. After three powerful 24 hour general strike over the last 2 years, such a plan of mobilisations would have to represent an intensification, with a 48 hour general strike as the next step in a struggle capable of casting the PP government aside.

However, in the current situation, many in Spain will ask themselves, somewhat despairingly – “why has such a movement not developed, despite the extent of the government’s bankruptcy?”. The answer to this question mostly lies in the state of the leadership of the traditional workers’ movement and its main forces – the trade unions. The leaders of the main two trade unions, CCOO and UGT, seem to have no intention of taking a lead in organising such a struggle. Their recent declarations have at best been limited to a demand for Rajoy’s personal resignation. Even then, put the condition of the need to “prove” the veracity of the allegations. Millions of workers, unemployed, young people and pensioners will need no judicial convictions before making their minds up as to the rotten corrupt, anti-worker nature of this government of thieves. The union leaders have made no significant attempt to mobilise the collective power of the working class since the magnificent general strike of 14 November, when over 10 million struck and 4 million took to the streets.

This is despite a growing militancy from below, as shown in the massive and combative action being taken by workers in different sectors across the state since the general strike. “New” and militant forms of struggle have emerged. The tactic of workplace occupations has come back on the agenda, following the beginning of the marvellous movement of the “white tide” against health cuts and pivatisation in Madrid, in which over 20 hospitals have been partially occupied by workers, and already some minor partial victories have been won. Indefinite strikes, rarely seen until now, are also abounding – refuse workers in Sevilla, Granada, Cadiz and other cities, along with numerous companies in the private sector. These developments clearly show that the dynamic force in the workers’ movement, the force which is setting the real pace of struggle and giving an expression of the mood in society, is the working class, and trade union rank and file, in contrast with the approach of the top layers.

The current passive position of the leaders is a continuation of the policy they have implemented since the beginning of the crisis. They have acted only when under unbearable pressure, to organise general strikes – which have invariably been strong and successful mobilisations – only to proceed to immediately demobilise, rather than opting for intensification to impose alternatives to the government’s austerity. Spain’s trade union bureaucracy seems to be profoundly stuck in pre-crisis mode, when the economic boom partially allowed for a “social partnership” approach, of deals with the bosses and government to protect social gains while safeguarding “social peace”. However, this period is over. In the context of capitalism’s deep crisis, no deals or pacts can paper over class divisions in society, and weakness and passivity from the workers movement encourages an even more savage aggression from capital. The union leaders are also further domesticated by the movement’s dependence on state funding, which diminishes further their desire not to “rock the boat”.

But this approach, and their current refusal to act decisively, will ultimately be unable to stop struggle developing. In May 2011, a similar conjuncture, with the crisis developing at lightning speed and a trade union leadership unwilling to give the growing anger an expression, led to the explosion of the Indignados’ 15M movement. This movement has since somewhat diminished and become dispersed, including into positive developments such as the growing massively popular movement of direct action against house evictions. This has been partially due to the weaknesses of organisation and political programme (or lack thereof) which the CWI and SR outlined since the movement’s birth.

However, in a similar way, the current situation could see the explosion of a movement which goes over the heads of the trade union leaders. Already, the 3-day national students’ strike in the first week of February was accompanied by massive demonstrations which took up the demand for the resignation of the government. These and protests on specific issues – including evictions – can give an expression of the generalised discontent and rage in society. However, in order to force this government and its policies from the scene of history, a massive organised and sustained movement, bringing together all individual struggles in general strike action, is necessary. For this, and to overcome the roadblock of the union bureaucracy, the building, strengthening and coordination of democratic mechanisms of control from below – assemblies and committees of action in workplaces, universities, schools and neighbourhoods – is a key demand of the hour. Such bodies, organised democratically with the election of delegates – and the right to recall them – are a key ingredient of the type of movement necessary

The left and the struggle for a workers’ government

One of the main reasons why the capitalist class is so afraid of the spectre of new elections, is their fear of how the masses will vote! In the immediate aftermath of the Rajoy corruption revelations, the Financial Times despaired: “If elections were to take place now, Spain could face Greek-style political fragmentation, with the two main parties reduced to the diminished size of Greece’s conservative ND and… PASOK (which, like the PP, also had a recently won absolute majority).” This fear, also articulated by Rajoy himself, among the elite is entirely justified. Spain’s “bipartidismo” (two party system) has functioned since the fall of Franco as a key stabilising factor for capitalism, guaranteeing its control over government, whether under one colour or another. However, this is another institution cast asunder by the crisis.

Recent opinion polls show a colossal fall for the PP, over 20% down on its November 2011 election victory. But PSOE, capitalism’s second reliable state-wide party, has not reaped the benefits, with polls showing that they too have lost ground, even compared to the historic hammering they received at the last elections. The main force which has benefited has in fact been the United Left (IU), along with new forces of the nationalist left (Bildu in the Basque country and CUP in Catalunya). IN recent polls, the IU is between 15 and 16%, up from below 7% in 2011 elections and less than 4% in 2008. In the recent Catalan elections, the vote for the left (ICV/IU and the pro-independence, anti-capitalist CUP) reached a combined second place in the Catalan capital, Barcelona. This process is the best expression of the radicalisation, and consequent shift to the left, that public consciousness has undergone during the crisis, and especially in the last 12 months.

However, a decisive question is whether these changes in support will remain a question of mere electoral intention, or whether they – along with the explosive struggles to come – can be translated into a real movement capable of radically changing the situation for the better. There remains much work to be done if the answer is to be in the positive. However, the growth of the left, on the correct basis, can quickly put it in a position to challenge for a majority. The prospect of an alternative government of the anti-austerity left would be a key catalyzing factor in the situation in Spain, and give a new hope and confidence to workers’ and social movements increasingly determined to fight to stop the social carnage.

In order for such a prospect to become viable, various political and organisational conclusions have to be drawn. Firstly, we are beginning from a situation in which the hegemony of PSOE as default “opposition” party is under threat, following decades of pro-capitalist policies, including that which begun the current austerity offensive between 2008 and 2011. This provides the real left with a golden opportunity to seal the fate of this ex-workers party – to the dustbin of history. However, a disastrous way to go about it would be to prop up PSOE by making political pacts and coalitions with it, which unfortunately is a strategy defended by the majority of the IU leadership. In Andalucia, we see the fruits of such a policy being borne – a government with IU ministers implementing the biggest austerity programme in the region’s history. Such a strategy is incapable of assuring that IU develops as the political voice of a society turning away from the parties of the system. Worse still would be the impact of a repetition of the Andalucia experience on a state-wide level, which would be posed from some quarters in the context of new elections. International experience, especially the implosion of the Italian PRC (Party of Communist Refoundation) following its participation in the anti-worker Prodi government in the 1990s, must be learned from to avoid such a disastrous scenario.

At the IU’s national convention in January, growing opposition from within the coalition itself was on display. A motion criticising the policies implemented by the Andalucian coalition, and calling for the withdrawal of the IU from the coalition, was passed at one of the convention’s sessions. In Andalucia itself, as a result of a magnificent campaign of opposition from below – led by Sanchez Gordillo among others – , 3 of the IU’s regional MPs refused to back the government’s latest cuts packages. Other successful motions passed, including support for the imposition of a “workers’ wage” salary policy for IU elected representatives, indicate the growing polarisation between left and right within.

If an organised left opposition existed on a state-wide level, following the example of the “IU from below” platform in Andalucia, these movements within could much more effectively be reflected in changes to how the IU and its leadership operate on a state-wide level. Given the momentum behind the IU at this stage, with events pushing it further and further towards a position as contender for power, the debates within and around it on questions of policy, strategy and a revolutionary socialist alternative to capitalism, are of crucial importance. An organised opposition within the IU, defending a policy of political independence from the capitalist parties, an opposition to all cuts, rejection of the payment of the debt and for socialist policies of massive public investment financed by massive wealth taxes, and the nationalisation of the banks and key sectors of the economy to break with capitalism and austerity, would be a powerful new factor in Spanish political life.

However, although a necessary central pole in any challenge to the power of capitalism in Spain, in the new situation thrown up by the crisis, IU is no longer the only show in town. The national question, pushed to the forefront by the crisis, especially in the historic Catalan and Basque national communities, has shaken up the political scene generally. The deep connection between rising pro-independence sentiments and the deep opposition to the austerity policies of the PP central government, has seen an important space open up on the left. The space has been partially but rapidly filled by new formations, combining pro-independence positions with opposition to austerity and an anti-capitalist profile. In Catalunya, the CUP stood for the first time in November’s elections, and from nothing won 3 MPs, with opiion polls only one month later giving it twice that amount. In the Basque country, Bildu, a new formation in the “abertzale” (pro-independence left) tradition made shockwaves in elections in October, emerging as the second party.

The breakthroughs for these forces is partially linked to the IU leadership’s insufficient position on the national question – formal recognition of the right to self-determination, but no concrete support for moves in this direction. Indeed, with over 80% of Catalans in favour of a referendum on self-determination – a basic expression of this right – IU leader Cayo Lara has come out against it, on the premise that Catalunya’s future is something for all of Spain to decide! This approach must be corrected – in line with the best revolutionary traditions of the Spanish workers’ movement – in favour of the defence of this right in both word and deed.

A key task today is for the building of united fronts, on a regional, national and state-wide basis, of the genuine left, including the IU, and various left nationalist and regional formations, such as Bildu, CUP etc. The potential fruits of such a strategy are being shown in Galicia, where the new AGE alliance (IU plus left-wing nationalists) had exploded onto the scene. In the latest poll, it is tied neck and neck with PSOE on about 20%. Moreover, when the youth is taken into account, results are even more astounding. Among those under 35, support for AGE is higher than that of both the PP and PSOE combined! Such a united front should be formed on a state-wide level, on the basis of an united platform for a left government.

Such a government would have to reject the payment of the debt to the banksters at home and abroad, and refuse austerity impositions from the capitalist European institutions. Then, on the basis of mass struggle and democratic rank and file organisation among workers, youth, the unemployed and pensioners, a workers’ government, based on public ownership and democratic control the economy and a socialist plan of production could be fought for. The earth-shaking impact that such a struggle would have internationally, especially in fellow peripheral European countries such as Greece and Portugal, would clearly show the outline of a potential new union of the European peoples, in struggle against devastation – the ultimate basis for the alternative of a free and voluntary socialist federation of Europe.

Embedded in the situation in Spain is the need for revolution, for the imposition of a socialist solution, the only lasting way to remove the logjam of history. However, in the absence of a movement with the necessary tools to win, a more dangerous situation for the working class could develop, with national fragmentation, and the rise of reactionary forces which prey on the desperation of ever-bigger social layers. The potential outline of such developments is already being drawn, with the rise in reactionary Spanish or ‘Castillian’ nationalism, reminiscent of the Franco era, and the growth of forces like the UPyD, which express this, alongside populist opposition to corruption, and the power of the trade union movement etc. This being said, the momentum of the situation is still with the working class, and the dominant shift in attitudes remains towards the left. There is still the basis for Marxists – despite the complications of a given conjuncture – to be confident of the forward march of the coming Spanish revolution.

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February 2013