Spain: A break in the political establishment

December’s elections broke the hold of the two main capitalist parties for the first time since the Franco dictatorship. The high vote for representatives of workers’ and social movements, and the recovery of the left-populist Podemos, open up a new phase in the struggle against austerity.

Election results never offer a totally accurate picture of the balance of forces. This needs to be gauged more accurately in the streets, workplaces and class struggle. However, the results of Spain’s 20 December general election give a useful insight into the changes taking place throughout the state. It has produced a political stalemate, with a hung parliament and the real possibility of new elections.

This general election followed five years of turmoil and struggle. This period included three solid general strikes and countless mega-marches, the mass indignados movement, an array of social movements against austerity and evictions, the abdication of the king and the explosion of mass pro-independence sentiment in Catalonia.

All the pillars of the capitalist post-Franco establishment have been shaken to their foundations. The clearest political expression of this has been the dramatic fall of the two-party system. The alternation in power of the right-wing Popular Party (PP), the political inheritor of the dictator Franco, and the former-social democratic PSOE, has been a fundamental part of the political stability of capitalism in post-Franco Spain.

They consistently won the lion’s share of votes (up to 90%) in every election over 30 years. Recently, however, especially since the 2014 European elections, these two parties’ combined share of the vote has barely reached or even failed to reach 50%. On 20 December, the PP and PSOE lost over 80 seats between them compared to 2011. The result is a parliament incapable of ruling in the old way – through one or other of the main capitalist parties – for the first time since the dictatorship fell.

This crisis of the two-party system expresses and underlines the general dynamic and direction of change in Spanish society. The process underway, though contradictory and far from fully formed, is revolutionary. In essence, the old order is in decline, with a new one struggling to raise its head. This is also reflected in the rise of new movements and parties, especially the emergence from the indignados movement of Podemos, which won over 20% of the vote despite recently testing times.

In the election’s aftermath, everything hangs in the balance. Though a botched-up deal among establishment parties cannot be ruled out, patching together a government majority is complex and, at the time of writing, seems unlikely. This means that Spain could be heading for new elections which would be almost sure to see a deepening of all of these processes. The situation offers untold opportunities for the workers’ and social movements to make the Spanish state the epicentre of revolutionary change in Europe.

The PP’s vote fell by over 16%. The brutal austerity which it has imposed – including over €20 billion worth of cuts in health and education – has seen sections of even its most traditional base desert it. Corruption scandals, implicating leading figures across the board, including prime minister Mariano Rajoy, have also seen its credibility fatally undermined. Internal strife, hitherto almost unimaginable in the top-down party built and led by the political children of Franco, has emerged, with former prime minister and right-wing cult hero, José Maria Aznar, coming out in criticism of his successor on a number of occasions.

The right’s answer to Podemos

This situation has resulted in a certain split or fragmentation of the right-wing vote, for the first time in Spanish democracy. Over the last decades, the PP was the envy of conservatives throughout Europe for its all-encompassing nature. A ‘broad church’ of neo-liberals and arch-conservatives, it always monopolised the right-wing vote, without any competitor for its ideological space on the right of Spanish politics. This has now become just another ‘certainty’ consigned to the past.

A new right-wing, populist kid on the block, Ciudadanos (citizens), which shares a Spanish nationalist, anti-worker, anti-trade union DNA with the PP, has arisen. It won almost 14% on 20 December. Ciudadanos is an interesting phenomenon. It is, in reality, something of a right-wing answer to the development of Podemos.

Since its explosive rise last year, Podemos has revealed the massive desire for political change throughout Spanish society. This is partly expressed in disdain for the established ‘political class’, a desire to kick out the corrupt and jaded parties of old. Many, including in the leadership of Podemos itself, have mistakenly seen in this the main basis for the formation’s growth. Thus, rather than a fundamental change in policy and programme, the most burning need was for a change of faces, to replace the discredited generation of politicians with fresh-faced youth with clean hands and records. A superficial replacement of the bad eggs at the top of the system, instead of a fundamental change from below.

As Podemos leaders mistakenly went further and further down this road, ‘moderating’ the formation’s radical left-wing programme as they went along, the establishment took notice. Ciudadanos, a Spanish nationalist party based in Catalonia, hitherto irrelevant in Spain, stepped into the breach. It aped the basic discourse of Podemos leaders, decrying the corrupt political class and building the profile of a young charismatic leader, Albert Rivera, to rival Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias.

The establishment saw this as a master-stroke, appropriating the harmless aspects of Podemos rhetoric, but linking it to a reactionary right-wing programme to continue austerity and deny workers’ and national rights. For months, especially around the Catalan elections in September, there followed a huge establishment and media campaign of promotion of Ciudadanos. Inflated opinion polls showed it gaining ground on Podemos, even reaching 20% in some polls, as Podemos stagnated and slowly declined in support.

The Podemos recovery

While to some extent expressing a real confusion in popular consciousness, and illusions in superficial change as a solution to the crisis, this situation was also a consequence of the mistaken approach of Pablo Iglesias and other Podemos leaders. A series of blunders left Podemos in a seemingly gloomy position with three months to go before the general election.

As they became consolidated as major political players, Pablo Iglesias and co followed a political trajectory which mirrored Syriza’s leaders in Greece. They proclaimed the need to ‘move beyond’ left and right, and occupy the ‘centre ground’. Radical policies on the public debt, nationalisation of strategic companies and banks, a guaranteed income for the unemployed, among others, were dropped.

The disaster of Syriza’s episode in power in Greece was also understandably an important part of Podemos’s bad fortunes. Many felt that the betrayal by Syriza leader and Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, in signing the third memorandum of EU/IMF austerity, meant there was little point in electing something similar in Spain. However, Pablo Iglesias made it all worse by saying that Tsipras had no choice and that he would do the same in a similar situation!

A skilful criticism of Tsipras’s capitulation could have combated any potential demoralisation and turned it into a new resolve to fight for change. This would have required a determined promise not to repeat Syriza’s betrayal, and to build a movement in Spain which could break the troika’s offensive, while standing in solidarity with the Greek people, offering relief from their isolation. However, Iglesias’s response merely fed into this demoralisation instead of challenging it. The slide in the polls became genuinely worrying, with some putting Podemos as low as 10% – with the December elections looming.

The splendid recovery which it then embarked upon, finishing with over 20% – almost neck-and-neck with PSOE in second place – can be explained by many factors. Above all, however, it represents the resilience and energy of Spanish workers and young people who, as the election approached, raised their heads once more and voted in their millions, despite doubts and misgivings, for the road of change and a break with the status quo.

Labelled the ‘remontada’ (comeback), Podemos mounted an effective closing campaign. Some more radical demands which had previously been dropped or shelved, such as the policy of a guaranteed minimum income to combat destitution, were given a new prominence. Iglesias’s speeches took on a more militant tone, and turned towards a more prominent association with the memory of the indignados movement, the anti-evictions struggle and social movements. His performance in TV debates, in which he emphasised these questions, had a major impact in stemming the tide of the polls.

This was facilitated by the mistakes of Ciudadanos, whose radical credentials were more and more undermined as the campaign progressed. Its leader performed poorly in debates, and became less associated with ‘new politics’ and more with austerity and reactionary positions. He made costly blunders on the question of domestic violence penalties, and by making clear that Ciudadanos would use its votes in parliament to re-elect a PP government!

Benefits of unity

Another decisive factor in the Podemos success was the incorporation into the campaign of key leading figures from the left and social movements who, while clearly sympathetic, had hitherto maintained a certain distance from the formation. This reflected the forming of new electoral alliances with other left-wing organisations (including United Left – IU) and activists around Podemos on a regional and national basis, especially in Catalonia, Galicia and Valencia. Though presented internationally as more monolithic, in reality Podemos’s representatives in the new Spanish parliament will be organised in four separate groups, three of which are the result of broader alliances of this type.

In particular, Ada Colau from Catalonia, leader of the anti-evictions movement (PAH) and mayor of Barcelona since May, added massive credentials to the campaign. She linked Podemos more and more with the golden memories of struggle and social movements shared by millions. She and other left-wing fighters with huge respect and reputation, such as Xose Manuel Beiras, from Galicia, were prominently featured in the closing weeks of the campaign. Their immense political capital paid off for Podemos.

The results speak to the benefits of these new united alliances. In these areas, nearly all the Podemos-backed lists did better than the Podemos-only lists in the rest of Spain. This is a repeat of the experience of May’s local elections, when broader ‘popular unity’ lists won the mayor’s position in Madrid, Barcelona and other big cities, while lists confined to Podemos members got more limited results in regional elections.

The fundamental lesson of these experiences is that the maximum unity with organisations and activists of the left and social movements brings results. However, Iglesias and other Podemos leaders have repeatedly failed to learn this lesson to the extent necessary. Their refusal to unite on an all-Spain basis with the United Left, which won almost one million votes, was a costly mistake. Based on the results, such an alliance would have finished ahead of PSOE by a comfortable margin. With the prospect of new elections open, this must be urgently corrected, with the formation of an even broader united front of the left, on a democratic basis from below and with an anti-capitalist programme.

National question – from weakness to strength

These new alliances allowed Podemos to turn what had been a weak link in its chain into one of its main strengths. In September’s Catalan elections, the list involving Podemos performed poorly, winning less than 9% of the vote, finishing in fourth place. A weak, ambiguous approach to the national question, and with the campaign more associated with Spanish figures like Iglesias than with Catalans, wounded its chances amid an atmosphere of polarisation.

In December’s election, however, Colau’s spearheading of the campaign turned these aspects on their heads. Mayor of Barcelona and heroine of the social movements, she enjoys massive respect and support throughout progressive Catalonia. Central to the campaign was a clear promise to make a legally-binding referendum on Catalan independence a red-line condition for supporting a government. In a historic turnaround, the Podemos-backed list won the elections in Catalonia, finishing in first place, only three months after its previous dismal performance. The right-wing nationalist CDC of outgoing Catalan president Artur Mas, plummeted to fourth place.

Incredibly, Podemos also won the elections in the Basque country, where it had struggled to get a foothold amid national polarisation. Catalonia and the Basque country were the only regions where Podemos topped the poll. This represents a potentially important turning point. Until now, the main contradiction in the situation has been that the national aspirations and struggle for democratic rights, though deeply progressive in essence, have tended to be channelled through the reactionary right-wing nationalists, and thus into a dead end.

Marxists operating in the Spanish state have always explained that the bourgeoisie of Catalonia, the Basque country and Spain itself have no real interest in democratic and national rights and will betray the masses’ aspirations. Only the struggle of the working class against the regime as a whole, including the corrupt local Catalan and Basque oligarchies, and for a socialist solution, can untie the knot of national oppression which is built into the DNA of the Spanish capitalist state. These election results can represent a shift in consciousness towards this conclusion.

After years of coming up against a brick wall, swathes of Basques and Catalans are beginning to look to an all-Spain struggle against the Spanish establishment as the key to achieving the right to self-determination. This must be energetically built on by the left. A new united movement carrying the banner of self-determination, alongside that of the struggle against austerity and capitalism, could galvanise the struggles of all the Spanish state’s peoples in a common battle for a better shared future, on a free and voluntary basis.

United Left

The United Left (IU) which stood independently under the banner of Popular Unity in regions where it was not involved in alliances with Podemos, won almost a million votes. It won two MPs, with two more IU members elected as part of regional alliances with Podemos. While this was a big blow – a loss of six parliamentary seats – a worse result was definitely possible in the context of the meteoric rise of Podemos. This, in turn, was actually a consequence of the mistakes of the IU leadership. Its bureaucratic character and coalitions with capitalist parties made it seem to many like a left-wing appendage of the establishment when the situation was crying out for a force representing a rupture with the status quo.

Though deep problems remain, there has been internal change within IU. Alberto Garzon, a young activist from the left of the party, has emerged as its leader. While doing everything possible to establish unity with Podemos for the elections, over the course of the campaign Garzon developed a generally skilful criticism from the left of the trajectory of Pablo Iglesias and Podemos. While not putting forward a fully rounded-out position, Garzon defended key aspects of a socialist programme, such as the public ownership of major companies.

With the election results having immeasurably strengthened the argument for unity, Garzon and the many other genuine working-class left militants remaining within IU have a potentially crucial role to play in future processes. Though diminished, and tarnished by the mistakes of the past, it continues to be an important party, especially due to its proletarian base and the communist tradition it represents. Garzon may launch a new formation around these forces in order to intervene in the new situation with a fresher banner.

The formation of a government seems immensely complicated at the time of writing. The establishment is piling pressure on PSOE to support the formation of a minority PP government, along with Ciudadanos. While the most right-wing sections of PSOE will push in this direction, and it is an outcome which cannot be ruled out, it seems unlikely that the party would compromise its electoral prospects by shacking up with the PP. PSOE’s only remaining appeal to workers is, after all, in its claim to be the only realistic governmental alternative to the PP.

PSOE is also unable to agree to pay the political price which a deal with Podemos – which has everything to gain from new elections – would imply, almost certainly including a referendum on Catalan independence, for example. From the point of view of Podemos and IU, no coalition pact or political deal can be contemplated with the representatives of the post-Franco establishment. Especially as outright victory is there for the taking.

Great opportunities

In this situation, the most likely scenario seems to be new elections. Podemos’s strong performance and sense of momentum puts it in an immensely strengthened position if new elections are called. The campaign would take on an increasingly polarised character, between the representatives of the old order, most likely grouped around the PP, and the alternative left, whether it be Podemos or the much needed left alliance on an all-Spain basis.

This scenario offers untold opportunities. With the idea of a left government within reach, the mood can take a sharp turn among the working class. A problem of the past period has been that the electoral rise of Podemos has been accompanied by a lull in mobilisation and organisation of the working class. This can change abruptly, as a new-found confidence sets in.

In a sign of the times, and of the rottenness and crisis of the political regime, all Spain’s major parties now stand for new constitutional reforms. The much-lauded, post-Franco ‘transition’ model, which installed capitalist democracy from above in order to avoid a revolution from below, is thus widely accepted as a failure. This represents a near-universal popular sentiment that the system needs to be changed. However, illusions exist in the extent to which tweaking the country’s constitutional framework can solve the problems of the crisis. Indeed, many political commentators, including Podemos’s leaders, give the impression that superficial change is all that is necessary, that a constitutional reform can reboot Spanish capitalism and make it work for the 99%.

The problems of the current crisis – austerity, the denial of national rights, mass unemployment – are products not of bad eggs in power or badly conceived laws, but of the contradictions of capitalism. In Greece we have seen the tragic consequences of a left party’s unpreparedness to steadfastly challenge the limits imposed on it by the markets and the troika.

By taking a revolutionary road, a Spanish working people’s government could relight the beacon of hope throughout the continent. Socialists must explain that mere constitutional reform is insufficient. The left and social movements must be armed with a revolutionary socialist programme, to create a real democracy based on public ownership and democratic control of the wealth and motors of the economy. On this basis, the peoples of the Spanish state and Iberian Peninsula could come together to determine their futures free from coercion and oppression.

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February 2016