General election in Spain fails to end political impasse

Demonstration in Barcelona during the general strike held in Catalonia on 3 October 2017 (Photo: Wikimedia/CC)

The November general election has failed to break Spain out of the political impasse, in which it has been locked for over a year.

The revolutionary events which have shaken Catalonia have taken place while the working class in the rest of the Spanish state has been offered no clear way forward by the main parties of the left. At the same time, the far right is on the rise. Time is running out for the left to provide a solution to the crisis.

This election – the second this year and the fourth in four years – backfired spectacularly on prime minister Pedro  Sanchez and his misnamed Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE): not only did he fail to obtain a majority in the Congress of Deputies, Spain’s Parliament, but PSOE actually lost three seats, leaving it with just 120 of the 350 total in the chamber. At the time of writing, it is not clear whether Sanchez will be able to remain as prime minister. He is reliant on votes from Catalan independence parties, including the ERC, whose leader he jailed!

PSOE’s setback demonstrates that no enthusiasm exists for Sánchez’ government No wonder. Not a single cut or attack on workers’ rights made by previous governments has been reversed, and continuous austerity has kept the economy weak and the working class poor. Spain’s debt is at almost 100% of GDP and – at 14.2% – Spain’s unemployment rate is second only to Greece. More pain is to come: predictions for the growth of the Spanish economy are constantly revised downwards as the next recession looms. What will Sanchez do when the economic crisis hits and the capitalists demand more cuts to pay, jobs and services?

Marxists have a duty to tell to the working class the truth about Sanchez and PSOE. Both are fully committed to serving the needs of the capitalist system they support, whatever the cost to workers. Sanchez has pledged, if he remains prime minister, to continue austerity in obedience with the Troika (EU, IMF and World Bank), which demanded last week more privatisation and another EUR9.6 billion more cuts.

We must sound the alarm, dispel any illusions the workers have that a PSOE government could solve their crisis, and call them to prepare to struggle through their trade unions. Trade union federations, like the CCOO, UGT and others, should discuss organising a joint shop stewards’ conference in advance of the coming economic storm, so workers are better prepared this time than before the crash of 2007-2008. Workers must also get organised politically by building a workers’ party.

The election was not a victory for the other parties of the capitalist establishment either. The People’s Party (PP) – historically, the main party of Spanish capitalism – recovered some of its lost ground, obtaining 88 seats, but still recorded its second-worst result in its thirty-year history (three million votes below their tally when they last ruled Spain.

The near-total collapse of new right-wing party, Citizens (Ciudadanos), delivered to the PP the votes of those who could not bring themselves to back the far-right party, Vox. Ciudadanos’ fall – from 57 seats and 3rd place in the April election to just 10 seats and 6th place in November – is a symbol of the volatility of the political situation in Spain. And a warning also to new left party, Podemos, that new parties can rise meteorically and sink, just as quickly, if they make mistakes.

The rise of Vox has been the big story in this election and has been weaponised by the capitalist establishment to try and stampede the other parties into supporting a government with a capitalist austerity programme. Marxists are clear that if the left supports the cuts of the establishment parties – whether they are conservative, liberal or social democratic – then it will be the far right which benefits by falsely posing as an alternative. Workers need a real socialist government that is independence from the capitalists and their parties.

Vox’s rise has indeed been dramatic, and should sound a warning to the left. Just a year ago, this far right party had no MPs, but in the last election took third place and 52 seats – double its representation in April. Vox says it wants to deport migrants who commit crimes, opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, and supports drastically cutting taxes for the richest individuals and companies. It has called for a state of emergency to be declared in Catalonia and for brutal repression of those who are supporting independence. They are attempting to play on the fears of workers outside Catalonia of what the economic effects would be if this industrially-developed region left the Spanish state. Only a socialist programme that promises to raise living standards for all workers, both inside and outside Catalonia, could assuage these fears.


Workers and youth face common misery across the Spanish state, including starkly in Catalonia, where the regional pro-independence government has implemented vicious austerity, allowed the banks to carry out evictions, attacked pensions and education. There is an urgent need for a common struggle of workers throughout the Spanish state and beyond while fighting for all democratic rights including the right to self-determination.

The CWI calls for an independent socialist republic of Catalonia to meet the national aspirations of Catalan’s people, in which the full democratic, language and cultural rights of those in Catalonia who have opposed independence are also met. The struggle by the Catalan masses for an independent socialist republic of Catalonia needs to be linked with a struggle to unite all workers throughout the Spanish state for a genuine democratic socialist alternative to capitalism and for a socialist Spain. This needs to be linked together to unite with all workers across Europe for a voluntary democratic federation of socialist states in Europe. This would guarantee the democratic rights of all peoples, and would safeguard and improve the living standards of all working class people, by taking over the biggest organisations that dominate the economy and coordinating them in a plan, democratically drawn up by the working class.

While it is true that, collectively, the PP, Ciudadanos and Vox, increased the number of their seats in the Congress by just three, it would be a mistake to think that right wing parties will always merely re-divide their current level of support between them. In the context of a revolt against the status quo, capitalism is desperately trying to find a political vehicle that can regain a grip on the mind of the masses and the political situation more generally. If a formation on the right or far right succeeds in presenting an alternative to the masses that seems plausible, then it could quickly grow in support, in the absence of a real socialist alternative. It is clear, when one surveys the left in Spain, that there are grave dangers facing the working class unless mistakes are corrected.

The left party, Unidas Podemos (UP), which grew out of the revolt against austerity in the wake of Spain’s bailout, lost a sixth of their seats in this election. UP spent the campaign pleading with Sanchez to let them into the government with him, leading many workers to conclude that they might as well vote for PSOE, if voting Podemos would give them Sanchez anyway. This, together with the disappointment with the party over the five years since it was founded, resulted in a loss of a sixth of their seats in the Congress, leaving them with just 35. They also lost control of Madrid council and only held onto Barcelona with the support of not just PSOE but also rogue Ciudadanos members.

In order to justify their embrace of PSOE, the leaders of Podemos have drawn a veil over the character of the organisation. In one breath, Podemos leader, Iglesias, hailed the “progressive” character of the coalition, and, in another breath, he told Podemos members that their views would be in a minority in the government, and that “we will have to yield on many issues”. This delicate language conceals an attempt to get Podemos to back more attacks on workers’ living standards. Unless a revolt in the ranks of Podemos prevents him from taking this road, this could spell disaster for this new left party.

“Remember that heaven is won through perseverance,” Iglesias said, but it is only Vox who will win if Podemos does not change course. Podemos activists should study the sorry tale of Refondazione Communista (PRC), a party which emerged from the wreckage of the left in Italy in the 1990s. The PRC rose spectacularly until its participation in the capitalist government of Romano Prodi finished it off as a guide for workers wanting to fight back.


It is necessary to speak clearly about this danger, and to dispel any illusions workers have that a PSOE-UP coalition could solve the problems they face. It is not enough merely to note those illusions, as some on Spain’s revolutionary left have done. Izquierda Revolucionaria, formerly a section of the CWI, has said that “it is impossible to determine the programme of the new government in any detail”. But Sanchez has been clear: he intends to remain within the limits of EU austerity and deny the right of Catalonia to independence. Marxists should not strengthen hopes that are based on illusions. It is necessary to tell the truth to the working class; unless the working class creates its own political party, and arm it with a bold socialist programme, class oppression and exploitation, under this capitalist system, will continue.

What are the prospects for building such a force? Podemos has squandered many opportunities, but with a change of direction it could still play a role in the creation of such an organisation. Its failure, though, has led to a fragmentation. Podemos has split, with a new formation, Mas Pais, emerging, which stood in a national election, for the first time, collecting half a million votes and taking three seats. The Mas Pais stronghold is in Madrid and they have some support elsewhere but their programme is if anything even more limited than that of Podemos. Despite this, if Podemos is inside the government and Mas Pais is outside, it could become a reference point for those looking for a break with capitalist austerity.

The situation in Catalonia is diverging ever more sharply from the rest of the Spanish state. Demonstrators took control of the road to France recently. Prat airport was occupied. Enormous demonstrations have filled the streets and a general strike gripped the country.

Unsurprisingly, in this context, support for the three main parties of Catalan independence grew overall (up by 6%) in the November election. Podemos’ cowardly fence-sitting on independence – calling for “dialogue” in the face of brutal repression by Spanish state forces and calling for a referendum agreed to by both sides that will never happen – created an opportunity for the independence parties both in Catalonia and in the Basque country. There has also been a shift to the left, with left pro-independence party, Catalan Popular Unity (CUP), for example, winning two seats at national level, for the first time. It remains to be seen whether this organisation, which in the past has failed to differentiate itself from the capitalist pro-independence parties, will be able to take advantage of this left turn in the masses.

Opportunities for the left have not been exhausted. Strikes, sometimes on a huge scale, such as the October general strike in Catalonia, can erupt all over Spain. Asked in a national survey who they blamed for the economic crisis, the vast majority of people in Spain blamed the banks and the establishment politicians, with the Troika also close to the top of list. Few blamed immigrants, while two thirds demanded measures to tackle inequality (even if that meant higher taxes). But what is missing is an organisation that workers can use to struggle for power, and a mass revolutionary socialist party that could intervene and point the way forward.

The anger at the capitalism system that expressed itself as a fierce upsurge in the national struggle in Catalonia is also burning amongst the working class of the rest of the Spanish state and beyond. A vehicle must be built to focus and direct this anger. The recent volatile history of Spain shows that such an organisation could be pulled together very quickly and be propelled forward by struggle. But the left should heed the warnings of the rise of Vox: time is crucial!


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December 2019