Spain: Failure of Podemos to offer alternative in government allows far-right to make electoral gains

Pedro Sanchez, Spanish PM, has called snap elections (Photo: Ministry of the Presidency Government of Spain)

In 2015, the Comunidad Valenciana celebrated the end of 16 years under the governance of the People’s Party (PP). The PP lost the absolute majority they had enjoyed in the region since 1999. A coalition to govern was instead formed by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and Compromís, with support from Podemos (“We Can”). Together, they promised to defend ‘Valencian identity’ and to pursue progressive and eco-conscious politics.

But eight years later and the region has swung back to the right. During May’s local elections, the PP won 40 seats (21 more than in 2019), mainly at the cost of the centrist party, Ciudadanos, who lost 18 seats. Unidas Podemos, an alliance of leftist parties in the region, lost all eight of their seats.

The ruling “left-wing” mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau (Bafcelona en comu), also lost out to a right-wing pro-independence candidate from Junts per Catalunya, Xavier Trias. Despite receiving more votes than any other candidate, a coalition of forces which even included the PP, managed to keep Trias out by opting for PSOE to take the mayor’s office, removing Colau from power in the process. This was only achieved by ensuring support from the PP, whose councilors agreed to vote for a PSOE mayor to keep out Junts per Catalunya. Despite those that argue that the “left” managed to maintain control of the Barcelona city council, this is still a defeat for the pro-austerity Left and Barcelona en Comu, in particular.

This was a familiar picture across many of Spain’s autonomous regions, which enjoy enormous power and budgetary discretion over education, health, housing, and policing.

A nine-point increase from 2019 across the board saw PP dominate regions previously won by PSOE, including Aragon and La Rioja, while also stealing important cities like Seville away from PSOE and achieving an absolute majority in Madrid. The ruling left-wing mayor in Barcelona also lost out to a right-wing pro-independence candidate.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was forced to call a snap general election for July 23 after PSOE and their junior coalition partners were so badly defeated. But the way things played out in Valencia is the scenario they most want to avoid next month.

In Valencia, on 13 June, PP and the far-right Vox party sealed their first deal to govern in coalition, teaming up to run the region. Vox has built its campaign along clear lines: Spanish nationalism, the fight against Catalan identity, praise for the armed forces, signaling opposition to gender violence laws, and the ‘historical memory’ law that condemns the repression of the Franco regime. They now run the Valencian region’s offices for culture, agriculture, and justice.

This a scenario that may well play out on a national level in a month’s time in an election that is shaping into a binary choice between a conservative government supported by a far-right party, or a center-left government supported by the ostensibly far-left party, Podemos. As in Valencia, the PP is the favourite to win the day, with support from Vox.

Why is this happening?

The rise and fall of Podemos over the last decade underpin this shift. In 2014, Podemos was a dazzling new force in leftist European politics. In 2016, the party almost snatched the leadership from Pedro Sanchez, but settled for joining a ruling coalition that has governed Spain since 2015.

But Podemos’ leading individuals, who promised to tackle austerity, appeared to disappear into the coalition and failed in their mission. While their popularity implied that there was a real demand for radical, serious, socialist change, the coalition government instead produced nothing but insipid right-wing governance, slashing pensions and wages, hiking the military budget, and giving bailouts to major banks and corporations. For those who voted for Podemos, on mass, this was a betrayal that left a vacuum in support. And the right has capitalized.

If a progressive coalition fails to tackle austerity, the counter-attack is an easy one – it is failing because it is progressive. Vox – who appeared on the scene with radical right-wing policies at roughly the same time as Podemos – have targeted the same working-class neighbourhoods that Podemos did, but this time blaming immigrants and Catalan separatists instead of austerity for their problems.

Indeed, Vox has focused on a broad range of culturally progressive causes that had been championed by the coalition, namely LGBTQIA+ rights, Black Lives Matter, and Climate Change. With images used by Vox representing these issues being thrown into the bin, a slogan reads ‘Decide what matters’.

On June 18th, just five days after the coalition had consolidated power in Valencia, many considered the first ‘unofficial’ act of the party to be the removal of the LGBTQIA+ flag from the city’s town hall. Campaigns to reduce violence against women have also drawn scrutiny by Vox, who have labelled gender violence an ‘ideological concept’. The PP has watched Vox in action and has won over the centrist vote by accusing the current coalition of focusing their energies on progressive policies at the expense of Spain.

Several English-speaking countries are familiar with the weaponization of an imagined ‘culture war’ to swerve attention away from class issues, such as austerity, unemployment, housing, and fair wages. But this has worked in Spain because Podemos, when given power, failed to help improve these things in the way they said would work, by tackling austerity.

What is dangerous is that this approach gives the right a free pass to continue austerity, because their support is not built on tackling it. Whether it is the EU, immigrants, or the Trans community, poverty is their fault, not the government, not austerity, says the right. It is all smoke and mirrors, somewhere to look while the money continues to fly into the pockets of the ruling class. Create villains, and you will always have someone else to blame for your open failures.

And so, it is the failure of a left-wing party to act, when given power, that has opened the door for potentially the most right-wing government in Spain since Franco. The country is facing a blue tide that Prime Minister Sanchez is trying to get ahead of. A snap election could capitalise on the distaste many PP voters have for Vox, and the regional elections have shone a light on the party’s keenness to jump into bed with them. With that fresh in the minds of PP voters, they make think twice before helping to establish a far-right coalition. But perhaps that is wishful thinking.

What is certain is that there is potentially strong left-wing opposition to the policies of the PSOE-Podemos coalition in Spain. But in the wake of Podemos’ betrayal, these votes have been stolen by a right-wing party that offers so-called ‘change’. When a right-wing government inevitably fails to bring real change to the lives of the working class, a genuine socialist movement must capitalize. There is a chasm in Spanish politics crying out for it. Podemos has damaged that course, but its electoral rise showed the appetite for left, anti-austerity policies were present. This time, the gap must be filled by a party that will not disappear and disappoint when in power.

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