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The Political Crisis in Spain

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AFTER TEN months of political wrangling and two inconclusive elections, Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) has secured the support of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) to form a minority government. In a warning to PSOE MPs whose abstentions broke the deadlock, Rajoy said his government would be one “that can govern, not a government that will be governed by parliament”. In short, the PSOE will have to swallow a whole menu of cuts, not consider his measures à la carte.

During his speech, Rajoy said his red lines were preserving the unity of the Spanish State against the Catalan nationalists and observing the commitments given to the European Union (i.e., inflicting austerity). The EU’s €10 billion austerity programme has been stalled since last year. Now they have asked for €5.5 billion in 2017. A day before the vote, ousted PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez announced his resignation as an MP so as not to have to vote “no” against the wishes of the PSOE administrators who had recently led a coup against him.

Nevertheless, 15 socialist MPs did vote against Rajoy in defiance of the party bureaucracy. But, if Rajoy and the PP have solved their immediate crisis, that of Spain’s historic social democracy, is only just beginning. In June, despite (or maybe because of) the continued paralysis, the PP increased its previous lead to 33 per cent and 137 seats. The PSOE came second with 85 seats and 22 per cent, Unidos Podemos third with 71 seats, and Ciudadanos fourth with 32 seats.

The latter two relative newcomers saw their votes and seats fall. Despite the fusion between the Unidad Popular and Podemos, the combined total was 3.7 million fewer votes, a result made particularly bitter because the opinion polls predicted Podemos would overtake the PSOE as the largest opposition party. June proved the turning point in the two-party political system that failed to turn. But, despite picking up an extra 14 seats, the PP was still unable to reach the 176 needed to secure a majority. Clearly, all the other parties, right as well as left, realised that coalition with Rajoy was a poisoned chalice, for it would give them responsibility for the austerity programme but without any power. The PSOE faced a dilemma; either to do as Rajoy wished and subject the party to stresses that would certainly mean its massacre at the next election, or face continued erosion by Podemos.

To break the deadlock, the PSOE’s leader, Sanchez, started flirting with forming a three-way coalition with Podemos and Ciudadanos. Thus, with the two populist forces to the left and right he hoped to pursue a respectable left reformist policy. In this period a series of sharp disagreements emerged between the two top leaders of Podemos, the líder maximo Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón, the party’s “big theoretician”, as to the exact combination of parties to include in the coalition. This was hardly a dispute of principle. But Iglesias, who earlier in the year had placed conditions in the way of a bloc with the PSOE before the second election, now went overboard, declaring that Podemos was the “new social democracy” and former PSOE prime minister José Zapatero had been “the best PM in Spain’s history”.

In fact, neither Iglesias’s nor Errejón’s coalition schemas were delivered by the June elections, but the continuing paralysis, and Rajoy’s intransigence, quite admirable from a hard-nosed class standpoint, have fractured the PSOE and opened up considerable prospects if Unidos Podemos members can rein in its leaders’ organic opportunism. Iglesias swerved back to the left after the June fiasco saying, at the party's citizen council, that Podemos must go back to its “revolutionary roots”. Evidently this is a reference to the massive square occupations of 2011 (the 15M movement). Juan Carlos Monedero, one of the party’s academics from the Complutense University of Madrid and a central leader until he was ousted this April, has been critical of the Podemos leadership for allowing the party’s roots in the “circles” to wither, saying “the 15-M got out the catapults to knock down the walls of a rotten system and their aim was sure”.

Yet if, as Podemos says, 15M “changed everything” in terms of a potential break-up of the two party system, it also changed nothing in terms of who held the power. This failure was precisely what made a political party that could challenge for government necessary. This withering was a result of the electoralism which, up to December, had a sectarian or ultimatist character (we will take power with no compromises with the parties of the “casta” - the caste of traditional politicians) but gave way to participating in the parliamentary coalition game of musical chairs. The squares and the circulos were neglected as an obstacle to the manoeuvres of Iglesias and co. and inevitably the Podemos base started to become disillusioned.

In addition, the Podemos Complutense leadership began to fall out with one another and líder maximo Iglesias (populism always requires a big leader) became more and more intolerant of his erstwhile comrades. Podemos’s withered internal democracy expresses itself in a leadership informed by clique rivalries rather than reference to the membership. It would be hard to find any real constancy in Iglesias' positions. Earlier in the year he alienated the PSOE by reminding it of its support for brutal repression in the Basque country; more recently he turned to flattering its former leader Zapatero.

What is constant is his denial of democratic debate and internal struggle for the rank and file. In an open letter to members, titled “Defending Beauty”, he warned there was no room in the party for “movements or factions who compete for control of the structure and resources” - apart from his own that is. Such frankness is as admirable as the sentiment is execrable.

Sanchez’s search for a coalition partner, first with Ciudadanos and then Podemos, or both, whilst refusing an abstention deal with Rajoy for nine months, faltered on the opposition of the party’s right wing, who were particularly hostile to any deal involving Podemos, and even more so if some of the smaller Catalan nationalist parties proved necessary to build a stable coalition. This is in large measure because Podemos has the position that Catalonia should have the right to call a referendum on independence. The national bureaucracy of the PSOE is not only opposed to Catalan secession but opposed to the democratic right of the Catalans to decide on this.

The Catalan parliament now has a clear majority for a referendum, though it was not clear the majority of its electorate would vote for independence. The PP and the Spanish judiciary’s repeated attempts to criminalise expression of the desire for self-determination or independence makes Rajoy a hated figure in Catalonia. Though Sanchez has never committed himself to this elementary democratic position, even considering a bloc with parties that had enraged the right wing forces in his party concentrated around the Andalucía PSOE chief Susana Díaz. In late September, half of the PSOE Federal Executive resigned, in a coup aimed at forcing the party to open the road to a PP government under Rajoy. After his failure at the party council to win a majority for calling an extraordinary conference by 132 votes to 107, Sánchez announced his resignation.

Since then, the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) voted 241-0 against supporting the PSOE Executive’s subsequent decision to abstain in favour of Rajoy. According to polls, Sánchez would have had the support of some 60 per cent of PSOE members and voters. But he has declared his loyalty to the coup leaders. The PSOE’s decision to capitulate to Rajoy and abstain in both rounds of the vote of confidence will have considerable consequences. The interim chief administrator, Javier Fernández, said “In no circumstances must the PSOE move away from the centre-left to aspire to be just the hegemonic force on the left. If we did that, we would stop being an alternative for government”.

Like opponents of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK Parliamentary Labour Party, they scorn being a party of opposition even when they are not in power. In essence this is a rejection of even the mildest, most reformist form of class struggle, for fear it will develop into something outside their control. In fact, they are unlikely ever to get back into power in their current form because the political space is already occupied by a Rajoy or a Theresa May. The PSOE is now likely to haemorrhage support towards the left and Podemos, if it does not actually split and or disintegrate.

The one million-strong UGT union federation, traditionally close to the PSOE, is hostile to the party’s surrender to Rajoy and there are rumours it may call a protest general strike. Iglesias has correctly suggested that, if this happens, Podemos will join in summoning the social movements onto the streets and squares once again.

The right wing coup in the PSOE offers Podemos another opportunity if it learns from its past mistakes. A split with the right in the PSOE, with the rank and file joining Podemos and the union federations in mass strike action, would be a great step forward for the left. It could easily lead to a head on confrontation with Rajoy and his “socialist” lackeys.

Of course, older and more working class members of PSOE will not easily be attracted by the unstable, non-class politics of the Unidos Podemos leaders and their tactical zigzags. In order to take advantage of the PSOE’s crisis and become a vehicle for millions of workers and youth to express their frustration and organise for an alternative, Podemos needs to dump the post-modern, classless “narrative” for an openly class struggle position. Within a movement against Rajoy they should fight for an all-out general strike to bring down the PP government and rip up the EU austerity budgets for good.

Anything short of this would make a mockery of Iglesias’ “revolutionary” rhetoric. The prospect of the PSOE’s ‘Pasokification’ requires socialists to learn the lessons of Syriza's experience in Greece. In such an all-out struggle, councils of delegates from the workers and youth should be formed in every city district, town and village in the Spanish state. Any election called by the King or Rajoy should be treated as a tribune for the movement, accompanied by huge mass mobilisations. The trade unions, working class parties and popular campaigns should make it clear that they will form no coalition other than a workers’ government. There must no “transversality” which extends to the bourgeois parties – in plain language no popular front that commits to defending the dictatorship of Spanish and European capital that enforces austerity.

The major democratic questions left over by the rotten deal struck after Franco’s fall (Moncloa Pact of 1977) need to be addressed; the right of self-determination by all of the country’s nationalities, the abolition of the monarchy, a fully democratic election system, a judiciary elected by the people. Revolutionaries should fight for a popular action programme whose goals are to kick out Rajoy, defy the austerity dictates of the EU, defend the right of self-determination for the nationalities (but not advocate the breakup of a federal Spanish state) address the huge youth and regional unemployment, advance transitional demands that challenge both neoliberalism and capitalism, and that ends with a workers’ government, based on the delegate councils and popular militias formed by workers and youth.

It is no exaggeration to draw out these revolutionary implications of a concerted struggle against the PP regime, but the immediate task is to lay the basis for a united resistance. Podemos should offer a united front to the local and regional committees of the PSOE, the CCOO and UGT to halt Rajoy in his tracks, isolate the PSOE leadership, and open up the road to a government that genuinely represents and is accountable to the workers, pensioners and youth of all nationalities.

The turmoil in the PSOE and the turn of Podemos to the left, or at least to the streets and the squares, and any follow through on the rumours of the UGT calling a one day general strike or the recent anti-Rajoy demo in Madrid, would create the possibility of addressing another major question; the need for a working class party armed with a revolutionary programme.

At the moment, left militants are scattered over a spectrum of organisations. Economic political and social conditions in Spain necessitate and favour the creation of such a party. Unity in action combined with a democratic debate about strategy are inseparable parts of the way forward; for Spain, more than any other major European country, could easily face a pre-revolutionary situation during the next crisis.