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Spain: Can the Socialist-Populist embrace last?

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The November 10 parliamentary election in Spain, the second this year and the fourth since 2015, once again produced an unstable parliament with no absolute majority for any one party. It also marked a swing to the right, just as the April election had seen a swing to the left. This is inevitable when the reformist parties of the left fritter away a result and continue with opportunist policies, both political and economic.

Catalonia, and the EU’s demand for continued austerity, will hang over a new ministry like the sword of Damocles. Meanwhile, the rise and rise of the far right, in the shape of Santiago Abascal’s Vox, should spur the still powerful rank and file left forces in the Spanish state to wake up to the fact that direct mass action, the class struggle on the streets and in the workplaces, is the only way to avoid a catastrophe.

Pedro Sánchez's Socialist Party, PSOE, is still the largest party in Congress, with 120 seats, and has decided to form a coalition with Pablo Iglesias’s Unidas Podemos, UP, although Sánchez had been avoiding that since the April polls. Now, however, with the PSOE having lost 3 seas and UP 7, and Vox more than doubling its seats, from 24 to 52, Sánchez sees no alternative.

However, even together the two parties have only 155 members of Congress, and 176 seats are needed for an absolute majority. Moreover, the PSOE has a significant right wing that detests the idea of a link up with Podemos and would have preferred an alliance with parties of the right or centre-right, like Ciudadanos (Citizens). That option evaporated with the collapse of Ciudadanos from 57 seats to just 10. Its leader and founder, Albert Rivera, resigned not only his party post but also his seat in parliament, to return to private life.

A marriage made in heaven …. or hell?

The theatrical embrace with which Sánchez and Iglesias celebrated their governmental pact was obviously more heartfelt on the latter’s side. Against opposition from both Sánchez and the Anticapitalist left in Podemos, he had pushed for a pre-election pact with the PSOE. Now it is clear that he is prepared to go all the way with the PSOE.
“Sanchez knows he will be able to count on our total loyalty. It is time to leave behind all criticisms … and to work side by side on the historic and exciting task we have ahead of us.” His excuse for dumping Podemos’ previous excoriating criticisms was that that a government led by the PSOE and Podemos would be “the best vaccine against the far right.”

The high price that would have to be paid to become vice premier was clear in September when Iglesias said that if the High Court handed down a heavy sentence on the Catalan independence leaders then; "Clearly, we have already said that although we had a position of dialogue, we are going to accept the law and the leadership position of the PSOE".

No wonder Sánchez said, after their embrace, “Thank you for the generosity.”

Both leaders rang the changes on the word “Progressive”. Sánchez insisted, “It will be a progressive government whatever the case. A progressive government made up of progressive forces that are going to work for progress.”

For his part, Iglesias enthused, “I’m pleased to announce today, together with Pedro Sánchez, that we have reached a preliminary agreement to create a progressive coalition government that combines the experience of the PSOE with the courage of Unidas Podemos”.

Even then, however, this coalition will be short of a majority in the 350-seat Congress, the lower chamber of the Cortes, Spain’s bicameral legislature.

Both the Socialists and Podemos were, in fact, weakened by the election. Iglesias’s party suffered because of competition from its co-founder and main ideologue, Íñigo Errejón. His Más País, More Country, which had already crushed Podemos-IU in the Madrid city elections in May, gained three seats In November. Errejón also applauded the coalition agreement and said his three deputies would vote in favour of Pedro Sánchez’s investiture in Congress.

In fact, the left populists’ bubble, the idea that they could wipe out both the PSOE and the right wing Partido Popular, PP, the parties of la Casta, the caste, as they called the corrupt political establishment, had long been burst. For the previous six months, Sánchez had rejected Iglesias’ appeal to form a coalition, saying the very thought gave him nightmares. Nightmare for one; dream come true for the other? We shall see in the coming months.

Catalonia, the biggest obstacle

In their accord for the coalition, the two left parties state: “The government of Spain will make a priority of guaranteeing social peace in Catalonia and the normalisation of political life. With this purpose, it will organise dialogue in Catalonia, searching for formulations that will generate common understanding and reconciliation, always within the context of the Constitution.”

The combined pledges of dialogue and obedience to the constitution are at the heart of the contradiction facing the partners.

To ensure his investiture and form a government, Sanchez needs the support of the regional nationalist parties. The Basque National Party has 6 seats and EH Bildu, Basque Country Unite, has five. Even with their support this is not enough to form a stable government. Sánchez needs the Catalans, or at least the largest of their parties. Here his and the PSOE’s terrible record of supporting the Partido Popular and the Supreme Court’s persecution and repression of the pro-independence parties, who now command 23 seats in the Congress, presents him (and them) with a dilemma.

In Catalonia there are the two main nationalist parties; the Esquerra Republicana. Republican Left of Catalonia-Sovereigntist, ERC-S, with 13 seats, and Junts per Catalunya, Together for Catalonia, JxCat, with 8. The Esquerra would clearly like to support a PSOE-U-Podemos government but, under pressure from JxCat, has placed the condition that the coalition in formation undertakes mediated discussion with the Catalan parties on an agenda. Sánchezhas many times rejected self-determination being on the agenda. In addition, Esquerra is conducting a ballot of its members on the issue and the far left CUP, with two seats, wants a united front to refuse any negotiation with Sanchez.

Meanwhile, neither the PSOE nor U-Podemos are willing to risk the wrath of the Supreme Court, or their own right wings, by offering anything substantial to the Catalans. Even if they did, the vicious high judiciary of the Spanish state would rapidly intervene to declare it unconstitutional.

Carles Puigdemont, former president of the Catalan Generalitat , remains in exile with the Madrid courts trying to get him extradited. On 14 October, the Madrid Supreme Court sentenced nine of the leaders responsible for the independence referendum and ministers deposed by Madrid in October 2017, to jail terms of from 9 to 13 years.

These include the vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, foreign minister Raül Romeva and interior minister Joaquim Forn, Also sentenced to similar terms were Carme Forcadell, speaker of the Catalan parliament and the ‘two Jordis’; Jordi Cuixart of the Catalan National Assembly and Jordi Sànchez of Òmnium Cultural, whose organisations were held responsible for the mass demonstrations and strikes around the referendum.

The announcement of these sentences led to three weeks of mass protests with violent clashes between police and young protesters and demonstrators burning barricades throughout Catalonia’s biggest cities and towns. A general strike saw half a million on the streets of Barcelona. Police fired rubber bullets, gas canisters and used water cannons. Dozens were arrested and injured.

The current President of the Generalitat, Quim Torra, condemned demonstrators’ violence and called for it to cease. Nevertheless, Pedro Sánchez refused to speak to Torra, claiming his condemnation was not unequivocal enough. Thus the PSOE continued its line of supporting police repression and refusing to negotiate with the Catalan leaders unless they renounced their followers’ main demands.

Stepping up the pressure, the High Court summoned Torra to appear before it on November 18 on a charge of “disobedience”, namely his slowness in removing yellow ribbons from public buildings that are symbols of solidarity with the imprisoned leaders. The judges could sentence him to be removed and barred from office.

Even though the bourgeois Catalan nationalists would be loathe to open the road to a right wing coalition, or see a grand coalition of the PSOE and the PPS, they could hardly support government for long with their leaders languishing in jail and the guardia civil regularly turned loose on demonstrators on the streets of Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona.

On the other hand, were Sánchezto try to amnesty them, let alone to grant the request for a legal referendum on self-determination, it is certain that the powerful right wing of the PSOE would revolt to prevent it. That is not to mention interventions by the High Court and King Felipe VI who, in the constitution, personifies the "indissoluble unity and permanence” of the Spanish State. There would be also be the little matter of the mass mobilisations by Vox and the extreme right.

Vox are open admirers of Franco and his bloody repression, accuse Muslim migrants of being behind a wave of gang rapes in southern Spain, want to outlaw all secessionist parties, end devolved government for Catalonia and restore the death penalty for treason, which includes seeking independence. The rise of Vox is the Spanish version of the right wing populist wave seen in Poland, Italy, France, Hungary and, of course, Brexit Britain.

Fighting Austerity
Since the 2008 Great Recession and the sovereign debt crisis, Spain, like other Mediterranean states of the European Union, has been forced to make severe cuts in social spending and suffered punishing levels of unemployment, which rose to a peak of 26.95 percent in 2013 with youth unemployment reaching 50 percent. Huge numbers of young Spaniards left for other EU countries in search of work. Only in 2017 did Spain’s GDP reach pre-2008 levels, though now it seems growth is slowing once again.
The agreement between the PSOE and U-Podemos commits a new government to sticking to a “balanced budget” policy, with new social programmes having to be paid for out of increased revenue, Podemos’ election manifesto had pledged expansive governmental budgets to reverse a decade of savage austerity. With Brussels demanding fiscal rigour and Spain experiencing an economic slowdown after five years of recovery, Sánchez insisted on having what the EU would see as “a safe pair of hands” as economic deputy prime minister, Nadia Calviño, a former senior official in the European Commission.

Another dilemma is the demand of Spain’s two largest trade-union federations, the Comisiones Obreras, CCOO, Workers’ Commissions, and the Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT, General Union of Workers, for the repeal of PP prime minister Mariano Rajoy's 2012 labour reform, which opened the road to a further decrease in real wages and insecure part-time and temporary employment contracts for workers, especially the young. Largely on this basis, unemployment figures have fallen to around 15 percent.

It will take a mass mobilisation of workers to force a coalition government to concede to workers’ demands.

For the right to secede but oppose secession

The most burning democratic right at the moment is the right of the Catalans to self-determination, including the right to hold a referendum that includes the option to secede from the Spanish state. Thus far, opinion polls reveal that, either despite or because of repression from Madrid, a majority of Catalonia’s citizens do not so wish. Only a free vote, in which both sides can campaign without repression, could determine this. To this end, the guardia civil and all “Spanish” police forces should be withdrawn and equal access to the media guaranteed.

It is a scandal that the PSOE supports the Supreme Court and the existing constitutional ban on Catalan self-determination, revealing how far from democracy, let alone socialism, the party is and how little it deserves the confidence of workers that it will defend them against the social and economic assaults of big capital. Though Podemos supports the definition of Spain as a plurinational state, the constitutional definition of Catalonia as a nation, and the right to hold an independence referendum, it evasively maintains this should only be advisory.

Nevertheless, revolutionaries should not advocate the break away of the autonomous region, unless and until a majority has expressed its will to do so. Catalonia, as the most developed part of the Spanish state is not an economically exploited colony or semi-colony. Those nationalists who complain of the region’s taxes going to aid underdeveloped parts of the Spanish state merely reveal their own appetite to maximise their own accumulation of capital.

The main reason for opposing independence is that it would weaken the unity of the working class across the whole peninsular and, indeed, in Catalonia itself where a majority in solid working class areas is opposed to separation. Last, but not least, it will weaken the struggle against the remnants of Francoism and Spanish imperialism.

Besides the national question, the struggle for democracy includes the need to sweep away all the foul legacy of the Franco dictatorship, accepted by the reformist parties in 1978 in the Moncloa Pact and embedded in the constitution, including the monarchy, the Senate and Supreme Court. The Spanish Communist Party, PCE and the PSOE coauthored this constitutional system and the latter preserved it under prime ministers Felipe González (1982-1996) and José Luis Zapatero 2004-2011.

This entire reactionary lumber needs to be swept away but to do this will require revolutionary mass action, not merely elections. Elections to a sovereign constitutional assembly, based on proportional representation with no minimum threshold, and with votes for all over the age of 16, should be held. The unions and workers' parties should supervise such elections and campaign for a workers' government, based on, and accountable to, the workers' organisations.

Last, but not least, with the rise of Vox, there is clearly the need to defend and extend other democratic rights, including women’s rights to terminate pregnancy, LGBTQ+ and gender equality at both the state and regional levels. An antifascist united front of the working class, including defence groups, needs to be formed to defend workers in struggle, or immigrants under attack.