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The political crisis in Spain and its dynamics

Christian Gebhardt

Spain ended 2015 with parliamentary elections in which the two-party system that had lasted for decades took a historic hammering. On December 20, the previously dominant two parties, the Partido Popular, PP, and the Socialist Party, PSOE, scored 28.7 per cent and 22 per cent respectively. At the same time, two parties, standing in parliamentary elections for the first time, made significant breakthroughs. The left populist PODEMOS, led by Pablo Iglesias, attracted 20.7 per cent while the right-liberal Ciudadanos (Citizens) won 13.9 per cent. In parliamentary terms, the PP lost its overall majority and the PSOE suffered heavy losses.

Despite a return to growth of 3.5 per cent in 2015, which economists describe as “robust”, unemployment still remains at 20.9 per cent, very high by European standards. Among young people, it is 40.5 per cent. Four years of savage budget cuts have severely undermined social services. Almost 13 million people are facing poverty and social exclusion in Spain is some 3 million more than in 2007. A quarter of children are at risk of malnutrition and economic inequality is growing faster than in most other European Union countries. No wonder, then, that a large part of the population, especially the young, are thoroughly alienated from the old parties and looking for real and dramatic change, in particular an end to austerity.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, the King, Felipe VI, invited the prime minister in the outgoing government, Mariano Rajoyof PP, to try to form a coalition but, recognising political reality, Rajoy declined the invitation. The task was, therefore, handed to Pedro Sánchez, chairman of the PSOE. His initial proposal was a tripartite alliance between PSOE, Ciudadanos and PODEMOS, but this was rejected by PODEMOS after a survey of its members. An attempt to form a minority government of PSOE and Ciudadanos also failed after losing two consecutive votes in Parliament. By law, this meant that, for the first time in Spanish history, there had to be new elections because of the failure to form a coalition government. That election will take place on June 26.

Coalition talks

Despite their eventual failure, the attempts to form coalitions were very revealing of the conflicting currents within Spanish politics. During the earliest discussions aiming for a “Grand Coalition” of PP and PSOE, the competing bids for power and the corruption scandals surrounding Rajoy and his party were to the fore. The PSOE tried to strengthen its social profile by demanding not only the dropping of social cuts but also the resignation of Rajoy.

When it became clear that a Grand Coalition was out of the question, Sánchez tried to strengthen his position against PODEMOS by presenting it as unwilling to reach an agreement. By proposing the formation of a centre-right government, he hoped to pile the pressure on PODEMOS and to present himself as the only one prepared to compromise in order to form a viable government. All of this, of course, was supposedly in the interest of nurturing the tender shoots of economic recovery.

PODEMOS conducted a survey of its membership to decide whether such a coalition should be formed or not. The answer was clear; 88 per cent of the members voted against. At the same time, 95 per cent were in favour of the formation of a “left government” of PODEMOS, the PSOE and the Izquierda Unida, the United Left, IU. Through this populist style plebiscite, in which everyone can participate whether or not they are active within the party, Iglesias was able to reduce the pressure on himself and at the same time increase the pressure on the PSOE. He had, after all, consulted his members and they had shown themselves in favour of a left government and not a centre-right government.

After this survey, Iglesias proposed the formation of such a government to the PSOE with Sánchez as Prime Minister and himself as his deputy. Sánchez, however, despite his claimed “readiness for compromise”, rejected this. The basis for the rejection centred on different ways of dealing with the crisis and sharply counterposed positions on the different independence movements within Spain. These are questions, however, that the political situation in Spain continually poses.

Shortly before new elections were confirmed, there was one last attempt to form a coalition. This was supported by a small group of deputies from Valencia called Compromis, a regional coalition of Valencian nationalists, ecologists and some factions of IU, which campaigned together with PODEMOS in the December election. Their proposal was for a left government of PODEMOS and IU together with other left deputies. Although PODEMOS described this as an interesting proposal, it had already decided upon its tactics to take advantage of its lead in the opinion polls with new elections. According to many polls at the time, PODEMOS could even have become the strongest party.

Recent developments

For PODEMOS, 2015 was a year of continuing electoral success; only a few weeks after its foundation, in 2014, it had gained 1.2 million votes and five seats in the European elections and it built on this by winning seats in several elections to regional parliaments. After that, there was a period of consolidation of the group around Iglesias. The name of PODEMOS was on everybody’s lips, and not only in Spain. The young party had reached a particular high point in November 2014, when opinion polls gave it 28.8 per cent, more than either the PP or the PSOE. The two-party system had now collapsed and PODEMOS appeared to be the new star in the heavens for the European left. Even though it could not sustain this level of support in regional or parliamentary elections, it had nonetheless succeeded in establishing itself as a national political force.

As we have explained elsewhere, Iglesias and his leadership clique were able to consolidate their dominance within PODEMOS following the successful European elections and the long drawn out founding conference. The populist methods and tactics proposed by him and his co-thinkers, which were borrowed from the Latin American movements around Chavez and Morales, were based on the promotion of popular leading personalities who, through their strong presence in the media, could present policy initiatives which were then ostensibly legitimised by the votes of the “rank-and-file democracy”. The membership is scarcely able to propose any political initiatives, most of which come from above. This could be clearly seen in the most recent experience of PODEMOS.

Decisions from above took precedence over decisions from below. Furthermore, not only the old established party system was rejected but also all thinking in terms of “left” and “right”. It was said that the Left had shown in recent decades that it had no solutions for humanity or, at least, could not bring these closer to the people. Therefore, the categories “left” and “right” were no longer to be used and politics had to be re-thought. People should organise themselves on the basis of their shared oppression by an ill-defined “Caste” (the equivalent of the “Oligarchy” in Chavism) whose members had secured their place through corruption and intrigue. Thinking and organising on the basis of left and right would stand in the way of the transformation of society. People therefore should organise themselves as a people against the common enemy:

“The composition of the political landscape into a left-right division leads to a situation which prevents a change in a progressive direction in Spain. Those of us who are striving for a post–neoliberal transformation through the state, that is the defence of civil rights, sovereignty and the connection between democracy and redistribution policy, would not stand a chance of electoral victory on this highly symbolic terrain of left and right.”

The popularity of PODEMOS appeared to confirm Iglesias and his co-thinkers’ ideas and encouraged them to draw in all layers of the population against the “Caste”. The attempt to form a populist party and to consolidate Iglesias’ position as Spain’s “Chavez” went together with a tightening of the control by the leadership. This was made clear in the composition of the regional electoral lists. When these lists were put together, the leadership intervened for the first time by rejecting the lists developed by the membership and replacing them with its own. Even though the leadership was strongly criticised for this, they were nonetheless able to force it through.

At the same time, Iglesias did not only intervene internally but also tried to attract support from sections of Spanish capital affected by the crisis by changing some of PODEMOS’s positions. In this he was pursuing the goal of forming a real “People’s party”. His visit to the army, his meeting with the Pope, as well as the withdrawal of some of the important demands of PODEMOS such as leaving NATO or the necessity of stronger economic reforms and the takeover of the economy into “public hands”, are all clear examples of this.

There can be no question that Iglesias did his best to curry favour with sections of the Spanish bourgeoisie and to take advantage of the widespread rejection of the previously dominant parties. What he got was a clear rejection from the side of the Spanish capitalists who not only ruled out any connection to PODEMOS but at the same time formed a competing party, Ciudadanos.

Like PODEMOS, Ciudadanos, a populist, liberal-national party which was founded in Catalonia against the movement for independence, experienced a rapid growth in popularity in the last two years. On the one hand, this confirms that, despite the collapse of the two “old” parties, political polarisation can still be seen in Spain. On the other, it also showed very clearly that sections of the Spanish capitalists had no interest in seeing PODEMOS as their alternative. Ciudadanos was very strongly supported in its electoral campaigning by the bourgeois media.

Even so, the speeches of some PODEMOS politicians in the run up to the new elections still show a strategic orientation towards sections of Spanish capital. Speaking to the German newspaper Neues Deutschland, for example, the PODEMOS MP Pablo Bastinduy explained that,

“In order to reduce the still very high unemployment, PODEMOS will promote changes in our system of production. Spain should put more emphasis on sectors with high added value such as biomedical research, infrastructure, renewable energy, engineering skills. Then it could advance in a short time and with little effort to world-class because we have great skills, talents and the corresponding infrastructure. If Spain focuses on sustainable and innovative areas and thus achieves more value added then that is the key for more and qualitatively better jobs.”

Similarly, in a recent interview with former BBC journalist and author Paul Mason, Bastinduy rests his party’s hopes on the fact that, as a major power, especially in the sphere of banking, Spain is “too big to fail”, that is, to be brought to its knees in the way Greece was. It is, after all, not bankrupt. Thus he believes it is feasible to go to Brussels and successfully demand the repeal or major modification of the Growth and Stability Pact to allow for an end to austerity. His optimism extends to the repressive and administrative cadres of the Spanish state, elements of which he says PODEMOS has tried to attract.

He also believes that the centre ground, by which he really means elements of the right, can be won over by an appeal to common elements of “our European culture”; democracy, freedom of speech, social solidarity, which he claims are neither right nor left and, by implication, are above class. This of course is not true. These might have been the illusions of the Spanish Popular Front of 1936-39 but the reality was that, by strangling the workers’ and landless peasants’ revolution in the name of above-class democracy, a Republic, Spain was hurled into four decades of brutal dictatorship. This reformist pipe dream can only be maintained by not seriously posing the question of property. To believe that changes that will eliminate unemployment and homelessness can be made without laying hands on the fortunes of the millionaires as well as the banks, the factories and the big farms, is as much of an illusion today as it was then.

Nonetheless, the development of PODEMOS has been influenced by the dynamics of the class struggle both nationally and internationally. At home, this is driven by persistent unemployment, housing evictions and several nationwide strikes. Internationally, the most important factor has been the crisis in Greece because PODEMOS had a strong strategic orientation towards Syriza. Both parties were agreed that strong “left governments” in these South European countries could increase the pressure on the troika and force through a rethinking in the austerity policies of the EU. However, after Syriza had betrayed its electoral supporters, first by forming a government with the ANEL and then with the OXI referendum, it was clear that even “left governments” could not influence EU policy just by strong electoral results. Schäuble and company had a clear answer to the Greek population and, thus, to all the other peoples of Europe; they could peacefully change their governments, but the cuts were still necessary and there would be no negotiations.

The increasing polarisation and intensification of the class struggle brings the question of the different proposed solutions more clearly into view. Even if the division between “left” and “right” is rejected by the PODEMOS leadership, the fact of such a framework becomes ever more clear, whether Iglesias likes it or not. That this is having an impact on the strategic orientation of PODEMOS as a whole is most clearly seen in its relationship with the trade unions.

PODEMOS and the trade unions

Right at the beginning of its formation, PODEMOS slammed the door in the faces of the two major trade union federations, the Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) and the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), both of which claim over 1 million members. PODEMOS rejected their request to participate in the internal discussions and development of its programme outright. The grounds for this were the strong connection between the trade unions and the “established” parties, by which PODEMOS at that time meant all the parties, not just the PSOE, to which the UGT is historically linked, but also the IU and its closely connected CCOO. PODEMOS declared it wanted an end not only to the “two-party system” but also to the “two trade union system”.

PODEMOS did not see the Spanish working class as of any special importance either. On the contrary, from the beginning, PODEMOS was keen to avoid any direct identification with the working class or its movement. Nonetheless, there was a working group of PODEMOS sympathisers who were agreed on what its trade union work should look like. This led to the formation of the trade union initiative “Somos”, that is, “We Are”, paralleling PODEMOS, “We Can”. Like the two big federations, it defined itself as independent of its party but sharing the same “ethical principles of transformation”. This trade union initiative stood in some selected works council elections last year but limited itself to “big corporations and the strategic sectors”. In those elections, it did gain some positions but remained very marginal in comparison to the two big trade union confederations, particularly in Spain’s industrial plants.

Nevertheless, there have been changes in the relationships between PODEMOS and the trade union confederations recently and they have taken steps towards each other. An orientation towards PODEMOS is particularly clear in the CCOO, both on the side of its leader, Ignacio Toxo, and from some sections of its membership who are calling for closer collaboration between PODEMOS and Somos, up to a fusion between the two organisations. For PODEMOS and its governmental ambitions, this naturally has the advantage of increasing its influence and support in the workplaces and amongst workers. Furthermore, PODEMOS can use this mutual rapprochement as evidence of its “ability to govern”. Lastly, such a partnership increases the pressure on the UGT to orient itself more towards PODEMOS and thereby increases the pressure on the PSOE. In this way, PODEMOS could give itself a powerful lever to force that party to come closer. However, on the part of its leadership, Iglesias and Irrejon, this is an opportunist ploy to win votes and create a governing coalition on their political terms not a turn towards the formation of a working class party.

This whole dynamic, and the apparent convergence between the party and the trade unions, opens the possibility that PODEMOS will not only gain influence among the leaders of the trade unions but also roots in the factories and thus in the Spanish working class. Such roots, in our opinion, would make it possible that PODEMOS could develop from a left populist, petit bourgeois, party into a bourgeois workers’ party.

Even though that is not yet the case, and we continue to see PODEMOS as a left populist party, as revolutionaries it is important to understand how to relate to it in the upcoming elections, strategically and tactically.

Critical electoral support for “United PODEMOS”

Although PODEMOS and IU, could not form a national electoral bloc for the Parliamentary elections in December, they have now agreed to one, “Unidos PODEMOS” UP. This formation is clear evidence of how the rapprochement between PODEMOS and the CCOO has pushed the IU towards such a decision. Equally, it demonstrates that, after the failure of its attempt at uniting forces on the right as well as on the left and rejecting the designation “left” or identification with the working class and socialism, PODEMOS has had to give up its rigid rejection of the “establishment” and the “established parties”.

This “narrative” was central to the team of academics who founded PODEMOS; Pablo Iglesias, Íñigo Errejón, and Juan Carlos Monedero. It was a combination of the “post-Marxist” theories of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, with a dash of Antonio Gramsci’s “war of position”, as interpreted by Eurocommunists, that is, a gradual, quasi hidden, conflict, by which forces seek to gain ideological hegemony in society at large before considering taking state power. This was combined with their attraction (in Monedero’s case working as an adviser) to Hugo Chávez’ regime in Venezuela. From the latter, as an exemplar of Latin American populism’s cult of the leader (caudillo) they picked up the need to give Iglesias a similar role in the pop-up party.

Real life has put this scenario under pressure and revealed its reactionary utopian nature. Firstly, the rise of a right populist pop-up party, Ciudadanos, scooped up the conservative part of the electorate alienated by the corruption of the PP and Mariano Rajoy, thus blocking the route to a “neither right nor left” (in fact both right and left) party.

Secondly, the real social base of PODEMOS proved to be more working class, especially amongst the young precarious workers, and more left and socialist in its consciousness, than the post-modernist theories of its leaders suggested. 2016 has proved this in various consultations.

Thirdly, and finally, despite the three leaders’ initial idea that PODEMOS would make no deals or coalitions with the “parties of the Caste” they have been forced to do so by sheer electoral arithmetic. It was clear that they would not be able to win an absolute majority in June and therefore might have to turn to the PSOE for a coalition partner. However, if PSOE had a bigger share of the vote, it would make impossible demands on PODEMOS so, to pre-empt this, they turned to the IU.

The Leader of the United Left, Alberto Garzón , 30-year old Marxist economist, states that in coamparsion to Podemos “We are more orthodox. We continue to believe in class struggle and we believe that capitalism is an economic system that has to be overcome. They are post-Marxists, but we have the same trajectory, the same roots.” Indeed these roots are in the reformist traditions of the Spanish Communist Party and its Stalinist poular front and stages theories. He says ; “we know that capitalism won’t end overnight. ” According to Mr Garzón, a government led by Unidos Podemos would not push for radical or instant change to Spain’s social and economic model.

He does say they would aim to create 300,000 jobs through a public works programme, financed by raising taxes on capital income and closing tax breaks and deductions for businesses. He describes this, correctly as “pretty classical social democratic measures”. Internationally he hopes to move the EU to a n expansionist Neo-Keynesian policy and think Spain will succeed where Greece failed because Italy and Portugal would now join Spain and Greece in pressing for it. For all his “Marxism” there is not a whiff of class struggle in his whole perspective.

In its turn, the IU, which has lost votes to PODEMOS since the latter’s emergence, could only hope to win a reasonable number of deputies if it formed an alliance with PODEMOS. Spain‘s undemocratic electoral system punishes smaller parties disproportionately. As by far the weaker party it is the IU that has had to make the most political compromises on the electoral platform. However, PODEMOS has had to abandon, for the time being at least, its pretence to not being a party of the left and not being linked to the unions.

The IU’s main political concessions were that the platform does not deal with the question of the abolition of the monarchy and a republic, does not demand a federal system with full autonomy for the provinces and, linked to this, the right of self-determination up to and including the right to separate where this is supported by majorities within the different nationalities. Neither is there mention of the nationalisation of the energy companies or of exit from NATO. These are important political questions on which there are different positions both in the IU and PODEMOS, they will not go away just because they have been avoided.

Viewed as a whole, the electoral programme of “UP” is a clearly reformist programme that revolutionaries cannot support. However, because of its roots in the social movements, through PODEMOS, in the factories, through the CCOO and in the independence movements, through various alliances in regional elections, such an electoral alliance can be the starting point for the Spanish working class looking for an alternative. Most recent opinion polls made clear that UP is in second place, only a few percentage points behind the PP, and has a real chance to come out of the approaching elections as the strongest force. Certainly, it is now ahead of the PSOE and can exert maximum pressure on the latter to join a government. The alternatives for PSOE would be to be held responsible for another impasse or else to join the right in a grand coalition and continue austerity, which would be suicidal.

Thus, there is a real possibility that, by the end of June, Spain could have “left government” formed by UP and the PSOE, even though the PSOE has oriented itself in the electoral campaign towards a centre-right alliance with Ciudadanos. Such a result could produce destructive dynamics within the PSOE because the questions of the transformation of the state and the independence movements, avoided in the UP electoral alliance, are the most important points of conflict between PODEMOS and the PSOE.

In Spain, revolutionaries should adopt the tactical orientation of critical electoral support for UP and demand the parties form an anti-austerity “left government”. Revolutionaries must, however, mercilessly criticise the electoral programme of UP, its economic weaknesses and its silences on the key political issues. It must be made clear that any determined attempt to implement a clear programme against the effects of the crisis would lead unavoidably to attacks from the side of the EU as well as the Spanish ruling class. Experience with Syriza in Greece and the Left Bloc in Portugal make this very clear.

The trade union federations, the parties’ rank and file members and the radical youth should immediately form councils of resistance to support progressive measures, criticise any retreats or betrayals, but also to defend the government against disruption or coups from the state machine, the judiciary, the police or the army.

Creating such an extra-parliamentary power, including organising defence squads of trade unionists and youth, is most likely to force the government to seriously tackle the enormous problems Spain faces, mass unemployment, poverty and homelessness. It will encourage workers in the factories and offices to establish control over production and check the sabotage of their bosses and managers.

It can also be the basis for addressing the issues the right wing reformists have ducked; the national question, the monarchy etc. From such an organised mass base it will be possible to move forward to create a revolutionary workers’ government, going beyond that of PODEMOS, IU and the PSOE, still wrestling within the straitjacket of the capitalist state.

A revolutionary action programme and a revolutionary party

It is therefore not enough for revolutionaries just to criticise the reformism of the electoral bloc and the parties represented in it or just to warn that any possible bourgeois workers’ government would betray its electors and supporters. They must actively intervene in the electoral struggle with a revolutionary action programme. That is, a programme that combines transitional demands, which pose objectives for activists as well as electors and supporters of the electoral bloc, with an anticapitalist perspective. A programme which points out that many of the demands and goals of such a “left government” cannot be achieved through negotiations with the capitalists and the European Union. Finally, it must make clear that achieving its goals is only possible through a break from class collaboration and capitalism.

Last, but not least, revolutionaries must warn that PODEMOS, even if it continues its moves towards integration with the trade unions and the IU, is still led by ideologically confused academics and journalists who have no open or clear identification with the working class. They are at least as likely to buckle under pressure as Alexis Tsipras and Co in Greece in 2015. To avoid or minimise the risk of betrayal means exercising maximum control over them from below, from the workplaces, the streets, the popular communities, the schools and the colleges.

Even if PODEMOS effectively fuses with the IU, with left wing forces in the PSOE, and the trade unions, that is, becomes a bourgeois workers’ party rather than a petit bourgeois, populist one, their reformist approaches, ultimately an expression of the class contradictions within their organisations, will produce violent counterattacks from the exploiting class and be no more reliable in the deep crisis facing the Spanish working class. That is why revolutionaries should not only point out the perspective and possibilities of such a “left government” but also the necessity of forming a revolutionary workers’ party. That is, a party that can not only propagandise for a revolutionary action programme and its transitional demands but also carry it out and defend it, based on the organisations of the class.


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