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After Spanish elections: establishment in funk over Podemos
By Dick Nichols
February 12, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In an article that appeared in the January 24 edition of the Spanish daily El País, Pablo Iglesias, secretary-general of the radical Spanish political force Podemos, spells out his view of the kind of government the Spanish state needs after the December 20 general election produced a broadly left social majority but no clear majority coalition in the 350-seat Spanish parliament.
The governing conservative People's Party (PP) won 123 seats and the right-populist Citizens 40. On the left, the main opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) won 90 seats, while Podemos and the three people’s unity alliances in which it participated in Catalonia, Galicia and the Valencian Community won 69. The other seats went to the United Left-Popular Unity (IU-UP), and Catalan, Basque and Canary Island nationalist forces.
Decisive for determining what sort of government Spain will get — or if it will have to go to early elections — is which way the PSOE will jump in the wheeling-and-dealing presently taking place among the parties.
Since December 20, PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez has been coming under intense pressure from the Spanish and European establishment not to come to an agreement with Podemos. However, most polling of public opinion as to preferred governmental alliance favours a PSOE-Podemos coalition, a reality the PSOE leader cannot ignore.
The PSOE’s options are limited, as no ready majority is available except for that which Podemos and IU-UP support and the elites can’t stomach — a PSOE-Podemos-IU-UP coalition made possible by support from one of the nationalist forces (most plausibly, the Basque Nationalist Party).
The PP’s proposal for a PP-PSOE-Citizens “constitutional” grand coalition is a non-starter, because it has been ruled out by a PSOE that understands only too well that it would be suicide. Moreover, for either of the two remaining combinations of governing coalition to gain the relative majority needed for investiture, other parliamentary forces would have to abstain , at the risk of antagonising their own support base.
A PSOE-Citizens coalition could not be invested without the abstention of either the PP or nearly all other forces — including Podemos and the alliances in which it participates — while a PP-Citizens coalition could not be invested without PSOE abstention.
Iglesias's article, which justifies Podemos' call for a “government of change”, demands that the PSOE heed the interests of the social majority as revealed in the December 20 vote. The PSOE’s response to this apparently impossible demand is outlined in the following description of events since the general election.
Seven weeks of negotiations
The most important moments in the negotiations have been as follows.
The January 13 deal between the PSOE, PP and Citizens over the parliamentary speakership panel.
The essence of this operation was to make the former socialist premier of the Basque Country Patxi López the speaker of parliament in exchange for the PP and Citizens getting a majority on the speakership panel. That majority was then used to deny the status of parliamentary group to the left regionalist alliances Together We Can (Catalonia), In Tide (Galicia) and Commitment-Podemos (Valencian Community), as well as to veto an agreement made by the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) to include the United Left-Popular Unity (IU-UP) in its group.
This act of bastardry robbed these forces of funding and parliamentary presence, and forced Podemos to offer to include them in its own group, with speaking time shared and profile for their spokespeople guaranteed.
Together We Can and In Tide accepted this arrangement, but the Commitment members of Commitment-Podemos chose to join the “mixed group” of miscellaneous MPs.
Acting PP prime minister Mariano Rajoy's January 22 refusal to submit himself as prime minister to a parliamentary vote, as proposed by King Felipe after his first round of consultations with party leaders.
After weeks of affirmations that he would be candidate for prime minister, Rajoy decided not to submit himself to a vote he would lose, but rather to put pressure on the PSOE by forcing the king to stage a second round of consultations.
The PSOE is divided between its former leaders and main regional “barons” — who want absolutely nothing to do with Podemos — and its present national leadership around general secretary Pedro Sánchez. These know they must at least appear to negotiate with the radical force or lose even more credibility with their voters (some recent polls have Podemos ahead of the PSOE).
The PP scheme is to work on these intra-PSOE differences and have the divided PSOE fail to negotiate a deal for government with either Podemos and/or Citizens. It would then seek to convince the PSOE to either join the PP in a grand PP-PSOE-Citizens coalition (so far rejected by the PSOE) or to abstain in a vote on a PP or PP-Citizens government — the sole alternative to early elections.
So far, the PP has been showing no signs of fearing an early poll, despite a new wave of revelations of PP-driven corruption in Valencia. PP leaders judge that an early election would be held in an atmosphere of increased polarisation that would induce voters who deserted the main party of the right for Citizens on December 20 to return to it as Spain’s most reliable bulwark against the “reds” and the “separatists”.
Podemos' January 22 decision to remove an independence referendum for Catalonia as a precondition for negotiating with the PSOE over a 'government of change'.
Ever since Podemos made having a Scottish-style referendum on Catalan independence a precondition for negotiations with the PSOE, the PSOE leadership used it as an excuse not to talk with “those who question the unity of Spain”. In the words of Together We Can spokesperson Xàvier Doménech (El País, January 26), “the PSOE is using the referendum so as not to have to sit down and discuss.”
Combined with its call for a “government of change” made up of the PSOE, Podemos and IU-UP, Podemos’ removal of a referendum for Catalonia as precondition for discussions wrong-footed the PSOE leadership. The decision effectively asked them to answer the question “If not a referendum for Catalonia, what?” This a question to which the PSOE can only answer with talk about a federal Spain that would involve a constitutional change the PP will never agree to.
Asked whether Podemos had abandoned its support for a referendum in Catalonia, Doménech said: “It's the best formula. We're ready to listen to others but we're going to support the referendum to the very last...We want to discuss it with the PSOE. With it we won December 20 in Catalonia and the PSC [Party of Socialists of Catalonia, the PSOE's Catalan affiliate] had the worst result in its history.”
The offensive against Podemos from PSOE and PP former prime ministers and the PSOE negotiating position
The positive popular response to Podemos' proposal for a PSOE-Podemos-IU “government of change” set off alarm bells throughout the Spanish establishment. Typical are these January 27 quotes, from former PP prime minister José María Aznar and former PSOE prime minister Felipe González.
Aznar: “Podemos is a threat to our democratic system and our freedoms. Those people don't believe in a democratic system and they want to overthrow it, they don't believe in the rule of law, they don't believe in the independence of the judiciary ... That gives them their Chavista-communist character.”
González: “Those [Podemos] leaders, with all due respect to their voters and those groups that have joined the different platforms, want to eliminate, not reform, the democratic framework of co-existence, and with it the socialists, and from positions like those practised by their allies in Venezuela...They are pure Leninism 3.0.”
Sánchez’s response was to propose to the PSOE’s January 31 Federal Committee that he be given a brief to negotiate any form of coalition that excluded the PP and did not rely of the support of “anti-constitutionalist” forces. To give himself more room to manoeuvre against the PSOE barons, Sánchez said that any draft agreement would have to be voted on by the PSOE membership.
February 8: PSOE releases its'Program for a Progressive and Reformist Government'
On February 3, Sánchez was asked by King Felipe to try to find a majority for government. The search for that majority is tricky because the PSOE cannot accept a left coalition government on Podemos’ terms, yet it cannot agree to Citizens’ blatantly anti-worker positions either. It therefore has to persuade one or other of these potential partners to abandon an important part of their political identity in exchange for sharing in government and avoiding early elections. At the same time, if early elections do eventually occur, the PSOE has to be able to plausibly blame its rivals for its failure to form government.
The PSOE’s tactic with Citizens is to combine the carrot of office with the stick of the thought of an early ballot (at which the latest polls show the Citizens’ vote falling). With Podemos the PSOE tactic is to make the price of a Podemos refusal to join an alliance on the PSOE’s terms as high as possible. This is the purpose of the “Program for a Progressive and Reformist Government”, a document which takes from the Podemos platform whatever the PSOE can agree with — or agree with in diluted form. That is, the document is crafted to make it look like a bold plan for practical action on the issues that Podemos voters are most concerned about — jobs, anti-labour laws, poverty, corruption and institutional reform.
However, the PSOE does not really expect or want an agreement for government with Podemos, so it has been putting most effort into getting an agreement with Citizens, leaving Podemos with the dilemma of whether to abstain on or oppose it. The PSOE was confirmed in this position by the failure of a crude manoeuvre on its part aimed at splitting Podemos from the regional popular unity lists with which it caucuses.
Since the launch of the PSOE document, Sanchez has met with all other parties (with the exception of the Catalan pro-independence forces), as well as with numerous “social actors” like the two main trade union confederations and various social movement leaderships — all with the idea of getting maximum support for the PSOE proposal before talking to Podemos. At the same time, informal talks with Citizens have advanced to the stage of working out concrete detail of an eventual agreement.
At the time of writing, Podemos is on the point of producing a public counter offer to the PSOE, based on the PSOE’s “Program for a Progressive and Reformist Government” and targeted at forcing Sanchez to engage in real negotiations or explain why he prefers to reach an agreement with Citizens.
At the same time, the PP, alarmed at the progress being made in the Citizens-PSOE talks, has launched an attack on the PSOE for putting the unity of Spain at risk and even making possible the reappearance of the Basque military-terrorist organisation ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom)—a terror tactic of its own aimed at frightening the Citizens’ base and reducing the room to manoeuvre of its leader Albert Rivera.
As the wheeling and dealing drags on, it would be good if the Podemos, PSOE and IU-UP voters who want to see a left government were given the chance to demonstrate this sentiment publicly.
Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An earlier version of this article appeared in its February 3 edition.