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Spanish general election: United We Can knocking at the door
By Dick Nichols
June 21, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal a much shorter version of this article was published in Green Left Weekly — The Spanish and European establishments have, at the time of writing, less than a week to lock the door against the advance of the progressive alliance United We Can (Unidos Podemos) in the June 26 general elections in the Spanish state.
How are they doing? As matters stand, not very well. However, in this war of old corruption and privilege against hope for change, the powers-that-be and their media are pulling out every last stop to block United We Can's advance. Just one example: the lead headline in the June 20 edition of the conservative daily El Mundo screamed “OVERSEAS BANKERS WARN OF RECESSION IF PODEMOS WINS”.
United We Can brings together Podemos and the United Left (IU) as well as broader coalitions in Catalonia (Together We Can), Galicia (In Tide) and Valencia (A La Valenciana). On the Balearic Islands United We Can also includes the left-green regionalist force More For Mallorca (Més). The new coalition was formed in early May after it became clear that electoral disunity between Podemos and IU had cost many seats in the December 20 general election.
Now, after the failure of that poll to produce a governing coalition, Spain is going to a “second round” election in which the United We Can campaign is the one real novelty. It is threatening to capsize Spanish politics by overtaking the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) as the main party of the left.
In this context, the PSOE, the ruling conservative People's Party (PP) and the neoliberal hipsters of Citizens have effectively all been given overlapping contracts by the ruling elites for the job of keeping the dangerous new player out of “their” neighbourhood. All may put their different programs before the voters, but on the condition that they share the same number one point — anyone as prime minister except “the guy with the pony tail” (United We Can lead candidate Pablo Iglesias).
Common to all three establishment parties is a fear-and-loathing brief: each is free to blast United We Can as “extremist”, “populist”, “ideological”, “day-dreaming”, “destructive”, “sectarian”, “anti-constitutional”, “inexperienced”, “negative”, “anti-European” and “a threat to the unity of Spain”.
At the same time, the three parties' own wrangling has to be kept under control to ensure that, together, United We Can and the other radical coalitions do not get past the PSOE. That outcome would put Spanish social democracy, the country's oldest political party (founded in 1879), under great pressure to become a junior partner in a United We Can-led government, reproducing at an all-Spanish level the governing alliance in the city councils of Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.
On June 15, acting PP interior minister Jorge Fernández Díaz — a feudal-minded Catholic Santa Teresa cultist with a visceral loathing of the left and Catalan “secessionism” — could not help blurting out the truth: “Maybe an overtaking [of the PSOE by United We Can] would be good for the PP, but it would be bad for Spain.”
As for the PSOE, the clearest sign of its desperation is growing deployment of the old standard of Spanish centralist politics — raving attacks on “reds” and “secessionists” aimed at getting every last backward voter out of bed on polling day.
Probably leading the way in scraping the bottom of this barrel is Andalusian premier Susana Díaz, who said on June 11 that “the votes of Andalusians are not going to pay for the privileges of [Barcelona mayoress] Ada Colau nor for the weird nonsense of the pro-independence people she's tied up with.”
However, Díaz has competition in this game from the former PSOE premier of Extremadura, Juan Carlos Rodríguez Ibarra. He told a June 16 rally in the regional capital Mérida that “what we're not going to do is pervert ourselves and dress up in drag and do deals with communists, we're not going to do that, we've never done deals with communists.” He added that the PSOE “would never deal with anyone who defends the right to self-determination.”
Going by last fortnight's opinion polls, what Fernández thinks is “bad for Spain” is more likely to come true than not — barring a sharp trend reversion in the last week of the election campaign.
These polls show United We Can and its allies heading the PSOE by between 3 and 5.5 percentage points in votes and also edging ahead of it in seats.
The rigged Spanish electoral system of multi-member electorates of uneven size continues to favour the PSOE and PP. However, the latest Spanish poll with the largest sample, the May barometer of the Centre of Sociological Research (CIS), has United We Can and its allies leading the PSOE by at least 88 seats to 80 and by as many as 92 seats to 78. Every one of the myriad of polls that have appeared subsequently show United We Can leading or level-pegging with the PSOE on seats.
Since the December 20 general elections gave Podemos and the coalitions in which it took part 69 seats and IU two, United We Can and its allies are projected in the CIS poll as gaining up to 21 seats.
Eighteen of these would be directly due to the creation of United We Can, which has converted the often exhausted vote for IU into extra seats for the new IU- and Podemos-based alliance.
Those extra seats would also strengthen the position of United We Can in the regions that have been most resistant to the breakdown of the old PP-PSOE duopoly: Andalusia (according to CIS a possible gain of four for United We Can); Castilla y León (possible gain of three); Castilla La Mancha (possible gain of two); and Extremadura and Murcia (possible gain of one each).
Other gains would come in regions where Podemos had already advanced on December 20: the Basque Country (up two); the Canary Islands (up two); Aragón (up one or two); and the Balearic Islands (up one).
The broader coalitions in which Podemos and IU take part would also gain seats: Together We Can up to three, In Tide one and A La Valenciana one (this last due to the entry of IU into the coalition between Podemos and the Valencian regionalist coalition Commitment).
According to the CIS barometer, the three other main parties would be the losers: the PP down five seats (to 118); Citizens down two seats (to 38), and the PSOE down 12 seats (to 78).
Nationalist forces in the Basque Country, Catalonia and the Canary Islands could also lose out: the ruling right-nationalist Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) by one (down to five) and the Canary Coalition possibly by one (down to zero).
The Basque left-nationalist EH Bildu, whose presence was reduced from seven seats to two on December 20, might win one more, probably because of the boost the Basque left cause has received from the release from prison in March of its charismatic leader Arnaldo Otegi.
In Catalonia, the centre-left nationalist Republic Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the right-nationalist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), which together run the regional Catalan pro-independence government, could lose up to three seats (down to eight and six seats respectively).
As a result, the ever-important Catalan front is taking the form of a double fight: firstly by ERC and CDC to stop pro-independence voters deserting to Together We Can (which supports a Scottish-style referendum for Catalonia), and secondly between the two pro-independence forces over who is to be the leading force within the independence camp.
The third pro-independence force in Catalonia, the left-nationalist People's Unity List (CUP), is once again not standing in what it regards as a “Spanish” election, with the result that its support base is being contested between Together We Can and the ERC.
The other discernible trend in the last fortnight's polls is the increase in the total vote for the all-Spanish broad left (United We Can plus PSOE) as against the all-Spanish right (PP plus Citizens).
On December 20, that vote was practically equal: the right managed 42.5% and the broad left 42.7%. By June 19, the average of the last fortnight's polls showed the total right vote at 43.9% and the broad left vote at 45.9%.
The potential result in seats had the broad left very close to an absolute majority (176 seats out of 350), an increase from the 161 seats it commanded after December 20. At the same time, the PP and Citizens could have as few as 156 seats (down from 163).
The projected increase in the all-Spanish left vote also seems due to a shift in support from nationalist parties to United We Can in the regions where the right to national self-determination is important.
United We Can is the only all-Spanish force that supports the right to decide of the peoples who make up the Spanish state. The swing to it looks particularly marked in the Spanish Basque Country (where the projected vote for United We Can exceeds the combined Podemos-IU vote on December 20 by up to three percentage points).
A similar trend would seem to be taking place in Barcelona, where a May 24 Metroscopia poll had the vote for Together We Can increasing from 26.9% to 34.1% (from 9 seats to 12).
However, the biggest and potentially decisive unknown in the campaign is the rate of participation — will it approach the historically high figure achieved on December 20 (73.2%), or will the establishment media campaign to bore and depress people with “the politicians” induce enough United We Can potential voters not to turn up to vote?
The polls over the past fortnight show a steady rise in the predicted participation rate as all parties toil to get their support out on June 26. The last week of the campaign will see an enormous struggle over the unprecedentedly high number of undecided voters at this point in the campaign: 30% or more say they have yet to decide how to vote.
However, if the leftward shift detected in the polls holds up, both a government of the right (PP plus Citizens) or a government of the centre (PSOE plus Citizens) will be even less feasible than they were after December 20. The only choices will then be between a United We Can-led left government, a grand coalition of the PP-PSOE (and maybe Citizens), or a minority government of the right sanctioned by the abstention of the PSOE.
A PSOE-United We Can-Citizens governing alliance will in all probability not come about because United We Can will put it to a membership referendum, which would almost certainly reject it. However, such a rejection may well be used as a pretext by the PSOE to participate in a grand coalition with the PP or abstain on the formation of a PP-Citizens minority coalition.
The blunted offensives
This fraught reality has done nothing if not heighten the agony and internal tensions in the PSOE. These have been further exacerbated by the fact that the campaign offensives unleashed by the three establishment parties against United We Can seem so far to have had little effect on its momentum.
First came the failure of the campaign scandalising the Podemos-IU “Venezuela connection”: this was supposed to portray Podemos as a creature of Bolivarianism and convince voters that putting United We Can people into government would mean importing Venezuela's economic woes into Spain.
The campaign began with a visit by Citizens' leader Albert Rivera to the Venezuelan capital Caracas, where he was feted by the anti-Bolivarian majority in the National Assembly, which also demanded that Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias appear before it to explain his ties with the Bolivarian government!
It next surfaced in the European parliament on June 8, when a motion was agreed between the European parliamentary caucuses to which the PP, PSOE, Citizens and the Union for Progress and Democracy (UpyD, now without representation in the Spanish parliament) belong. The motion called for the Bolivarian government of President Nicolas Maduro to release political prisoners, respect the Venezuelan constitution and allow humanitarian aid to enter the country. Podemos European MPs abstained in the vote while those of IU voted against.
The three establishment parties, egged on by the establishment media in Spain, tried to turn this vote into a battering ram against United We Can: Citizens led the charge, the PP said “us too, but please leave this sort of work to we professionals”, while the PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez issued “please explain” questions to Iglesias about the supposed funding of a Podemos-aligned foundation by Caracas.
After a week of ironic commentary from United We Can spokespeople about the one-eyed nature of the other parties' interest in human rights violations outside Spain, the PP, PSOE and Citizens more or less dropped the Venezuela issue — their focus groups had probably told them that undecided Spanish voters were more concerned about other issues.
Also serving to deflate their bubble of hysteria was Podemos's challenge to anyone who wished to maintain that the party had been financed illegally from Venezuela to take the issue to the High Court, which has already thrown out such allegations three times.
Notwithstanding, it would not be surprising if the operetta “Venezuelan Financing of Podemos” didn't get a final dramatic re-run in the last week of the campaign — if only because Citizens needs to wave this battle standard against the PP's crusade for the conservative vote to return to its fold.
After Venezuela came Greece. Before the campaign's one televised debate (June 13) between the four party leaders, Rajoy said against Podemos: “Their catalogue pretends to be Swedish [a reference to the IKEA-look of Podemos's electoral pamphlet], but it hides a Greek reality.”
This line of attack, pushed strongly by the Madrid media “cavern”, was answered by Iglesias in a May 15 interview with the conservative Madrid daily La Razón in which he was asked whether he was not afraid that Podemos would “turn into a bluff like SYRIZA”:
The lesson the Podemos leadership has drawn from the failed SYRIZA challenge to austerity imposed within the European Union and Eurozone by Germany and its allies, is the need to build up a counterbloc of “peripheral” EU countries committed to an expansionary fiscal policy and boosted public investment. That path, which excludes for the moment any Plan B for leaving the Euro, is dictated by the fact that clear majorities in these countries still want to stay in the Eurozone.
In the Catalan election debate on June 19, Together We Can lead candidate Xavi Domènech replied to the SYRIZA-baiting of the PP and CDC lead candidates like this:
Agony of the PSOE
The failure of the initial offensives against United We Can was underlined by the popular reaction to the leaders' debate on June 13: all the polls except those of the conservative Madrid papers ABC and La Razón had Iglesias as the winner and PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez as the worst performer. Most tellingly, the Metroscopia poll for El País — effectively the campaign paper of the PSOE — scored Iglesias as winner with 22%, followed by acting prime minister Mariano Rajoy (18%), Citizens' leader Alberto Rivera (14%), and Sánchez last on 6%.
With the polls showing it falling further behind United We Can, the PSOE leaders have been practising total denial. “We do not consider that option” — such is their rehearsed response to requests for comment on the latest poll findings, even as they expend all their energy in persuading the PSOE base to get out to vote on June 26.
Their attacks on United We Can and its lead candidate Iglesias have become more virulent. “We won't make Iglesias prime minister under any circumstances”, one anonymous “longstanding leader” of the PSOE told the Catalan daily Ara on June 16. “That would be the end of us.”
However, this blind revulsion before all things Podemos clashes with a stubborn reality: a large majority of PSOE voters — 70% according to another Metroscopia poll — want their party to reach agreement with United We Can for a left government. Knowing this, the three other parties ask insistently for Sánchez to come off the fence — will he be part of negotiating for a left government or not?
His answer has been to talk evasive nonsense, as in this comment at a PSOE rally in Málaga: “There's only one thing worse than four years of Rajoy: that's four more years. There'll be many ways to keep Mariano Rajoy as prime minister, but there's only one way not to, and that change passes through the PSOE.”
On June 20, the PSOE formula for government got a bit clearer, but no more acceptable to United We Can — a Sánchez government with Citizens and United We Can ministers. In no case, however, would the PSOE support Rajoy or Iglesias for prime minister.
The PSOE scriptwriters have been churning out increasingly abusive copy for their speakers to use against Iglesias. He is referred to as Pablo Manuel Iglesias (his full name) — to distinguish him from the Pablo Iglesias who founded the PSOE in 1879. This sarcastic effort from Pedro Sánchez is typical:
The rest of the PSOE attack against United We Can consists in abusing the coalition because it contains 16 organisations (“a Russian salad where no-one trusts anyone else” according to PSOE lead Málaga candidate Miguel Ángel Heredia); dubbing its economic program as “fiction” while avoiding any serious discussion about it; and claiming that the radical coalition is more interested in appeasing separatists than in improving the lives of ordinary hard-working Spaniards.
The PSOE's filthy methods may help it in its Andalusian and Extremaduran heartlands, but the longer it refuses to drop Citizens from it formula for government the more difficult will be any last-minute revival powered by its still superior on-the-ground organisation.
The decisive question will be whether the PSOE's “communists-and-Catalans-at-the-gate” hysteria can induce enough usually apathetic non-voters to offset the desertions of those tradition PSOE voters who cannot stomach Citizens.
As matters stand at the time of writing, a PSOE comeback is as likely as a PSOE cold split, between those regions and cities where PSOE leaders already have some sort of working relationship with one or more of the forces that have come together in United We Can and those where fear and loathing of Podemos prevails.
For example, in the Valencian Country and on the Balearic Islands, local PSOE affiliates has been part of bringing about social and cultural renaissances after the defeat of corrupt PP governments that also suppressed Valencian and Balearic culture and language. In the greater Barcelona region, the socialist mayor of working-class Santa Colomer de Gramanet found it impossible to support the PSOE governmental pact with Citizens after December 20.
When the campaign for June 26 began, Podemos offered the PSOE a pact for presenting united tickets in the Senate, presently run by a PP majority elected with only 25% of the vote. The PSOE premier of the Valencian Country, Ximo Puig, supported this sensible proposal — which would have favoured all non-PP parties regardless of future negotiations among them — only to be pulled into line by the PSOE barons.
In the end, the PSOE's campaign of brutal negativity towards United We Can — which has included correcting PSOE candidates who have made the mistake of saying they feel closer to United We Can than to any other party — is designed to demoralise potential voters for their rival from bothering to vote by fostering the impression that there is no way such antagonistic forces could ever get together to form a left government.
The PSOE strategists understand full well that the wider the margin of any eventual overtaking of them by United We Can, the greater will be the pressure on the PSOE to accede to the formation of a left government, and the greater the political price they will pay for any eventual refusal.
PP and Citizens
One telling indicator of the surge in support for United We Can is the increasingly tense fight between the PP and Citizens over who is the best defender of “moderate” Spain against the looming “extremist” threat.
Rajoy has conducted a marginal seats campaign, heading from one regional centre to the next in an attempt to persuade conservative rural voters that their vote for Citizens on December 20 had been wasted, and that only by returning to the PP can the United We Can nightmare be made to go away.
In his one appearance to date in Catalonia, at a June 19 PP rally in the provincial capital Lleida, Rajoy hardly mentioned the “secessionists”, but centred his fire on the “extremists and radicals” — Barcelona mayoress Ada Colau for stopping tourist developments and the CUP for blocking the Catalan regional budget (along with the PP, but that small detail did not bother Rajoy).
The acting prime minister said: “There's a lot more at stake than we have ever had at stake before. In the coming elections the economic recovery, national sovereignty and the values of the Constitution are at risk.” Faced with the nightmare of a “Greek-style or Venezuelan-style government ... we have to concentrate the vote.”
“When the moderate vote gets divided, the bad people end up taking advantage”, he told a PP rally in Tenerife the day before. This was a reference to the PP losing the last seat in a number of electorates in elections in 2015, leading to it being thrown out of power in various regional and local governments. According to the acting prime minister, in the December 20 election “there are 25 Spanish provinces [electorates] where the votes for Citizens were good for nothing.”
On June 18, acting foreign minister José Manuel García-Margallo made this contribution to the war effort against radicalism: “There are times when the voters make a mistake. I would like you to remember that Mr. Adolf Hitler became Reich chancellor by passing from 12 to 107 seats and thereby getting a majority in Germany.”
As the campaign enters its final week, the PP hunt for the anti-United We Can vote is even being extended to traditional PSOE voters. For Rajoy, the only reliable alternative to the “chaos a radical government would bring” is the PP, even for people who have never voted PP in their life.
In this atmosphere resembling the Spanish Civil War without the guns, Citizens, the “Podemos of the right” is having difficulty explaining which enemy is worse. Is it the corrupt PP, whose leader Rajoy Citizens' leader Rivera has sworn never to support as prime minister? Or is it Podemos with its Venezuelan connection? As the advance of United We Can builds up pressure for the conservative vote to return home (and overlook the PP's minor blemish of organic and ineradicable corruption), Citizens is being forced into a gimmicky “more patriotic than thou” contest with the ruling party as some polls show it losing up to 10 of its 40 seats.
Approach of United We Can
Having united IU and Podemos on a single platform, the United We Can campaign has been focussed single-mindedly on attracting traditional PSOE voters: its message is that its goal is to overtake the PP as number one party and that the PSOE is not the enemy but a partner in a future Barcelona-style left government.
A lot of United We Can effort has gone into ensuring that no free kicks are given to a PSOE leadership desperate for any pretext to justify their not collaborating in a left government. Iglesias put the issue like this in his May 15 La Razón interview: “The PSOE is going to be the great arbiter of Spanish politics. It is going to have to decide whether the PP governs or if there is to be a Podemos government in which, moreover, we won't be asking them to sign a blank cheque but to share responsibility and be part of this government with us.”
Furthermore, to help make a governing alliance with United We Can palatable to the PSOE's base, Iglesias told the Barcelona Economy Circle on May 26:
Iglesias's comments have stirred a whirlwind of comment in the media and social media as to whether this former PCE member had really become a social democrat or whether his statements were just a confusing feint. Matters got even more confused after IU leader Alberto Garzón wrote a (non-polemical) piece on May 18 called “Some of us are communists” and Podemos number two Iñigo Errejón told the free handout paper 20minutos on May 26 that “communists and social democrats are species of the past”.
Interviewed on the popular program El Objetivo on June 19, Iglesias said: “I will be a socialist prime minister like [Chilean president Salvador] Allende or [Uruguayan president José] Mujica.” He added that “social democracy is an option for governing that has less to do with an individual's ideological tag as with options for government in Europe” and “we are what we do”.
As this debate roils on three things at least are clear: nothing like United We Can's “social democratic” program is being proposed or implemented by any nominally social-democratic party in Europe; the United We Can campaign is generating enormous enthusiasm and by far the biggest rally crowds of any of the parties; and Spain and Europe's elites are awaiting the result of June 26 with great nervousness.
Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of Green Left Weekly and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, based in Barcelona.