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Spain: the civil war in the Socialist Party and the challenges for Podemos
By Dick Nichols
November 16, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In the end, on October 29, it all worked out pretty well for Mariano Rajoy. After patiently implementing his motto that “all things come to he who waits”, the leader of the minority conservative People’s Party (PP) was that day confirmed as Spain’s prime minister for a second four-year term.
Two days later, Rajoy was sworn in by King Philip and normal operations were resumed in the institutions of the Spanish state after ten months of tension and turmoil springing from the inconclusive general elections of December 20 and June 26.
These had converted the two-party system into a four-party game, with newcomers Podemos (on the left) and Citizens (on the right) drawing millions of voters away from the PP and the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), Spain’s other traditional “party of government”. No party had a majority and the second election was called because the PSOE’s attempt to form a government with Citizens failed because of the opposition of the PP, Podemos and the rest of the left, as well as of Basque and Catalan nationalist forces.
Acting prime minister since December 20, Rajoy won the support of only 170 deputies in the 350-seat parliament. However, because 68 PSOE MPs abstained in the final investiture vote--following the line decided by their party’s October 23 Federal Political Committee—the vote against Rajoy was only 111.
Only 349 MPs had voted. The missing vote was that of former PSOE federal secretary Pedro Sánchez, who had been deposed by the party’s Federal Political Committee on October 1 when he proposed that the decision on whether to allow a PP government be taken by the PSOE membership in a special congress.
Rather than obey his party’s instruction to abstain, Sánchez gave up his parliamentary seat on the morning of the vote. In his resignation letter the ex-leader wrote: “I remain at the service of the membership and of its legitimate representatives in each and every institutional arena. Anyone wanting to fight to recover an autonomous PSOE distinguishable from the PP...anyone wanting to consolidate a PSOE where the membership decides, will find me by their side.”
Sánchez said he would soon drive all over Spain to listen to the opinions of the PSOE membership and work out whether he had sufficient support to stand again as federal secretary.
As for Mariano Rajoy, in the investiture debate he was the butt of these ironic congratulations from Xavier Domènech, leader of the Catalan progressive platform Together We Can (which brings together nearly all forces to the left of the social democracy):
In brief, Rajoy had only had to wait until the tensions within the PSOE were resolved in favour of the status quo through the beheading of Sánchez organised by the main PSOE regional leaders (“barons”).
Rebellion in the caucus
Sánchez resigned his seat so as not to give the interim PSOE management commission installed after his removal a reason to expel him. The commission, headed by the premier of Asturias Javier Fernández, deliberately rejected the proposal that only 11 PSOE members abstain (enough to give Rajoy a relative majority) because that concession would have allowed Sánchez and others to still show their opposition. However, the commission’s priority was to exert its authority and, above all, force Sánchez out of parliament: in this way he would be denied a platform and resources with which to run a campaign for PSOE leadership.
Nonetheless, 15 members of the PSOE caucus voted “No” to Rajoy. They included all seven MPs from the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), the PSOE’s Catalan sister organisation, whose National Council decided unanimously to oppose allowing Rajoy to return. Two independents elected on the PSOE ticket, former army commander Zaida Cantera and judge Margarita Robles, also voted “No” as did well-known PSOE figures such as Odon Olorza, former mayor of San Sebastian, Zaragoza deputy Susana Sumelsa and industry inspector Rocío de Frutos.
De Frutos explained her vote in these words: “We were telling the people during two campaigns that we were the alternative to a government that had created poverty and casualisation for workers, that had destroyed health and education and other basic pillars of our welfare state and that had cut back our rights and freedoms unjustifiably with the gag law… That’s the saddest thing.
“I voted the way I had to vote. I don’t understand how any organisation, be it a political party or NGO, can take positions without consulting the membership. I hope that’s going to change.”
The other issue that de Frutos said puzzled her was “why we didn’t form an alternative government. In December I could feel it was at our fingertips. Nobody gave us an explanation as to why we weren’t able to reach the necessary agreements.”
In addition to the rebellion of the 15 came statements from other PSOE MPs who toed the line, but made it clear they were doing so under duress. When added to the 15 rebels, they made up between 35% and 40% of the PSOE parliamentary caucus.
The rebellious MPs have revealed that they have received overwhelming support from PSOE members and voters. Susana Sumelzo said: “I have received nothing but messages of support and affection from the people, who recognise their own vote in mine. They are writing to me to say that they feel represented by those of us who voted “No”.
The PSOE regional organisations that maintained their opposition to letting the PP govern were those where it is most threatened by Podemos and the broader progressive platforms in which Podemos participates (Madrid region, Catalonia), those where the rights of the nations that make up the Spanish state are most strongly asserted (beginning with Catalonia but also including the Basque Country, Galicia, the Balearic Islands and the Valencian Country) and those PP strongholds where the PSOE has always, or nearly always, been in opposition (Castilla y León, La Rioja, Murcia).
The support for removing Sánchez came most of all from regions where the PSOE has been a long-time party of government, starting with Andalusia and including Extremadura, Asturias and Castilla-La Mancha.
The PSOE regional leaderships and their delegations to the Federal Political Committee unambiguously supported abstention in only six of the Spanish state’s 17 regions. Six regions were unambiguously for maintaining the veto on a Rajoy government, while the remaining five were divided.
The Sánchez interview
Sánchez has already launched his campaign to regain the leadership of the PSOE. While he has been careful not to state outright that he will be standing in the next leadership primary, all his actions since standing down as an MP point in that direction.
His first moves were to launch a web site and to have himself interviewed on the most-watched current affairs program on Spanish television, Salvados. The web site headline says: “Let’s work together to recover and rebuild the PSOE.” To date, some 60,000 have signed up to express their support.
In the program before 3.6 million viewers Sánchez blamed the Prisa media group (owners of the daily El País) together with the former head of communications giant Telefónica and “two banks” for having conspired with former PSOE prime ministers and present-day barons to bring about his downfall. Their objective was to stop him from negotiating with Podemos and Basque and Catalan nationalist forces with the goal of forming an alternative government.
Sánchez, who had never attacked the Spanish powers-that-be while PSOE leader, admitted that he should never have accepted the baron’s’ veto on negotiating with nationalist forces. He also recognised that Spain is “a nation of nations”, and proposed that the PSOE should seek “understanding and cooperation” with Podemos and work “side by side” with the radical formation, conceding too that he should not have dubbed it “populist”. By contrast, the “180-degree right turn imposed by the management commission” was understood neither by the PSOE membership, nor its middle-level cadres nor its voters.
Sánchez also challenged a central leader of the conspiracy that deposed him, Andalusian premier Susana Díaz, to emerge from the shadows and stand for the position of federal secretary.
Sánchez’s interview produced a violent reaction from his executioners. An anonymous source “close to Susana Díaz” said: “The day after the ERC [Republican Left of Catalonia] and Bildu [Basque left nationalists] beat us up to the applause of Podemos, Pedro hands himself over to those who want to bury the PSOE. What a lack of decency!”.
Javier Lambán, the PSOE premier of Aragón, advised Sánchez to “retire from the political front line” and “not insult his own dignity with interviews like the one given yesterday”. Mario Jiménez, spokesperson for the interim management commission advised “comrade Pedro Sánchez” to ask himself if now is the moment “to launch personal campaigns or to work to unite the party and define a new project.”
According to PSOE European MP and former assistant secretary Elena Valenzuela, her former leader had “placed himself beyond PSOE frontier” because he had “shifted his positions towards those of Podemos so as to maintain within the PSOE a leftist movement that is out of place.” For Valenzuela, Sánchez’s description of Catalonia as a “nation” contradicted the PSOE’s project for a federal reconstruction of the Spanish state while his criticisms of the oligarchy were “like what Pablo Iglesias defends”.
For its part, El País dedicated an editorial to the Sánchez interview, accusing him of showing “a complete lack of democratic culture” for his attack on the Prisa group. This was the same newspaper that had dubbed the PSOE leader “an unscrupulous fool” on October 1: this tag provoked a protest by its own journalists and a grudging public apology from its editor after a wave of readers cancelled their subscriptions.
A PSOE civil war
The coup against Sánchez has unleashed a civil war in the PSOE. Indeed, such is the anger in the membership that the opinion expressed by former PSOE minister José Blanco that “in eight months all this will be forgotten” looks very hopeful indeed. The rebellion in the PSOE parliamentary group and Sánchez’s attack on the barons have already provoked tactical divisions between hardliners and conciliationists over how to calm or repress the furore.
How deeply felt, widely held and long-lasting will be the outrage presently being voiced by tens of thousands of PSOE members? Would a majority of delegates to a democratically convened federal PSOE congress line up with Sánchez’s positions? That is the central issue with which the interim management commission is wrestling with a view to destroying any possibility of comeback by the former federal secretary. The pressure on the new anti-Sánchez apparatus is already showing in its own debate over how to treat the dissidents, in particular the PSC, and how to set a date for--and win--the next PSOE congress.
For the most hardline faction, personified by the ex-premier of Extremadura, Juan Carlos Rodríguez Ibarra, the dissident MPs should be expelled and relations with the PSC reworked to ensure that its members are ineligible to vote in PSOE primaries. The plan would be to suspend the protocol governing relations between the PSC and the PSOE “for discussion at congress”. That would deprive 15,000 PSC members of a vote in the primaries and greatly improve the chances of any “official” candidate. The PSOE should consider setting up its own operation in Catalonia.
Another idea floated by the hardliners was to kill off primary elections for federal secretary altogether, but this was ruled out by the management commission. Spokesperson María Jesús Serrano said that “primaries are already part of the heritage of this party, let no-one doubt that.” The PSOE tough guys have also stopped calling for the expulsion of the rebel MPs, suggesting instead that they stand down of their own accord. The PSOE parliamentary caucus leadership is hoping to persuade the rebels to cop a fine between €200 and €600. Tave yet to make up their minds as to whether to remove the disobedient from the various positions they hold, such as heads of various parliamentary commissions.
In the present environment of an enraged and divided membership every tactic the management commission thinks up has the potential to backfire. Take Catalonia, where calculating the “right” degree of punishment of its “disobedient” MPs is particularly tricky. If the ruling Federal Political Committee majority enforces the removal of PSC leaders from PSOE bodies (entailing the disenfranchisement of PSC delegates to the next PSOE congress) it blows up the party’s project for a federal Spain. A “decatalanised” PSOE discussing the place of Catalonia in a federal Spain would be a farce.
The question of when the congress should be held is also tricky. The coup supporters claim that the PSOE needs a time for reflection and recovery from its wounds. According to management commission spokesperson Mario Jiménez, a congress centred on “the question of personalities” would be an enormous mistake, because what must come first is “working out what the PSOE’s project is”.
It is certain that the setting of dates for the congress and for primaries will be done with a view to achieving maximum demoralisation and a maximum drop-out rate of Sanchez supporters. PSOE members renew their affiliation to the party every six months, receiving from the head office an invoice which must be paid within eight weeks for them to remain financial. According to a November 2 report in the free newspaper 20 minutos, the interim management commission will set the dates for the conference and primaries next European summer, ostensibly to allow a thorough pre-congress discussion, but really in order to allow as many Sánchez supporters as possible to become unfinancial. They would join the more than 50,000 PSOE members who have abandoned the party since 2009.
Jiménez concedes that the PSOE has lost “an important number of members”, making necessary a membership campaign, but one targeted at getting the right sort of new members. On November 2, Jiménez said that the management commission would be “on its guard” against the possibility of people joining the PSOE just to participate in the primaries for federal secretary.
By contrast, the opponents of the anti-Sanchez coup want the congress and primaries held as soon as possible, stressing the purely interim and unelected status of the management commission. On November 2, José Luis Ábalos, Spanish congress deputy from the Valencian Country, demanded that the management commission carry out the resolution of the Federal Political Committee urging the immediate calling of a party congress “with the same discipline, the same rigour and the same thoroughness that I had to show when implementing an abstention that I will never succeed in swallowing.”
On November 8, César Luena, PSOE federal organisational secretary under Sánchez and secretary-general in La Rioja region, reacted to the latest Centre of Sociological Research (CIS) poll showing PSOE support collapsing to 17% with this tweet: “Given the CIS I repeat: the calling of a federal congress cannot be postponed.”
Most immediately, the management commission has to work out how to handle the petition for an early primary and congress launched by José Antonio Rodríguez Salas, the PSOE mayor of the Andalusian town of Jun. Rodríguez Salas claims to have assembled the 94,000 signatures--over half the PSOE membership of 186,000--needed to force an early congress. The management commission is also under legal challenge by a group of Madrid members, who are claiming that it was set up unconstitutionally.
Conscious of its fragile legitimacy the commission has also taken to handing out spokesperson roles to better-known PSOE personalities from the pre-Sánchez days. Figures associated with the federal leadership of Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba (2012-2014) have reappeared to make statements to the media in a process described by one Sánchez supporter as “like portraits of the ancestors coming back to life in a tale by Edgar Allen Poe”.
‘The abyss of irrelevance’?
In the PSOE’s civil war the opponents of the anti-Sánchez coup have already taken casualties. An early loss was the desertion of parliamentary spokesperson Antonio Hernando, who without too much difficulty passed from passionate advocate of “No is no” to passionate advocate of allowing the PP to govern. Other PSOE personalities who were counted as Sánchez supporters also seem to have judged after his TV interview that their future lies in deference to the party’s new rulers. Kites are also being flown suggesting names of “third way” candidates who might have some chance of bringing the warring sides together. One of these—to the irritation of the Andalusian PSOE powers-that-be--is Patxi López, former premier of the Basque Country
However, for José Antonio Pérez Tapias, leader of the socialist left current in the PSOE and winner of 15% support in the primary won by Sánchez, all this is irrelevant. Hernando’s congress speech justifying abstention was “a funeral oration for a Socialist Party being brought towards the abyss of irrelevance by leaders who--under the guise of a “management commission”--have usurped with evil arts the role of the executive they replaced."
Is there any point in decent activists staying in such an organisation? The main discussion in the anti-commission camp is whether or not the time has come to abandon ship. One supporter of abandonment is Josep Vicent Sanchis, the former mayor of La Pobla de Farnals (Valencian Country), whose open letter of resignation included this paragraph:
On the other side members like the mayor of Jun, who are organising to win the next federal congress, are calling on angry PSOE members to stay in and fight. They have on their side the fact that the position of the PSOE’s new rulers is bound to become increasingly difficult as the full implications of the beheading of Sánchez and the PSOE-facilitated return of the corrupt and reactionary PP in government sinks in.
For starters, with this decision the PSOE has given up any chance of becoming a government on the scale of the Spanish state. In rejecting any alliance to its left, it is reduced to being a pantomime opposition, an operation that will be increasingly difficult to pull off when stacked up against the real opposition of Podemos and the broader convergences in which it takes part.
The ruling apparatus’s choice of a “forced landing in the reality principle that does not coincide with the feelings of the more fervent members” (Fernández’s phrase) was designed to make life easy for the PSOE’s ruling regional elites by keeping them in the Spanish establishment’s good books. However, it will be revealed as very short-sighted as the growing marginalisation of the party—most advanced in Catalonia and the Basque Country—spreads into other regions.
In those autonomous communities (regions) where the PSOE is the lead party in left coalition governments invested and/or supported from outside by Podemos (the Balearic Islands, Valencian Country, Aragón, Asturias and Castilla-La Mancha) it is vulnerable to being overtaken by forces to its left at the next regional elections (2019) or even earlier. Should it choose, as seems possible in Aragón, to replace its dependence on left support with an alliance with the PP, the losses at the next poll would be even greater.
In either case the loss of many “baronetcies” looks inevitable, with the party shrinking back to its heartlands in Spain’s south-west. If the apparatus wins the war and has to use brutally bureaucratic methods to achieve victory any short-term win will come at the price of creating an operation that no decent progressive would ever want to join: the PSOE will have been destroyed in order to save it.
An all-powerful apparatus?
The war within the PSOE was on stark display at the PSC’s Thirteenth Congress, held in Barcelona on November 4-6. The federations which had supported Sánchez were all represented with no-one from the other side present, while Sánchez sent greetings expressing his desire that “the PSOE and PSC walk together for a federal Spain”. Francine Armengol, the premier of the Balearic Islands spoke to stormy applause as did Idoia Mendia, the secretary-general of the Socialist Party of Euskadi (PSE), the PSOE’s Basque Country affiliate. She said that “Without you [the PSC] we are nothing, we will never sacrifice our unity… No-one can be left out of our project, in the socialist project we are all needed, no-one is excess to requirements!”
Who is best-placed to win the expanding civil war in the PSOE? While Sánchez is winning a great deal of support from PSOE members, he has a number of negatives that his opponents will exploit ruthlessly. A major one is that he has used the same treatment against PSOE opponents as that of which he is victim. The most notorious of these was his February 2015 sacking of Tomás Gómez, the PSOE’s Madrid regional secretary (like Sánchez elected by membership primary) and Gómez’s replacement by an “interim management commission”. Ironically, too, in this operation Sánchez received the enthusiastic support of El País.
Long-time observers here with knowledge of the PSOE machine doubt very much that Sánchez can win against it. Their argument is that there is little in common between, for example, Sánchez’s still-to-be organised movement to reclaim the PSOE for the members and the campaign that has twice seen Jeremy Corbyn elected as leader of the British Labour Party. In Spain the rebellious and youthful left supports Podemos and other left forces while the PSOE’s base is largely in the still-protected older sections of the working class. Most of all, there is—as yet—no definite Sánchez project, even though some elements of an alternative were to be glimpsed in his Salvados interview.
Nonetheless, it would be premature to rule out a victory for the forces appalled and enraged by the decision to allow a PP government. More perhaps than in any other major European country the PP (heirs of Francoism and strongly Catholic) and the PSOE (Spain’s main working-class party for 137 years) have antagonistic social bases, worlds apart in culture and values.
Many traditional PSOE voters look on Podemos’s radicalism with suspicion, but this distance is small compared to the gulf separating them from the PP. Podemos is the kids mucking up and sometimes being outrageously infantile: the PP is the enemy. This reality is once again reflected in the latest CIS social barometer: on a 0-to-10 scale measuring left to right, the PSOE voters interviewed saw themselves at 3.9, Podemos at 2.1, but the PP at 8.5.
At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the PSOE was reconstituted for the post-Franco transition as a consciously anti-communist operation funded from the German social-democracy with the goal of marginalising the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), the main organiser of resistance to the dictatorship. As is already clear, red-baiting of Sánchez and his supporters will form a large part of the ammunition used against him by the apparatus, as PSOE members are told that their choice is between the “communists” and people we don’t like but who are at least grounded in “the reality principle” (that is, neoliberal normality in the European Union).
In his address to the parliament on October 29 Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias described the investiture of Rajoy as “marking a turning point in the political history of our country”--never before had a PP government been installed in power through the support of the PSOE. Iglesias said:
In the unprecedented crisis through which the PSOE is passing, the pro-Sánchez forces chances for victory will depend critically on their capacity to organise and orient the rage against betrayal of tens of thousands of ordinary PSOE members.
The PSOE crisis and Podemos
The PSOE now faces a future of permanent blackmail by the new PP government. Having agreed to let Rajoy rule, on what grounds will they reject the PP’s next budget, which is required to include cuts demanded by the European Commission? Having been congratulated by all the powers-that-be for showing “a sense of state”, how will they be able to carry out serious opposition?
In its battle for leadership of the left, the PSOE is already in a subordinate position to Podemos and various confluences in which it takes part in Catalonia, Galicia, the Basque Country, Navarra and the Madrid region. Now it is destroyed as a believable opposition to a PP which, as Rajoy has insisted, will not be repealing any of the pro-austerity legislation of its last four years.
However, the PP won’t be conceding Podemos the official title of lead opposition party just yet. In the words of lead PP parliamentary provocateur Pablo Casado: “Podemos is not a parliamentary opposition: it’s an opposition to the system.”
The PSOE crisis poses a crucial challenge for Podemos. This is because the loss of popular support for the Spain’s oldest party has not and will not automatically shift into a proportional increase in support for Podemos and the various electoral platforms in which it takes part. Yet directly or indirectly winning the support of those PSOE members and voters disgusted with the beheading of Sánchez is critical if the new left forces around Podemos are ever to get beyond their present threshold level of support of just over 20%.
Essential if Podemos is to win the battle for left hegemony is the return of social mobilisation and street protest. This has inevitably declined over the last three years, with the energies of the majority of the new generation of activists arising from 15M and other social movements going into the construction of Podemos and the convergences. With the return of Rajoy that tide should be changing: during the investiture session the centre of Madrid was occupied by tens of thousands protesting the reinstalling of the most conservative and corrupt government in western Europe.
In an October 23 article on the Público web site, Iglesias wrote that Podemos’s sphere of political action must extend beyond the parliaments:
However, increased mobilisation in and of itself will not necessarily be enough to gain the support of PSOE voters feeling abandoned by their party. This is suggested by the latest CIS poll, which shows the PSOE vote falling from 22.6% to 17%, but with only a 0.6% increase in the vote for Podemos and the convergences in which it participates (to 21.8%). Podemos faces a specific challenge in winning enough disillusioned PSOE voters so as to establish itself definitively as the hegemonic force on the left. If Podemos cannot rise to this challenge, demoralised PSOE voters will most likely end up increasing the pool of abstention (which already rose from 26.8% to 30.2% from the December to June general election).
The PSOE crisis is deepening at the same time as Podemos is conducting leadership elections in Madrid, Extremadura and Andalusia as well as updating its political line in Aragón, where the membership is being asked to choose between four different documents. The question of how Podemos should orient towards the PSOE’s crisis features in all four contests, with the different tactical options expressed a likely anticipation of the all-Spanish debate the radical formation will have in the run-up to its next congress (“citizens’assembly”) in 2017.
One of the documents presented in the debate in Aragón was developed by Pablo Echenique, Podemos Aragón’s secretary-general and its leader in the regional parliament. Since Echenique is also Podemos’s organisational secretary for the Spanish state, the document for Aragon most likely prefigures a line of argument on relations with the PSOE that will be advanced in the party’s all-Spanish discussions.
Referring to Aragón, governed by the PSOE in alliance with the left-regionalist force Aragonist Union (CHA), an administration whose formation was supported by Podemos Aragón as the only alternative to a coalition of the right, the document says: “Over the last few months, what we have seen is nothing other than the last bit of the parabola, the final stretch in the process of taking off masks and of the definitive and decided commitment of [Aragonese premier] Javier Lambán to a strategic project for the future together with the PP.”
While not excluding issue-by-issue agreements with the Lambán government, the document (called “Avalanche” in Aragonese), states:
The political-strategic document which won most support in the Madrid discussion (from the “Together We Can” platform) goes even further than this. It states:
The other main platform in Madrid (“Forward--With the People We Can”) does not specify an approach to the PSOE in these sharp terms, maybe because its authors are mindful of not excluding the option of having the PSOE as a junior partner in a progressive administration. This is the case in Barcelona under mayoress Ada Colau, leader of the ruling left coalition Barcelona Together.
Pablo Echenique outlined his view of the tasks facing Podemos in the new phase opened by the PSOE’s civil war in a November 5 interview with the digital daily eldiario.es. To the question “What does Podemos have to do to gain ground, to create a bigger space of its own?” he replied:
Getting more people talking about Podemos’ s project means getting and holding the attention of hundreds of thousands of disillusioned PSOE voters. The crisis that has opened in the Spain’s oldest party makes that discussion more urgent for Podemos and the broader convergences than ever, especially as the new Rajoy government installed by PSOE abstention prepares its first main offensives--against the pro-independence Catalan government, against social spending and against what is left of the labour rights of Spain’s working people.
Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent. An initial version of this article has appeared on its web site.
[ ] A judicial investigation into PP operations in the Valencian Country has described the party as “a conspiracy to commit criminal offences”. At present former PP treasurer Luis Barcenas and a range of other former PP officeholders are on trial for receiving money from businesses in exchange for awarding them government contracts.
 There is a reference here to the well-known detective novel Murder in the Central Committee, by the famous Catalan writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, based on an imaginary murder of the secretary of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) during a Central Committee meeting.
 These are Together We Can in Catalonia, A La Valenciana in the Valencian Country and En Marea (“In Tide”) in Galicia.
 Pablo Iglesias founded the PSOE in 1879 and was its general secretary until his death in 1925. In his congress address the leader of Podemos quoted this famous saying of the PSOE founder: “Our greatest honour will be to deserve the hatred of the oligarchs.”