Spain: 'Hot' autumn of protest brews

Protest in Madrid against austerity and constitutional changes, September 6.

By Dick Nichols, Barcelona

September 11, 2011 -- Green Left Weekly/Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In Spain the signs are unmistakable: a “hot autumn” of political and social conflict is brewing in the run-up to the November 20, 2011, general election. Polling night will reveal how much the growing social resistance, brought onto the streets since May largely by the 15-M movement of “indignants”, has shaken up the political scene.

As things stand, the most likely result is a repeat of the wipe-out suffered by the governing social-democratic Spanish  Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) at the May elections for local council and regional governments (known as “autonomous communities”).\

A September 7 the Barometro Cope opinion poll has the right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP) winning  45.1% of the vote and 51.1% of seats.It would trounce the PSOE, which is widely blamed for Spain’s 5 million unemployed. The poll shows the PSOE would win only 31.1% of votes and 36.6% of seats.

Yet support for both the major “parties of government” continues to fall.

In the last general election in March 2008, the PP and PSOE shared 83.7% of the vote, but the latest poll shows only 76.2% support for the “PPSOE”.

This trend has accelerated since the rise of 15-M.

This new social movement exploded onto the streets in May, with occupations of city squares across Spain. Protesters were driven by anger at the harsh austerity measures and the widespread corruption in Spanish politics.

If the trend holds up, the minor parties will increase their representation from 27 seats in the 350-seat Congress to between 45 and 50. The main gains would go to the United Left (IU) and the new Basque left-nationalist coalition Bildu.

The Spanish class struggle usually takes a break during the steamy holiday month of August. But this year, it didn't go away.


Relentless blackmail by the giant banks and investment and hedge funds holding Spanish government bonds forced the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to keep tightening the screws. It needs to show it was focused on getting Spain’s debt problem under control.

Zapatero found an extra 5 billion euros in spending to cut. He also increased pressure on other layers of government to reign in their deficits.

Most outrageously, he negotiated an agreement with the PP ― behind the backs of nearly all PSOE MPs ― to amend the Spanish constitution. The amendment requires all governments to abide by an “organic law” to entrench a limit to the public sector’s structural deficit.

It will also bind local councils to balance budgets and make repayment of public debt “an absolute priority”.

The law will entrench a deficit ceiling of 0.4% of gross domestic product by 2020. From 1992 to 2007, before the present crisis began, the Spanish structural public sector deficit averaged 2.2% of GDP. To get it under the new ceiling will require an 18-20 billion euro reduction a year at the very least.

Cuts to total government outlays from 2010 to 2011 came to 23.6 billion euros.

For an ongoing deficit reduction of at least 18-20 billion euros per year to not involve further deep cuts would require a huge increase in private investment, growth and tax take ― none of which is remotely visible on the economic horizon.

As even conservative economists are now saying, the obsession with reducing public sector deficits is putting economies on the opposite course ― killing growth and increasing deficits.

Cutbacks already implemented are devastating. Spending in the last Catalan budget fell by 10%. Similar cuts are in the pipeline in Castilla-La Mancha and Extremadura.

As the flow of funds from Madrid dries up, health centres and hospitals are closing. School class sizes  are ballooning (as up to 15,000 fewer casual teachers are contracted for the new school year). Aged and child care services are going part-time. Teacher unions estimate that the 2 billion euro cut to the country’s education budget will affect 70% of pupils for the worse.

At the bottom of the funding chain, local councils are on the point of going broke.  Many smaller Catalan councils claim to be approaching bankruptcy. One council near Madrid has already had electricity cut off to council properties (including the local school) for failing to pay its bills.

Protests against such cuts continued through August. Health workers,users and supporters were occupying community health centres and hospitals, especially in Catalonia.

In early September, it was the turn of teachers. On September 7, thousands protested against education cuts in Madrid. On September 8, the main teachers' unions unveiled a national calendar of mobilisations for the autumn, culminating in an October 22 “Grand March on Madrid”.

The National Union of Students has called a student strike for October 6. It urged teaching unions, parent organisations and the 15-M movement to join it.

In Barcelona, 15-M activists will be meeting over September 15 to 17 to plan the next round of protest initiatives, leading up to a world day of protest on October 15.

Referendum demand

Yet it is Zapatero’s deal with the PP and his refusal to submit the proposal to a referendum that has provoked the most widespread anger.

Protests against the deal have so far been small. But polls show 70% want to vote on the proposal.

The Spanish constitution was presented for 33 years as a near-sacred text, never to be tainted with amendments that might increase the rights of women, working people or the nation groups within the Spanish state.

What causes the most anger is it is now to be rejigged in a two-week rush over the summer break to appease the gods of money. Opposition to the deal even includes a former member of Zapatero’s cabinet and former PSOE leader Felipe Gonzalez.

It has induced the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and the Catalan nationalist group Convergence and Union (CiU), allies in getting through other PSOE legislation, to vote against the deal. These parties also realise it will reduce the powers of the autonomous communities ― and their own influence ― under the guise of eliminating “wasteful duplication”.

The political price has also increased for the PSOE because of the provision that requires a referendum if 10% of representatives in either house of parliament ask for it. 

IU MP Gaspar Llamazares claims to have the support of 32 out of the 35 MPs, including one courageous PSOE deputy. The pressure on other rank-and-file PSOE deputies, especially those from Catalonia and the Basque Country, is mounting.

We are probably witnessing the death of the PSOE in government.

The party is so on the nose that Zapatero has been induced not to stand again. He has handed the baton to his former deputy Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba.

A comically contradictory scenario is unfolding. Zapatero tries to placate big Spanish capital and the banks, while the Rubalcaba road show rolls on as if in another country. The new PSOE candidate mutters that he “had misgivings” about the Zapatero deficit plan, even while supporting it in parliament and using his authority to hose down rank-and-file PSOE concerns.

Rubalcaba must find some points of difference with which to wedge the PP to the right. This produces gems such as this to a PSOE gathering in Seville last week: “For us, the struggle against the public deficit is precisely the struggle to maintain public services, social services, essentially education and health. For the right wing, the struggle against the deficit is frequently a pretext to cut education and health.”

So far Rubalcaba has been trying to trump the PP with just four cards. He has promised to amend the undemocratic Spanish voting system, to cut back the fourth level of government (the “deputations”, largely a source of perks for party hacks), to reintroduce the inheritance tax removed by Zapatero and to introduce a tax on bank profits.

Part of the vote deserting the major parties will go to right nationalist forces. In Catalonia, CiU may well increase its 10 seats because the “opposition” Socialist Party can’t bring itself tohelp build the widespread social opposition to CiU cutbacks.

Also, a legal decision to require the Catalan government to allow Castilian (Spanish) along with Catalan as a language of general education in schools has set the stage for CiU leaders to posture as heroes of Catalan rights and culture.

The PNV will hang on to some of its seats. The Asturias Forum, led by renegade PP minister Francisco Alvarez-Cascos, may also pick up a seat.

Another winner could well be Union, Progress and Democracy (UPyD), an ostensibly liberal democratic, but basically Spanish centralist operation led by former PSOE member Rosa Diez.

The polls are assigning IU (which now has only two seats despite being Spain's third most voted-for party) between eight and 10 seats.

Since IU has given the most support to the demands of 15-M in the national parliament, and IU leader Gaspar Llamazares is respected well beyond IU ranks as a fighter for social justice, this support may well hold up ― especially if social protest builds.

Left gains

The other likely winner is Bildu.The new left-nationalist Basque coalition won 25.5% across the Basque Country in the May 22 municipal poll. Bildu has also been strengthened by the decision of another part of the Basque nationalist left, Aralar, to join it in a broader electoral alliance.

This scenario of rising instability and possible left gains guarantees one thing ― big fear campaigns. In the coming two months, undecided voters will be told a vote for IU endangers economic recovery and is no use in stopping the PP bandwagon. They will be told a vote for Bildu will be a vote for ETA terrorism.

Will IU be able to mount a campaign that answers such fears by laying out a convincing people-first approach to PPSOE neoliberalism, one based on strengthening social mobilisation? Will it be able to build alliances with other left forces, as being urged by Llamazares?

If it does, the likely PSOE loss on November 20 may not lead to demoralisation and retreat.

[Dick Nichols is from the Green Left Weekly/Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal European bureau based in Barcelona.]