Spain: Left unity elusive in European poll pre-selections
"Before the crisis: Vote for your rights. United Left, your voice in Europe."
By Dick Nichols
March 26, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- As the May 25 European elections approach, a question that concerns left and progressive people in the Spanish state is just how many left alternatives will end up running against the “parties of government”—the ruling conservative People’s Party (PP) and the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).
The Spanish state elects 54 deputies to the 766-seat European parliament on a proportional-representation basis, with the country forming a single electorate, as do all 28 European Union member states. However, there is no electoral threshold for Spain, so that 2% support (around 250,000 votes) is enough to win representation.[i]
The election is also the first opportunity for voters in all Spain to pass judgment on the national PP government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, elected in November 2011. The March Metroscopia poll shows the two-party PP-PSOE vote collapsing from 80% at the 2009 European election to under 55%, with these two parties neck-and-neck at 25%-29% and the United Left (IU) vote increasing from 3.7% to 14.1%.
The main unknown is the abstention rate, more than 50% in the 2004 and 2009 polls.[ii] This could fall at this election, because the experience of European Commission-run austerity has been showing millions that the apparently remote European political sphere really does affect people’s lives (for the worse).
But by how much? That depends a lot on the left options available. Will progressive voters have the sort of choice they got at the 2012 Galician regional election, when the Galician Left Alternative (AGE) united the different left constituencies—the left nationalists of ANOVA, the Galician branch (EU) of the all-Spanish United Left (IU), the green party Equo and the Galician Ecosocialist Space—on a platform that excited progressive and left people and was dubbed “the Galician Syriza”?
Or will they face the usual “product range” for European elections—a ticket of left nationalists, one of centre-left nationalists, one of Greens, one centred around IU and one around the Anti-capitalist Left (IA)?
At the time of writing, despite popular pressure for unity against the conservatives and social democrats and with some lists still to be decided, the scene looks more like this traditional “market variety” than one of any Syriza-style unity-in-difference.
The very process of trying to find a basis for greater unity has highlighted the stubbornness of the differences among the various left and progressive forces operating in the Spanish state. The methods of the indignado (15M) movement, embodied in the new force Podemos (“We Can”) have also added a new dimension of dispute—not so much about program as pre-selection process.
In Galicia, a hairline, 11-vote majority decision by ANOVA members to repeat the AGE experience for the European poll brought the organisation to the point of split in late February, with 10 leadership figures who had favoured an alliance with other left-nationalist forces like the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG) resigning their party positions. The decision to rerun AGE for Europe might not have passed had not Xosé Manuel Beiras, ANOVA’s historical leader, climbed off the fence at the last moment in favour of that option.
ANOVA has been in crisis since its number-two figure, Martiño Noriega, mayor of Teo and supporter of repeating the AGE experience, resigned his position as national coordinator in December. This was in protest against the nationalism-first wing of the organisation, accused by four other resigning supporters of Noriega’s line of betraying the membership mass-meeting basis of ANOVA with bureaucratic methods.
Since the 10 pro-nationalist executive members resigned after losing the referendum, Noriega has again retaken the reins as ANOVA national coordinator, joined by other executive members convinced of the need for unity with Galician branch of the United Left.
Red-green differences have also re-emerged, with the green party Equo’s Galician branch caught between repeating the AGE experience or participating in a Spain-wide coalition led by national Equo (Spanish affiliate of the European Green Party). Equo Galicia has criticised the decision to use the AGE brand name for the European poll while it is still making up its mind.
The most important dividing line on the left in the Spanish state runs between those who support its democratic refounding on a federal basis—such as IU, its Catalan sister the United and Alternative Left (EUiA), Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV) and Equo—and those who fight for independence for its “historic nations”—Catalans, Basques and Galicians.
In Catalonia this latter camp includes the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP). In the Basque Country or Euskadi, it covers the abertzale (patriotic) left Sortu and other forces in the EH Bildu coalition. In Galicia it includes Us-Popular Unity (NÓS-UP) and currents within ANOVA and the Galician Nationalist Bloc.
In other parts of the Spanish state (like Valencia, Aragon, Andalusia and the Balearic and Canary Islands) at election time in Europe it falls to the various left-regionalist parties to decide between an electoral alliance among themselves or with federalist forces like the United Left (IU).
In the case of AGE and the 2012 Galician regional poll the conflict between federalism and independentism was resolved through IU Galicia’s commitment to the region’s right to self-determination. At a February 8 special national IU conference devoted to spelling out its road to a federal Spain, this commitment was reaffirmed.
However, that stance has not led to a broadening of the IU-led ticket to include new left-nationalist and other social movement forces beyond the important ANOVA.
This was not for the want of trying. The original IU plan was to develop a united ticket resting on three pillars—IU itself, political allies such as those grouped in the Plural Left (the left caucus in the Spanish national parliament) and the social movements that have grown up over the past five years of austerity,.
To help draw social movements into such a process the IU leadership thought to use Convocatoria, later called “Suma—People First”, a space where around 30 social collectives meet to elaborate joint action proposals. This platform drew together a range of social organisations, including a number of 15M (indignado) collectives and the Anti-capitalist Left (IA).
However, the plan foundered on the insistence of number of participants that the entire ticket be decided via citizen primaries. IU’s position was that each component part of the ticket be decided by its own methods. It opposed primaries for the whole ticket, believing that would also prejudice the chances of proper representation for left-nationalist forces like ANOVA and the Aragonist Union (CHA), with their regionally concentrated support bases.
In early January, IU abandoned trying to use Suma as an instrument for developing the European election ticket, and began to directly approach leading social and trade union movement figures, with the idea of convincing them to become candidates. The abandonment of the method of candidate pre-selection by citizen primary provoked some criticism within IU, especially from the affiliate Open Left of former IU national coordinator Gaspar Llamazares, who criticised the leadership for trying to “implement guardianship of the process”.
Another IU current, "In Common", seeking a compromise, proposed that IU offer to have the head of the European ticket elected by citizen primary, but the other candidates elected according to the existing methods of the participating organisations.
The ticket finally adopted, by a 77% majority of the IU federal political council on March 1, provides near-certain winning positions for the Initiative for Catalonia-Greens and ANOVA and a possibly winning position for the regionalist Aragonist Union (CHA). However, this force, which won a seat in the 2011 Spanish national election in alliance with IU, decided on March 22 that it would run on an Equo-led ticket with other regionalist parties, such as the Valencian Compromís (Commitment).
The IU ticket, which is headed by three-term European deputy Willy Meyer, also includes prominent trade union figure and refugee rights activists Paloma López in second position and anti-imperialist activist Javier Couso in seventh position. An alternative ticket, presented by IU affiliates Open Left and the Workers Unity Collective (CUT), won 23% support.
The ticket was finalised after an arduous and contested pre-selection process among IU’s 17 regional federations and after a special elections commission had worked out where 17 non-IU social movement figures would fit in the 54-member final list. The motion to endorse the whole pre-selection procedure won only 68% support on the IU’s leading body.
Reactions to the ticket show the difficulties involved in the process of satisfying aspirations to winnable positions while reserving places for high-profile social and union movement figures, observing an agreed youth quota and the strict alternation of male and female candidates, and guaranteeing geographical and IU affiliate representativeness. Here are a number of comments in the immediate aftermath:
“An intolerable exercise in disloyalty and contempt for democracy.” -- Madrid IU coordinator-general Eddy Sanchez, protesting that “the decision to exclude IU Madrid from the candidacy is a harsh blow to the federal principle.”
“We understand the political agreement with Initiative for Catalonia-Greens and ANOVA, but the selection of social movement representatives that put at risk IU’s pluralism is something we are not going to accept.” -- Gaspar Llamazares, justifying its appeal for the organisation’s Control Commission to “correct” the ticket by moving the lead Open Left candidate from ninth to sixth position.
“The final result prejudices the policy [of support for a Catalan Republic freely associated with a federal Spanish state] to which EUiA has committed in recent times.” -- March 5 statement of the EUiA national council after the EUiA candidate, independent law lecturer Gerard Pisarello with political appeal beyond EUiA, was placed in the near-unwinnable 11th position. Sanchez’s reaction drew a lot of criticism, also from members of the ruling IU alliance in Madrid, who insisted that, the ticket once settled, disappointments had to be forgotten and everyone had to commit to the election campaign.
In Catalonia, Pisarello withdrew his candidacy on hearing the result. The EUiA national council resolution commented: “We must admit in a spirit of self-criticism our difficulties in developing greater political education within IU so as to allow more and better explanation of the complexity of the political moment in Catalunya, its repercussion on the [Spanish] state as a whole and the necessary understanding of this in IU.”
Francesc Matas, EUiA leader and spokesperson for its La Aurora (Dawn) internal current, commented on his blog:
IU has a dread of a Catalan Republic, something in which it coincides with ICV. Neither IU nor ICV understand that in order to construct a united and bridge-building left with which to defeat the PP and the tendency towards an alliance between the PP and the PSOE, or to governments including IU but gobbled up by the power of the State in alliance with the PP, it is necessary to build a basic alliance between supporters of federation, sovereignty and independence.
The IU-led ticket process also closed off any chance of a joint ticket with the new force, Podemos. Sprung from the indigando milieu and headed by Madrid politics lecturer and media personality Pablo Iglesias and backed by the Anti-capitalist Left, Podemos describes its mission like this:
Converting indignation into political power that breaks with the present situation, that expresses new forms of relating to politics and amounts to a real threat to the bipartisan regime of the PP and PSOE and to those who have kidnapped our democracy.
For a while it seemed that negotiations between the two organisations might still produce a united ticket, with a joint declaration stating that “there is no dispute that both forces are rowing in the same direction.”
Commenting on February 24 negotiations between Podemos and IU, Iglesias acknowledged that their programs were close, but stressed that the Podemos’ pre-selection proposal of open citizen primaries, rejected by IU, was non-negotiable. Noting that IU had opted for “longevity of service” (a reference to Meyer) and “traditional forms”, Iglesias said:
The key is method. We understand that what is missing is a mechanism of citizen involvement… We respect the fact that there are other comrades who adopt other forms, but this is a significant question. To change things people have to get excited. We don’t want a ticket of politicians, but of citizens.
However, Iglesias told the Infolibre web site that “although IU’s process and Podemos’ are not compatible, we shall maintain dialogue. And in no case if there’s disagreement will there be a weakening in unity at the time of political action.” The two forces committed to work out a protocol to govern their relations with the social movements.
The Podemos pre-elections are presently under way, with final results due to be announced in early April. The expectation of some IU “insiders” quoted in the Spanish media is that the new party could pick up one seat on May 25, although the March 24 Metroscopia poll has it falling short.
Left nationalist debates
Pre-selection turmoil has also touched the left independentist camp, beginning with Catalonia. There, once the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP) had rejected a proposal from the ruling Convergence and Union (CiU) to form a patriotic ticket on the one-point program of support for Catalonia’s right to decide its political relationship with the Spanish state, each had to decide its alliance policy. The ERC decided to go it alone as the Catalan affiliate of the European Free Alliance, the European parliamentary coalition representing peoples without a state.
As for the CUP, after 50 local open mass meetings, it decided not even to stand in Europe. This decision came after its March 11 political council meeting decided that local meetings had not “observed a specific demand on the part of the majority of the pro-independence left or the popular movements to intervene in the European Parliamen t… the CUP has decided on this occasion not to stand in these elections in order to denounce this opaque and antidemocratic system.”
The CUP’s decision temporarily threw into doubt whether the alliance in which it had agreed to participate in principle—with EH Bildu and the Galician Nationalist Bloc—could last in its absence. Within the Galician Nationalist Bloc sentiment turned for a while towards forming an alliance with the ERC, but in the end it will run in Europe with EH Bildu.
It was probably naive to hope that the European elections would trigger “the Spanish Syriza”. However, we can be sure of one thing—whatever the result for the Spanish state’s collective left on May 25, the need for greater left political unity against marauding capitalism and its two-headed Spanish political monster just won’t be going away.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal’s European correspondent. A shorter version of this article appeared in the March 19 issue of Green Left Weekly.]
[i] Under the European electoral law members states are allowed to impose a threshold as high as 5%.