Spain: Rising United Left tackles new challenges

In June 2013, the United Left trailed just 4.7% percentage points behind the PSOE (16.8% to 21.5%). Click on graph for larger size.

By Dick Nichols

June 21, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The latest opinion polls in the Spanish state have been stirring waves of concern in the ruling elites, of hope on the left and storms of comment in the media.

Nationally, they show the radical federation United Left (IU) within reach of closing the gap on the social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). In the June Metroscopia poll IU trailed just 4.7% percentage points behind the PSOE (16.8% to 21.5%).

Spanish social democracy’s decline is most advanced in Catalonia and Galicia, and in the capital Madrid. A May 5 Asca poll showed the Galician Left Alternative (AGE)—in which IU participates with the left-nationalist ANOVA, the all-Spanish green party Equo and the Galician Ecosocialist Space (EEG)—doubling its presence in the 75-seat Galician parliament to 18 seats. That would put it just one seat behind the PSOE (represented in Galicia by the Party of Socialists of Galicia, PSG).

A June 6 Gesop poll put IU’s Catalan affiliate, the United and Alternative Left (EUiA), which acts in electoral coalition with Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV), in a similar position. The alliance is now level-pegging on 12.2% with the Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC, the PSOE’s Catalan affiliate).

In Madrid city council IU would jump from 10.7% to 20.5% of the vote, just 1.6% behind the PSOE. These results are being confirmed at the city and regional level: the PP would lose a whole range of positions and be forced into coalition in its traditional strongholds (like the Community of Valencia and Valencia capital). If the PP were defeated, there is no guarantee that the PSOE would be the leading party in any replacement government alliance.

In Andalusia, both the PSOE and IU, running the regional government in alliance, would win increasing support at the expense of a floundering PP (down from 40.7% to 29.5% support since the May 2012 regional elections).

A specific nightmare for the ruling national PP government of Mariano Rajoy would be the arrival in the Community of Navarra of a “Basquist” government (coalition of EH Bildu and Geroa Bai, perhaps allied with IU). This would make possible a referendum to ask the citizens if they wished Navarra to become a fourth province of Euskadi, thereby possibly unifying Spain’s Basque-speaking lands into one unit (which would actually be constitutional).

IU is also now leading the PSOE in measures of voter loyalty: according to Metroscopia 59.5% of those now leaning towards IU nationally would definitely support the party if an election were held tomorrow, as against 47 % for the PSOE.

How far from Syriza?

With PSOE support becoming less and less “rusted-on” it’s little wonder that the phrase “slow PASOKisation” is doing the rounds of political commentary here (in reference to the near-complete marginalisation of the former governing Greek social democratic party PASOK).

Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the Greek radical left formation Syriza certainly thinks a Greek tragedy awaits the PSOE. Speaking to the Madrid media during a week of European solidarity organised by IU in May (and which also featured France's Front de Gauche or Left Front leaders Pierre Laurent and Jean-Luc Mélenchon), Tsipras said that PASOK “had lost all ties with the social layers that used to support it.”

He continued: “When we were a small party we were always asked if we would support a social democratic government, but now the dilemma has changed and it’s the social democrats that have to decide if they are going to contribute to a left government or continue to support the right. I believe that social democrats in Spain are going to face that dilemma very soon.”

Tsipras’s comment may have been made out of solidarity with his hosts, and his description of IU as Syriza’s “sister party” would have gone down well with those who feel that IU is already “the Spanish Syriza”. However, among the broader left and social resistance movements in the Spanish state, whether IU is already, could become, or is excluded from ever becoming, a “Spanish Syriza” is a debate that has become more heated as the federation rises in the polls.

The publication on May 19 on the web site of the article “United Left—part of the solution or part of problem?” was the occasion for a sharp exchange of opinion within this broader left. Its author, Nacho Álvarez, University of Valladolid economics lecturer and editorial council member of Viento Sur, the magazine close to the Anticapitalist Left (IA, local affiliate of the Trotskyist Fourth International), summarised his analysis like this:

IU confronts an enormous historical challenge. It has to choose between the certainty of winning some seats in the next elections or the possibility of loyally promoting a new political alternative, with real capacity to put the lives of people ahead of profit. Sure, it’s not an easy decision, but the lack of courage could lead to IU’s ceasing to be part of the solution and—by putting the lid on a real process of refoundation—becoming part of the problem.

For this process of refoundation to prevail will demand not only strategic vision among the IU membership, but also a sizeable dose of political empathy, generosity and awareness of the present challenge. It will also need this membership to mobilise enough capacity internally to exercise pressure to drive this process. An opposite result, the bunkering down of the bureaucratic apparatuses in the certainty provided by their electoral prospects, will only serve to delay and complicate the emergence of a true alternative. In politics, as in life, there are trains that only pass once. The left in this country should not let this one pass.

Álvarez’s script for the IU membership to follow against the “bureaucratic apparatuses” stirred many readers to offer their own proposals. These covered practically all the main diagnoses and treatments one hears within the left in the Spanish state. The debate got a further push along after the June 7-8 “Alternatives from Below” meeting in Madrid, where, upon the initiative of IA, around 200 social movement activists and members from parties like IU, IA and Equo (the all-Spanish green party) came together to start developing a minimum program for a united political presence of the ·social movements and organised left.

Left attitudes to IU

The discussion on Álvarez’s piece indicated that many believe that much still remains to be done to create a “Spanish Syriza”, despite the claim of IU’s national coordinator, Cayo Lara—maybe made in a moment of understandable exaltation after a successful Tenth National Convention in December —that “you don’t need to look any further, this is the Spanish Syriza”.

This was a typical comment on Álvarez’s piece:

If IU wins votes it will be within the corrupt system we’ve got. It will benefit from the decline of two-partyism and I sincerely don’t believe that it can aspire to much more than becoming an alternative to the PSOE…

But that’s not the solution. We don’t need a change of labels under the same rules of the game. ... We need to reform the Electoral Act, the Constitution and the institutions. Recreate judicial independence, limit the power of the banks and end the privileges of the church and the monarchy.

Or what amounts to the same thing, IU’s program but with the will to implement it.

This confused post represents in an extreme form the “yes, but” attitude of many progressive people towards IU. It takes this form: “Yes, I agree with [a lot of, most of] the program”, to be then followed by a stream of qualifications. In these the personalities of its leaders, events in its history, its sometimes incandescent internal disputes (the most recent in Madrid IU), its supposed manipulation by an allegedly monolithic Communist Party of Spain (PCE) or the various attitudes adopted locally towards the PSOE play a more or less important role.

At times commentators just surrender to gloomy scepticism:

No matter how much I sympathise with its program…who can assure us that IU will not rapidly become corrupted in this country that knows no better history?

Some further comments:

-- IU is run by the Communist Party [PCE], which has never given up any power in the 25 years IU has been running, achieving the result that nearly all independents have left, fed up with the lack of internal democracy. IU is not going to open up or take risks, now that without much work it will be showered with more than 20 MPs.

-- In Asturias they’ve spent too many years taking part in the PSOE’s regime of political bosses…while the old glories hang onto the privileges they’ve obtained at the cost of renouncing their principles, they’re going to continue to be part of the problem and they’re going to continue to block or slow down the changes that are every day more necessary to save the country.

-- The main danger that the project of building a government alternative from the left runs lies within the organised forces that claim that space…The speed with which IU moved to proclaim itself the Spanish Syriza says a lot about what I fear—the obsession with occupying the ‘remunerable’ positions that an electoral success would generate.

-- Many people from the social movements want to know absolutely nothing about political parties. It doesn’t matter that IU wants to involve them…Politics has such a bad name that the people with presence in the social movements don’t want to 'soil' their image by getting involved with any party. What with that and the accusations that IU wants to 'gobble up' the social movements, it’s not so easy to attract social movement people to IU. That said, if [youngest national MP and 15M activist] Alberto Garzón were IU’s number one instead of [actual national coordinator] Cayo Lara, I am sure that the convergence would be easier, for the simple fact that they have very different ways of doing politics, even though both are very honest.

Inevitably, IU members got involved in the discussion, having to devote much of their comment to correcting misinformation:

-- It is not true that IU has reached 'government deals wherever possible'. In fact, only in Andalusia [where IU governs as junior partner to the PSOE]. In Asturias, where it was possible, no government agreement was reached. In Extremadura there was no government deal (no-one from IU is in the government). At the investiture IU abstained. The only thing in common between these three cases where a government deal was ‘possible’ for IU was that the membership decided. In Andalusia the membership decided to approve the government deal in a referendum, in Asturias it was decided not to approve an agreement for government (formation of a PSOE government was supported with IU passing into opposition), also by referendum; in Extremadura abstention was decided by a more complex process but also involving consultation of the membership. That what we need is a constituent process based on a political alliance in which IU also takes part is something which we defend from within IU.

Another contributor reminded the list that IU had been engaging with the 15M and the social movements for two years and “doing it relatively well”. Recalling the situation where IU MPs were booed in the early days of indignado demonstrations, he or she wrote:

Nowadays this doesn’t happen, IU deputies and full-timers go to 15M assemblies, demonstrations and anti-eviction pickets as a matter of course and little by little you see among these movements and the people who support them that IU is regarded as the party that defends them against the cuts and the injustices committed by the banks and the government.

Many of us would like to see IU definitively knit together all these movements into an anti-government common front that stands in elections as a Spanish-style Syriza, but that’s not something that can be achieved in a fortnight or even in two years. I mean to say, it is not credible or possible that tomorrow Cayo Lara meet with all these social movements and tell them: ‘Come on, over here everyone.’

This is a process that cooks on a very low flame and takes place because IU listens to them, helps them and acts as the spokesperson of their demands, and I believe that IU is doing all of that.

IU is indispensable, but it is equally indispensable that it get involved in a broader project with all those who, while sharing its minimum positions, are not going to get involved in IU or give it their vote: they are many and each of them has their own motivations.

IU’s latest initiatives

But what, exactly, is being asked of IU beyond Álvarez’s formulae of “political empathy, generosity and awareness of the present situation”, or the outright silly (“get rid of the professional pollies”)?

At this point the contributions to the debate either repeated Álvarez’s approach or, at best, formulae such as: “IU isn’t the Spanish Syriza, but should become it through a big effort of convergence with the Platform of Mortgage Victims (PAH), people from 15M, Real Democracy Now! (DRY) and a large train of other left people and parties”.

It was against this background that the May 25 meeting of IU’s federal political council (CPF, its governing body between conventions) took place. It adopted a perspective that—effectively leaving to one side the issue of whether IU was already “the Spanish Syriza”—focused on the need for IU to “contribute to shaping a broad Social and Political Bloc, an alliance outlining an alternative social model”.

To advance towards that goal the document adopted by the CPF (without opposition) said:

we must knock down dividing walls, seek out points of agreement, highlight that which unites us and downplay that which separates us, in order to coordinate efforts and, most of all, combine energies.

In that way we pose the need not only to confront the assaults of capital, but above all to build an alternative for the future that gives direction to the struggles presently being undertaken by thousands of people across the Spanish state.

In the light of experiences since its December national convention, the document also began to give greater definition to the conception of “majority Social and Political Bloc”, basing itself not only on the experiences of struggles within the Spanish state, but of those across southern Europe and in Latin America.

Rejecting the idea that this “unifying political instrument” will “arise mechanically from agreement between IU and a group of more or less relevant political brand names“—even while describing such unity pacts as “extraordinarily important”—it specified that “the Social and Political Bloc cannot be an organisational structure, even less an election platform.”

Rather, it would involve bringing together in a “meeting and coordination space” everyone involved in struggle who is reaching for a social, anti-capitalist way out of the crisis. The approach would allow ideas and experiences to be contributed and forces combined towards agreed goals in a framework that would provide resistance to “sectarianism and personality politics”.

Its conclusions “would be of use to all who call for the political, social, trade union and cultural unity of progressive forces and individuals”.

This was the message that Enrique Santiago, IU’s secretary for political-social convergence, later took to the Madrid “Alternatives from Below” meeting. In his intervention Santiago stressed the need for the creation of a majority social and political bloc, without which IU’s “rise in the polls would mean little”.

He also urged that the “Alternatives from Below” process give attention to developing a concrete platform of 25-30 proposals which could hopefully be the basis of a broad, united ticket for the 2014 European elections.

‘There is an Alternative’

To understand better the huge challenge facing IU and the broader left in the Spanish state it helps to remember that IU has been at a similar high point in the polls in a previous period of disillusionment with the PSOE (the mid-1990s)—only to see that support ebb back to the social democracy, seen as a lesser evil to the PP.

Moreover, while support for the PSOE is today much more seriously eroded (on latest polls it would get around six million votes less than the 11 million in won in 2004 and 2008), only around two million of those have shifted to IU, with the rest going to boost indecision, abstention and ballot-spoiling (48.5% according to Metroscopia).

With the PSOE leaders also doing everything within their power to avoid becoming the “Spanish PASOK”, the pressure is on the IU leadership to consolidate its new bases of support, to seek out newer alliances and to be seen by more people as the real opposition to the PP government’s war of austerity.

There is a lot of social and political struggle to go before any definitive “pasokisation” of the PSOE can be confidently declared. One important factor is that the trade union struggle in Spain still falls short of the Greek level (three general strikes as against 18 since 2008); another is that the last PSOE national government, while guilty of introducing the first round of austerity measures, has managed to recover some opposition credentials on issues like evictions and defence of public services; a third is the federal structure of the Spanish state, which allows the PSOE’s regional organisations to pose as “staunch opponents” of the national PP in Madrid.

Nonetheless, part of the rise in support for IU is due to its success in being seen as the serious opposition to the Rajoy government. In early May the federation produced an emergency €60 billion strategy for job creation, with targets of 3.4 million jobs in three years, an increase in the minimum wage from €645.30 to €1100 a month and a reduction in the working week to 35 hours.

The projects generating the employment would be focused on repair and recovery of the countryside, extension of renewable energy, boosted investment in public transport, restoration and extension of public services in health, education and disability support, and upgrading of the housing stock to meet energy efficiency standards.

Sub-plans would include support to the self-employed and small business, expansion of the public housing stock by 50,000 units, as well as specific anti-poverty measures.

The whole package would be financed by a war on tax evasion and an increased tax rate for big business.

The IU’s emergency strategy trumped the PSOE’s “Bases for a Compromise Against Poverty and Exclusion”, released in April, by adopting large but doable targets. It was the best embodiment to date of IU’s anti-TINA slogan (“There is an Alternative!”).

Another important part of that alternative was the IU’s draft European policy document, to be discussed at a special conference on June 22.

However, IU has probably gained most in the public mind from measures like the adoption by the Andalusian parliament of a law to allow the regional government to force landlords to make unoccupied housing available for people in need of shelter, and by its decision to keep schools open during the summer break to guarantee three meals a day to all children.

(In Catalonia, news of this last measure was greeted by a lot of comment along the lines of “if they can do that in Andalusia, why not here?”)

In his report to the CPF Cayo Lara stressed: “The initiative of our Andalusian comrades is extraordinarily positive for IU as a whole and transcends its political importance including in the field of housing policy…Measures like securing the right to housing or guaranteeing that the children of Andalusia will not go to bed without their three meals a day reconcile people with politics and slow the growth of alienation.”

At the same time IU is the only all-Spanish party is the national parliament that is calling for the Rajoy government to immediately resign and face the electorate—a call the panicky PSOE refuses to support.

Catalonia’s right to decide

Probably the IU leadership’s most important act in removing unnecessary obstacles to convergence with other progressive forces came on May 27. It addressed the key issue of the right of nations within the Spanish state to decide their own future— most immediately in relation to the national rights of the Catalans.

At the Tenth National Convention the issue of what stance IU would take in the event of the highly probable showdown between the Catalan and central PP government over a Catalan consultation on the region’s future status was left unclarified. At one later point, despite votes by the IU-led Plural Left caucus in the Spanish parliament in support of the right to national self-determination, Cayo Lara made a statement that seemed to throw into doubt the right of the Catalan people alone to decide how Catalonia should relate to the Spanish state.

However, a joint statement by IU, its Catalan affiliate United and Alternative Left (EUiA) and EUiA’s electoral partner Initiative for Catalonia (ICV) clarified the issue. It made IU the only all-Spanish organisation to take an unambiguous stand in favour of the right of national self-determination in Spain.

Recognising the depth of the institutional crisis and of Catalan national sentiment (despite its manipulation by the right-nationalist Catalan government of Convergence and Union, CiU), the statement said: “In no case can the Constitution or legality be advanced in order to oppose the holding of a referendum in Catalonia. This is not a legal question but one of political will and, in any case, laws can always be changed in order for the citizens of Catalonia to exercise the right to freely decide their future.”

The statement has had a big impact in Catalonia where IU is traditionally seen as a “Spanish” political organisation. In adopting it IU took a further important step down the road of consolidating one of the most important component parts of any alternative Social and Political bloc—the nationalities oppressed by Spanish centralism.

The IU-EUiA-ICV declaration over Catalonia’s right to decide would have been influenced by the ongoing advance of AGE in Galicia. AGE was made possible by IU Galicia’s recognition of the Galician people’s right to self-determination, opening the door to a broad agreement with left-nationalist ANOVA and other forces. The advance of AGE (the “Galician Syriza”) since the October 2102 regional elections has been little short of explosive.

PSOE-PP counterattacks

The central PSOE tactic against the rise of IU, but also against the PP, has been to call for a national emergency coalition to tackle the crisis, in the hope of winning kudos among the wavering as the political force most prepared to put “the interests of Spain” before its own.

In the perspective of building what would be a Spanish version of Australia’s 1980s ALP-ACTU Accord PSOE leader Alfredo Rubalcaba has been visiting the union confederations, business peak councils and other parties—like CiU, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), ruling in Euskadi, and the Spanish-centralist Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD)—with the goal of developing a “program for Spain”, and thereby increasing the pressure on the PP and IU to come show their patriotism.

However, the Rajoy government sees no need (yet) to do deals with the PSOE that would involve giving up its goals of radically weakening the unions and recentralising the Spanish state. The only agreement Rajoy has been prepared to make with Rubalcaba has been for a joint “stand for Spain” at the June 27-28 meeting of the European Commission.

The idea here is that the PP-PSOE dynastic duo will be able to “score a win” in Brussels (maybe already organised with the EU powers-that-be), to be used to show that there’s still validity in the old two-party arrangement (presently with less than 45% support in the polls).

IU national MP (and PCE national secretary) José Luis Centella accurately described this piece of theatre as “the bipartisan agreement imposed by the men in black”— a reference to the assessment teams sent by the EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund (the “troika”) to check up on how austerity is being applied in its economic protectorates.

The PP’s own response to the rise of IU has been to turn up “light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel” rhetoric and to put pressure on the banks to start lending more to small business. However, the Rajoy-big business fantasy that “we’re almost there, let’s not wreck things now” runs smack bang against cold reality—families running out of savings, rising poverty, and the inevitability of new attacks on the pension system and organised labour (this last urged on June 19 by the latest visit of the IMF’s “men in black”).

What of the attitude of Spanish big capital to IU’s rise? An indicative moment came earlier in the year when IU MP Alberto Garzón received a call from Antonio Brufau, the boss of privatised Spanish oil giant Repsol, asking for a meeting (it would have been the first between Spanish big business and IU since Lara became national coordinator). Brufau said he wanted to clarify IU’s position in regard to Argentinian government’s nationalisation of Repsol’s assets in that country.

Garzón commented that he was initially surprised by the call because “I hadn’t said anything that IU hasn’t always defended, namely the renationalisation of the economy’s strategic sectors—energy, communications, transport…It means that they see that we are going to play a role in the future. If not it makes no sense.” No meeting took place.

Challenges for whole left

At this moment in the political struggle in the Spanish state it seems pretty certain that an alliance able to represent all those forces and individuals fighting for an anti-capitalist overcoming of the crisis will have to be a new political creation. In the words of José Luis Centella: “These aren’t times for image operations, because people know the situation is very serious.”

That remains the case even if the final program of any new coalition is likely to be similar to that which IU has been advancing over the past two years on the basis of its engagement with the rising waves of social struggle.

However, whether such a force does emerge won’t just depend on an IU that is always being asked for further proof of its bona fides. At its May 25 CPF IU issued a call (“For a New Country in a New Europe”) which challenged all collectives and individuals fighting austerity to “put the interests of majorities before the discrepancies, suspicions, mistrust or specific interests that would without doubt make impossible advance in the creation of broad areas of convergence.”

It concluded: “In this exceptional moment only a broad social and political convergence forged through a really participatory process will allow us to advance in the construction of that alternative Social and Political Bloc that would be in condition to achieve an electoral expression and run a united campaign for the 2014 European elections. The goal that the United Left pursues with this broad proposal of convergence with others, is to convert the social majority suffering the assaults of neoliberalism into a political majority sufficient to undertake the immediate refounding of the European Union, putting the interest of our peoples before that of the economic power of finance.”

The ball is in the court of the other organised forces on the Spanish left, like Equo (which still insists on candidates being elected by primaries) and the Anticapitalist Left (with its call for non-payment of all public debt).

Will such forces be able to rise to the challenge of compromise in the name of building a force which, if eventually created, everyone would be happy to call the Spanish Syriza?

[Dick Nichols is the European correspondent for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal and Green Left Weekly, based in Barcelona.]