Spain: As two-party system breaks down, what prospects for a ‘Spanish SYRIZA’?

Demonstrators march to the Spanish parliament against austerity measures announced by the government in Madrid, September 26, 2012.

By Dick Nichols, Barcelona

October 28, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The economic, social and territorial crisis in the Spanish state is morphing into a crisis of the two-party system that has provided Popular Party (PP) or Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) administrations for the last 30 years. Basque, Catalan and Galician nationalist forces (left and right), and the United Left (IU) and Union, Progress and Democracy (UPyD) parties are gaining support. However, only a brave gambler would put serious money on the future evolution of this crisis. While the two-party set-up has been severely weakened, a replacement party with enough popular support to impose a different solution has yet to emerge.

Some contrasting numbers from the latest Metroscopia polls point to some contradictions in popular attitudes that help understand why.

First, the actions and leaderships of the PP and PSOE have hit levels of disapproval never seen before. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy inspires little or no confidence in 84%, including in 64% of PP voters. PSOE opposition leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba inspires little or no confidence in 90%, including in 77% of PSOE voters.

The demands of the September 25-29, 2012, “Seize the parliament” protest got 71% support.

Nonetheless, 78% want to see a repeat of the political approach of the transition from the Franco years, when, according to myth, “the politicians” put the interests of Spain ahead of their selfish party concerns. The solution would seem to be for the despised Rajoy to get together with the despised Rubalcaba for the good of the country!

Likewise, while the combined PSOE-PP vote is at its lowest point ever (53.8%, down from 84% at the 2008 national poll), 65% still want to see either a PP or PSOE win at the next election, with only 24% supporting other forces and 11% undecided.

At the same time a majority want to see policies implemented that are anathema to the PP, unlikely to be adopted by the PSOE except in highly diluted form, and presently only supported by the United Left (IU) party and other left forces. They could never be the basis of a program for a PP-PSOE alliance of “national salvation”.

Those policies, many of which the 15M indignado movement has put onto the political agenda, point to a radical refounding of the Spanish state through a democratically prepared constituent assembly.

The PSOE shambles

The reflection of this state of affairs in party-political terms is that while millions have abandoned the PSOE since 2008 and millions support policies to its left, the existing organised left has so far captured the support of only a minor part of those deserting the PSOE (11% in the case of IU).

Spain is still some way from the Greek situation, where, according to the latest polls, the extreme social polarisation is expressed in 30% support for SYRIZA, 15% support for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, with the social-democratic PASOK reduced to a humiliating 5.5%.

Still, the PSOE certainly looks to be moving down the PASOK road. At the 2011 national elections, with 28.7% of the vote, it had already lost 4.3 million votes compared to 2008 poll. In the 11 months since, it has managed to lose the support of another 1.5 million — down to 23.9% support, while Rajoy implements the most brutal anti-people policies since the Franco dictatorship ended.

In the October 21, 2012, elections in Galicia and Euskadi (Basque Country), the PSOE lost 336,000 votes, 40% of its total at the 2009 polls. If the latest polls for the November 25 election in Catalonia prove accurate the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), the PSOE’s Catalan affiliate, will fall from 18.2% to 14%, dropping another 130,000 votes.

The PSOE is being crucified on three crosses at once. Still vivid in people’s memory is the last two years of the government of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, which began with denial that the crisis was serious and then put Spain on the austerity diet which the Rajoy government has only intensified.

Those two years have also destroyed the PSOE’s relationship with most mass movements, especially 15M. Gone and forgotten are the days when Zapatero was showcased in the front row of massive anti-war demonstrations.

But should the party even be worrying about that? The party’s right wing, led by former leader Felipe Gonzalez and backed by most of the party’s regional “barons”, favours the tactic of “constructive opposition”, with a standing offer of collaboration with the Rajoy government. The idea is that Rajoy will begin to pay a price for his contemptuous refusal to listen.

The PSOE’s pain is greatest on the third cross on which it is being crucified — its line towards the national struggle in Catalonia, Euskadi and Galicia.

In Catalonia, the PSC leadership has come out for a Catalan act of self-determination … provided it is constitutional. This holds up the fantastical prospect of a change to the Spanish constitution being negotiated with the PP — the same gang who successfully appealed to the Constitutional Tribunal against the weak 2006 statute between Catalonia and Spain.

Faced with an explosive rise of pro-independence sentiment in Catalonia and Euskadi, the PSOE is dusting off the idea of a new “asymmetric” federalism for Spain. However, there are almost as many “federalisms” within the party as there are members of the PSOE national executive, each corresponding to how much benefit his or her region would stand to lose or gain from a remodeling of the present arrangements.

Within Catalonia, the PSC — always resented by other PSOE affiliates — made sure that its minority “Catalanist” wing was kept under control in the party’s candidate pre-selection for the November 25 Catalan poll. It will thus lose voters to the left without any guarantee of winning any to its right.

The only way to stop this rot is for the PSOE to take a sharp turn to the left on at least some of the issues that people care about, and find a half-convincing answer to the question, “Exactly how will you lot be any different from last time?”.

Yet proposals from the left of the party, like former Donostia (San Sebastian) mayor Odón Olorza’s plea for the PSOE to “lead democratic regeneration”, are met with evasive babble or stony silence from the barons.

PP still hanging on

This feebleness of the PSOE directly strengthens the PP. This was vividly confirmed in the October 21 Galician election, where the ruling PP regime of Alberto Nuñez Feijoo, famous for doctoring the region’s budget statistics, increased its absolute majority by three seats, even while receiving 146,000 less votes.

That was because the PSOE vote collapsed even more, as did the vote of the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG). At the same time the 14% vote for the new Galician Left Alternative (AGE) was concentrated in the cities. Thus, even though the overall PP vote fell by 1%, in the battle for the last seat in Galicia’s four electoral districts the weakened PP ended up taking a seat from the shell-shocked PSOE in three of these.

This “triumph” was spun by the PP in Madrid as a confirmation of popular acceptance of the austerity of the Rajoy administration, that people are doing it tough but they understand there is no alternative.

Armed with this result and its absolute majority, the PP government will continue to play hardball on economic austerity, workers’ and union rights and the nationalist revolts. It will also try to let the next general strike, planned for November 14 by the union-led Social Summit, pass by as if it changes nothing.

Despite massive ongoing protest including a recent three-day strike by secondary school students, teachers and parents, Rajoy will also continue with his policies of social regression: these are all he has to feed to the most reactionary part of the PP’s social base.

They include restrictions on abortion rights, “tightening” the legal code and imposing an all-of-Spain high school curriculum, combined with plans to recentralise the state in the name of ending duplication and waste and kite flying about restricting protest rights.

The PP central government representative in Madrid also had the organisers of the “Seize the parliament” protest served with charges that could have produced 15-year jail terms. These were thrown out by the magistrate, who found that parliament had functioned normally during the “siege” and that protest against the “political class” was legal — and even understandable.

Left unity and division

What must be done to consolidate the massive anger in Spanish society into a left political force that helps organise it more fully and becomes credible to the politically orphaned millions?

Only if such a force provides concrete and believable answers to the issues most affecting the mass of people who have recently deserted or are thinking of deserting the PSOE — unemployment, housing evictions, cuts to public health, education and childcare, aged-care and disability care — will a “Spanish SYRIZA” materialise.

This is above all a challenge for the United Left (IU), which over the last year has doubled its standing in the polls, to 12%-13%.

In the autonomous communities, with the exception of Euskadi, IU support has also been increasing. Polls show its alliance with Initiative for Catalunya-Greens will win three or four more seats on November 25 in Catalonia (with 9%-10%), while in Valencia its support has doubled to 11.5%.

Nonetheless, the signs are that the support for IU nationally is hitting a ceiling at around 12%-13%, raising the question of whether its present approach and form of organisation is adequate to the challenge.

One current within IU has given its own answer to that question by forming itself as a separate party within the coalition. This is the Open Left (IA), led by former IU coordinator and MP Gaspar Llamazares. IA’s political resolution for its September 22 founding congress stated that “we believe that the situation and the powerful impulse of millions [in protest] provide a great opportunity for us to throw off inertia, routinism and party sectarianism. IA wants to be part of that impulse, indispensable to the building of an alternative to this system and its outrages.”

One area that needs serious attention is the IU’s tactical orientation to the PSOE. In the three autonomous communities where IU MPs’ vote can make a difference, its local organisations have adopted three different stances — participating in government with the PSOE in Andalucia, supporting a PSOE government against the right in Asturias and even supporting a PP government against the PSOE in Extremadura.

Its situation is blackest in Euskadi, where in the recent poll the IU’s present and former affiliate organisations ran separately and neither won a seat. With a single candidacy the two organisations would have won three seats.

If that had included the green organisation Equo, the gain would have been four seats — two from the PSOE, one from the PP and one from the rabidly Spanish-centralist UPyD (which would have been wiped out of the Basque parliament).

The highly positive counter example comes from Galicia, where the IU joined with Anova (a left split from the BNG), Equo and other forces to produce a result for AGE that no opinion poll predicted: 14% of the vote and nine seats.

Very importantly, the AGE campaign saw strong participation by young people around 15M, who in other parts of the Spanish state have often hostile and suspicious towards the IU.

The stark contrast between its Galician and Basque results will surely weigh heavily in IU thinking as it prepares for its 10th national assembly in December, 2012. The decisions it takes there will have an important influence on whether the PP-PSOE duumvirate lives or dies.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A shorter version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2012, Green Left Weekly.]