Spanish election: Right wins, but will face bolder resistance

The 1.68 million-strong vote for United Left was not just the result of the general disaffection with the major parties, but also of a decision to connect its campaign with the protest movement.

By Dick Nichols

November 29, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal/Green Left Weekly -- On election night, November 20, it all went as the polls had forecast: the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government was massacred, with its lowest vote in 34 years; the right-wing Popular Party got an absolute majority; and left and left-nationalist forces emerged stronger, led by the United Left (IU) and Amaiur, the Basque left-nationalist coalition (results here).

Nothing attempted by the PSOE’s lead candidate, former interior minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, worked.The PSOE was on the nose, even with its own active members. At this election it spoke volumes that many PSOE activists, after dutifully putting up the posters and handing out the leaflets for their party, went and voted for IU.

Rubalcaba’s campaign faced a nightmare situation in which the opinion polls showed only 40% of people who voted PSOE in 2008 were certain of repeating that vote. His reaction was a frenzied three months of scaremongering, promises to make the rich pay a bit more and sly winks at the anti-corporate 15-M movement (the campaign slogan was “Fight for what you want”).

This was combined with behaviour suggesting that Rubalcaba had only a casual and distant relationship with the government of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (near-invisible in his campaign). Yet that message clashed directly with another tactic of desperation—crude boosting of Rubalcaba as the minister who had forced Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom, ETA) to lay down arms.

At three rallies a day, and with former prime minister Felipe González doing an embarrassing Bob Hawke-style warm-up act, the PSOE candidate hammered away about the PP’s “secret program” of cuts to the welfare state and attacks on worker and union rights.

So what? All that manufactured “indignation” simply invited and got from PP leader Mariano Rajoy this predictable response: his PP government would implement needed “reform” much more effectively and fairly than the PSOE bunglers. It would consult all “social partners” but make up its own mind on how best to pull Spain out of the “socialist” quagmire.

Rajoy’s one-point program was that the conservatives would restore the vital missing ingredient of “confidence”. “Confidence” would restore the willingness of small and medium business to invest, and so start to cut Spain’s 5 million-long queue of unemployed. “Confidence” would see Spain restored as an equal in Europe and also placate the finance markets. “Confidence” would make the sun come out and stir into action all that is good in the Spanish character …

PSOE theatrics about  cuts to public services reached hysteria pitch in Catalonia, with a TV ad (later pulled) showing a patient dying because the surgeon who would have normally operated no longer existed.

Yet Catalonia, where the regional Convergence and Union (CIU) government has been leading the all-Spanish race to cut budget deficits, was the PSOE’s Waterloo. The Catalonia-wide fall in the vote of the Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC), the PSOE affiliate, was 18.2%, with CIU picking up 11.3% and the PP 4.6%.

Telling was the rise in the PP and CIU vote in working-class neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Barcelona and in the regional capitals (Girona, Tarragona and Lleida). In Cornellà de Llobregat, once a heartland of the anti-Francoist strike and protest movements, the right-wing vote (including for the racist Platform for Catalonia) rose 10.7%, as against 5.6% for the left alliance Initiative for Catalonia and United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUIA).

The PSC scare campaign flopped because the party, in government in Catalonia up until a year ago, hadn’t a remotely credible alternative to offer. By contrast the CIU message was simple and blunt: “We’re having to implement austerity to sort out the shambles you people created and because your PSOE mates in Madrid refuse to give Catalonia the funding it deserves.”

Wrapping the red-and-yellow striped flag of Catalan nationalism around every austerity package and posing as the latest in Catalonia’s long line of martyrs to “Madrid” has worked a treat for CIU.

The left nationalist vote

Apart from its 21% losses in Ceuta and Melilla, the two Spanish enclaves in Morocco, the PSOE suffered its next worst reversal (17%) in Euskadi (the Basque Country). This reflected the surge in support for Amaiur and in voter participation after the Basque left-nationalist movement was banned from standing in the 2008 poll.

The effect of the Amaiur vote was to slash the PSOE presence in the three electorates that cover Euskadi: from four seats to two in Biskaia, three to one in Gipuskoa and two to one in Araba. Add in another seat lost to Amaiur in Navarra, and the PSOE’s presence in the historical Spanish Basque lands has been halved from 10 seats to five.

Amaiur’s other seat came in Gipuskoa from the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). Although the PNV is still the most-voted party in Euskadi, this result now raises the possibility of Amaiur winning the 2013 elections for the Basque regional government.

Amaiur’s triumph, although not unexpected, has sent shockwaves through Spanish politics, with Rajoy already deciding that he will exclude it from the traditional round of meetings with newly elected parliamentary groups.

For its part Amaiur has called on the PNV and the moderate Navarra-nationalist Geroa Bai to join it in a single Basque parliamentary group in Madrid. The proposal puts great pressure on the PNV, which could always pose as the reasonable face of Basque nationalism as long as ETA was setting off bombs.

Indeed, ETA’s decision to finally end its military operations has done more to focus attention on the Basque people’s right of self-determination—denied in the Spanish constitution—than 52 years of “armed struggle”.

Already the fault lines are showing inside the PP itself, with former PM José María Aznar  laying down the hard line in a radio interview: “The terrorists who have threatened Spain for such a long time  have changed strategy, but not objectives: to destroy our institutions, to eliminate our democracy, and to break up Spain.”

The vote for other left-nationalists forces, like the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG) stagnated, not the least because these have been junior partners in governments run by regional PSOE affiliates.

Attacking IU

As Rubalcaba’s campaign entered its final days it became clear that in attacking the PP he really had a different enemy in his sights—the United Left, which polling showed was gaining support the longer the campaign progressed.

But on this front too, the PSOE’s efforts all boomeranged. A Rubalcaba government would introduce increased taxes on upper income brackets. But why had the PSOE in office reduced that tax? Why say nothing about taxing capital and next to nothing about the scandalous rate of tax evasion? Why not just implement the exhaustive report of the tax inspectors’ union, as promised by IU? That would practically eliminate the need for spending cuts.

The next argument was for the useful vote—only the PSOE had a chance of turning opposition to the PP into government, while a vote for IU (never mentioned by name) was a wasted vote. In today’s Spain, with millions disaffected with “the political class”, that argument sank like a stone.

Hadn’t Zapatero connived with the PP to force through changes in the constitution that would enshrine an upper limit to the national budget deficit? And hadn’t he refused to hold a referendum on the issue?

In this atmosphere, the PSOE campaign couldn’t even hurt IU at its most vulnerable points, like the implosion of its Basque affiliate Esker Batua in the face of the left-nationalist resurgence and the mid-year decision of its Extremadura leadership to allow, via abstention, a PP government to take office in the region.

The response of Extremadura voters was to almost double the IU vote to 5.7%, an indication that, at least, they didn’t think that decision a hanging offence.

Relating to 15-M

The 1.68 million-strong vote for IU was not just the result of the general disaffection with the major parties, but also of a decision to connect its campaign with the protest movement. The IU election program was a developed through more than 500 open social assemblies, in which 15,000 people participated, and through a website promoting “a participatory process for a new political program for the left”.

That opened the door for many of the concerns of the 15-M movement to be reflected in the final election program, even as IU leaders took great care to explain that IU did not represent or speak for the movement.

At the same time, a few leading 15-M figures decided to accept the invitation to stand on IU lists, with one, economist Alberto Garzón, elected for Málaga. Garzón said his first proposal in congress would be a law to ban evictions of people who couldn’t maintain their mortgage payments because of the crisis.

The highest vote for IU was in Asturias, where sitting MP Gaspar Llamazares won 13.27%, a tribute to his tireless persistence over many years as the conscience of the Spanish parliament on issues ranging from involvement in the Iraq War to defence of the progressive public health system.

The second highest vote (11.46%) went to Chesús Yuste in Zaragoza, capital of Aragon. This result was a reward for the approach, urged on IU by many non-party progressives, of building a joint campaign with other progressive forces wherever possible.

In Aragon the alliance with the left-nationalist Aragonist Union (CHA) saw a massive leap from the IU-only vote of 2.87% in 2008. In Catalunya, the same approach saw the ICV-EUIA alliance vote rise from 4.92% to 8.09%, increasing left representation from one to three seats.

Other left forces did less well. Equo, an attempt by former Greenpeace Spain director Juan López de Uralde to build up a specifically green political force, won more than 200,000 votes nationally but was defeated by the undemocratic electoral system (see box). Equo has since agreed to stand in alliance with IU in the regional election in Andalusia in early 2012.

The attempt of the Anticapitalist Left to give a direct political voice to the indignado movement over and against IU has disappointed it supporters, winning only 25,000 votes nationally (0.1%) with over half of those in Catalunya. The Anticapitalist Left described its result as “very modest, a long way below what is necessary in the present circumstances”.

The UPYD vote

Of the 15% of the vote lost by the PSOE, roughly 5% went to the PP and the left. The next biggest beneficiary was the Union for Progress and Democracy (UPYD) of ex-socialist Rosa Diez. Proportionally, the UPYD vote increased even more than IU’s, especially in Spain’s Castilian heartlands and Valencia.

With the PSOE so on the nose and the PP forever tainted by its Francoist and Catholic connection, this was only to be expected. The UPYD appeals to those who wish the national minorities, especially the Basques, would just stop mucking up and allow Spain become an up-to-date, efficient European state.

Part of the beguiling UPYD daydream is that it alone represents democratic “modernity”, over and against the traditional clientalism of the right, left and national minorities. The upshot in practical politics is a pot-pourri of progressive and reactionary positions, a right-wing Spanish version of the Australian Democrats.

Inevitable fight

The undemocratic Spanish election system, in which some MPs get elected with 35,000 votes while others need more than 110,000, guaranteed that the PP, with 44.62% of the vote, would win an absolute majority of seats (53.2%). The PP “landslide” was based on an increase of just over half a million votes, compared to the 4,315,000 votes lost by the PSOE.

The electoral system gives a very misleading snapshot of relative social and political sentiments, and it can seem that progressive-minded people are fewer and weaker and conservatives stronger and more numerous,  than they actually are.

For example, in this poll the vote for the two major parties fell by 10.46%, but they lost only 7.8% of seats. Moreover, their combined vote represents less than half the enrolled voters. If a proportional electoral system applied (see table) it would also be clear, for example, that for every four PSOE voters there’s an IU voter (not 1 for every 10, as under the present system). Other minor parties would also win representation.

On that rigged basis the Rajoy government will now launch into its “you-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet” war on workers’ rights and public services. In his first public statement after the election, the new prime minister, brought up to speed by outgoing PM Zapatero on the depth of the euro crisis, remarked that “this is not the time for fiestas”.

The wave of indignación in Spain has made people a lot more aware of the shell game their electoral system is. Combine this knowledge with the ongoing waves of protest against social vandalism and a WorkChoices-style attack on labour rights, and a social explosion is guaranteed.

A most important variable here will be the capacity of IU to get its tactics right towards the PSOE rank and file and working-class support base. Over the years IU has oscillated between trailing behind Spanish social democracy (one of its leading members, former Córdoba mayor Rosa Aguilar, ended up as PSOE minister) and making unprincipled and self-defeating anti-PSOE “pincer” alliances with the PP.

Now, having greatly developed its anti-austerity program and boosted its numbers in parliament, IU can potentially put great pressure on the PSOE to oppose PP austerity or lose support to the left. Correctly applied that perspective would also help strengthen anti-austerity resistance and give heart to the millions of people in the Spanish state who don’t want to accept the PP’s Thatcherism in the sun.

With the Spanish left stronger inside parliament and pledged to “represent the streets”, the PP landslide of November 20 may well just open the door to a powerful fightback.

[Dick Nichols is the European correspondent for Green Left Weekly and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. A shorter version of this article first appeared at Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper.]