Spanish local elections: PSOE rout boosts right and left

Basques celebrate the 25.5% vote for the new Basque nationalist alliance, Bildu, on the evening of May 22, 2011. Photo by

By Dick Nichols

May 31, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, an earlier version of this article appeared at Green Left Weekly -- On May 22, in Spain’s local elections, a tsunami of popular rage with the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero spead across this country of 5 million jobless. It swept away PSOE bastions held since the end of Francoism—scores of “faithfully left-wing” cities and regions surrendered to the right.

In Catalonia, iconic Barcelona and provincial capital Girona succumbed to the conservative Catalan nationalists of Convergence and Union (CiU). "Red Andalusia" turned blue, as the Popular Party (PP) grabbed the provincial capitals of Sevilla and Jaén from the PSOE and Córdoba from the United Left (IU).

Other provincial capitals to fall were Albacete (Castilla-La Mancha), Cáceres (Extremadura), Palencia and León (Castilla y León), Logroño (La Rioja), Donostia-San Sebastian (Basque Country), Las Palmas (Canary Islands) and La Coruña and Pontevedra (Galicia), where the PSOE has been governing in coalition with the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG).

Huesca (Aragón) will also fall if the PP can make a deal with the right-wing Aragonese Regionalist Party (PAR) and Tarragona (Catalunya) would be lost to a PP-CiU deal. In Vitoria-Gasteiz (Basque Country) the PSOE will have to cop a PP mayoralty as the price of keeping Basque nationalist forces in opposition.

When all the deals are done the PSOE will be lucky if it governs in nine of the country’s 50 provincial capitals.

Other major cities, once working-class heartlands, fell to the PP or right-wing nationalist parties, often on the back of hateful xenophobic campaigns. This was the case with Badalona and Mataró (Catalonia) and the old shipbuilding city of Gijón (Asturias).

The PSOE also lost control of regional governments (“autonomous communities”—similar to Australian states) in Castilla-La Mancha, Asturias and Aragon. In Cantabria the collapse in support will shift government from the Cantabrian Regionalist Party (PRC), the PSOE’s senior coalition partner, to the PP. If the PSOE government of Andalusia had been up for election it would have been sunk.

The PP won Castilla-La Mancha and will most likely govern in Aragon in alliance with the right-wing Aragonese Regionalist Party (PAR). In Asturias it will be a junior partner to the Asturias Forum, a regionalist split organised by a disgruntled former PP baron.

The PP tightened its grip over the autonomous communities it already held. In Murcia it will have three times as many seats as the PSOE and in Madrid and La Rioja twice as many. In Valencia, where PP government corruption is a standing joke, the PP increased its majority over the PSOE from 16 seats to 22. In its heartland Castilla y Leon the majority increased from 15 to 24.


Yet all this devastation was produced by only a 1.9% increase in the PP’s national vote (compared to the 2007 municipal elections). As the PSOE vote fell by 7.1%, where did the rest of it go? And how much went in a progressive direction?

The biggest winner on the left was the new Basque nationalist alliance, Bildu (“come together”). Based on an explicit rejection of the militarism of Basque Homeland Freedom (ETA) and drawing together forces ranging from Basque Solidarity (EA)—a progressive 1986 split from the PNV—Basque left nationalists and former supporters of IU, Bildu was only allowed to participate in the poll after Spain's Constitutional Court overturned a Supreme Court ban just before the poll.

Bildu won a massive 25.5% across the Basque Country, as against the 12% Basque left formations have averaged in the past. In the vote for the autonomous community government in neighbouring Navarra it won 13.3%. When combined with the 15.4% for the nationalist Navarra Yes! (NaBai), 5.7% for IU and 15.8% for the PSOE, the results put the parties of the right—the Union of the People of Navarra (UPN) and PP—in a minority in a region they have always run.

Bildu topped the vote in the Basque province of Gipuskoa (34.6%) and in Donostia-San Sebastian, its capital (25.3%). Bildu will now run councils across the Basque Country, including in such symbolic towns as Gernika (62.8%). The result promises a big shake-up of politics in the Basque Country, where the governing PSOE could only manage 16.3%.

United Left

The result for the United Left (IU) was mixed. As was to be expected against a background of economic crisis, its overall vote increased (from 5.5% to 6.3%), but with large variations.

In Córdoba, where it has governed for 30 years with the PSOE as junior partner, the IU vote collapsed from 35.7% to 14.8%. In other towns and regions where it has been linked with PSOE administrations the IU vote also declined or stagnated. This was the case in Andalusia and Catalunya, where IU’s Catalan organisation (EUiA) has an electoral alliance with Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV). In the Basque Country, the IU suffered from the swing to Bildu, losing its two councilors on Bilbao city council.

However, the  IU registered modest gains in Cantabria, Aragon, Cantabria, Castilla-La Mancha, Valencia, Extremadura, Galicia and Murcia and good gains in Castilla y León.

Its biggest advances were in the council elections across Asturias (increase from 10.4% to 13.4%) and across the Madrid region, where its local council vote rose from 8.7% to 10.8%. In Navarra, Eskerra, an alliance of the local IU with other left forces, won 4.1% at its first attempt.

The challenge for IU will now be to straighten out its orientation toward the PSOE: over the years this has oscillated between tame collaboration, stridently impotent denunciation and even idiotic attempts at alliance with right parties. (A recent example of this last was the pre-election announcement by the leader of the ICV-EUiA in Girona that he was prepared to entertain an alliance with CiU.)

Other winners and losers

In similar vein, the smaller left nationalist parties which have governed with the PSOE in recent years also suffered on May 22. The clearest case was that of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), which paid a heavy price for its participation in the Catalan and Barcelona city council administrations. Support for this traditional party of Catalan politics fell from 11.7% to 9%, and it was left with only two councilors in Barcelona. A similar trend affected the BNG, with its vote falling from 19.2% to 16.5%.

In Catalonia part of the disaffected ERC vote went to the left independentist Candidates for Popular Unity (CUP), which had 101 councillors elected, including 3 on Girona council (with 9.3%). In Valencia disappointment with the PSOE and IU fed the emergence of the Valencian Nationalist Bloc—Municipal Commitment Coalition, which won 7.2% and 345 council positions, replacing the IU as the third force in Valencian politics.

The other main winner from the PSOE rout was Union, Progress and Democracy (UPyD), an ostensibly liberal democratic, but basically Spanish centralist outfit led by former PSOE memebr Rosa Diez. UPyD won 465,000 votes (2.1%) at its first outing in a municipal poll, including four seats on the government of the Madrid autonomous community. Disaffected PSOE voters who can’t abide Basque, Catalan and Galician nationalism now don’t have to bring themselves to vote PP.

Rising conflict

Commentators here are portraying the May 22 poll as the prelude to a PP walkover at the next national election, due in early 2012. However, if this result was reproduced at that poll—which never happens—the PP would still be short of absolute majority and the biggest gainers would be Bildu and the IU. However, the national parliament would also see the arrival of other right-wing forces, like the racist and xenophobic Platform for Catalonia (“A Moor is always a Moor, he'll never be a Catalan”), which won 67 council seats across rural Catalonia.

Combine such trends with the explosion of the Real Democracy Now protest movement that erupted in May, and it’s clear that the May 22 defeat of the PSOE’s faithful servants of big business doesn’t mark a permanent shift to right, but the beginning of a new phase of heightened conflict as millions search for an alternative to Spain's old PP-PSOE road show.

[Spain-based Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly/Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal's correspondent in Europe.]


The challenge for IU will now be to straighten out its orientation toward the PSOE: over the years this has oscillated between tame collaboration, stridently impotent denunciation and even idiotic attempts at alliance with right parties................really nice work done