Spain: The right sweeps the board, PSOE collapses and Iglesias resigns – Lessons from the Madrid elections

The left has suffered a harsh defeat in Madrid. If anyone was singled out these past years by the reaction as public enemy number one of the regime, it was Pablo Iglesias. He has resigned all of the political posts that he held under this pressure. The right will be celebrating in style and its arrogance will be augmented. The rank–and–file of the left must learn the lessons from all this. As the philosopher Spinoza said, ours is not to laugh nor to cry, but to understand.

The total votes for the right added up to 57.4% (2,080,000) and for the left 41% (1,486,000). The right–wing bloc got 400,000 more votes than in the May 2019 regional elections and more than 200,000 more than in the November 2019 legislative elections. Along the way, Ciudadanos (moderate centre party) has disappeared from the political landscape. The left bloc lost 60,000 and 140,000 votes, in relation to both elections respectively, despite the fact that there was a higher voter turnout in the latest election (3,650,000) than in the previous two (3,251,000 and 3,558,000, respectively).

Although Más Madrid (part of Más País, a right–wing split from Podemos) (16.97%) and Unidas Podemos (7.21%) improved their results somewhat in both votes and percentage terms, (going from 20.29% in 2019 to 24.18% now) it was not enough to plug the gap left by the collapse of PSOE, which collapsed from 27.31% to 16.85%.

Unlike in the regional elections in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia in the past year, where the COVID–19 pandemic resulted in abstention (although it did not substantially change the expected electoral result), here we saw a high turnout of 75%. Undoubtedly, the trigger for this was Pablo Iglesias’ decision to participate in the elections, which increased the polarisation between left and right and helped the right and the far right sound the alarm and mobilise every last corner of their social base, amidst a dirty campaign of lies, slander and threats with the full support of the regime behind them.

This meant that the debate around Ayuso’s (the incumbent president of the region) disastrous management of the pandemic was almost completely buried. However, even if Iglesias had not participated, the final result would not have been much different, although there would have been a 15 or 20 point reduction in voter turnout. The weakness of the candidacies of PSOE (as seen in these elections) and of Unidas Podemos (which risked not even getting a seat in the regional parliament) forewarned this.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso Image PP Comunidad de MadridThe crisis of the left, which forms the current national government, and the demagoguery of the right allowed the PP under Ayuso (pictured) to double their vote / Image: PP Comunidad de Madrid

The left won in the areas with the oldest working–class traditions of struggle, although with lower percentages than in previous elections or with very tight results in some cases. This was the case in the neighbourhoods of Lavapiés, Puente de Vallecas, Usera, Villa de Vallecas, Vicálvaro and Villaverde, in the city of Madrid; and in the towns of Coslada, Fuenlabrada, Getafe, Leganés, Parla, Rivas-Vaciamadrid, and San Fernando de Henares outside the city limits.

There are undoubtedly structural elements that partly explain the strength of the right in Madrid for almost the last 30 years.

Madrid is the centre of the administrative, economic, military and judicial power of the country, with its legions of high–ranking officials and their families, employees, etc. It is one of the highest–income areas in the country, attracting a large middle class and an environment of relatively well–paid, service sector workers with their petty–bourgeois mentality, as well as a broad layer of nouveau riche created in the heat of property speculation since the beginning of the present century. Additionally, the gaps left in the lowest echelons of the working class have been occupied by an immigrant population of one million people (15.52% of the population in the city of Madrid alone), the vast majority without political rights, constituting 20% of the workforce. This sort of political and social ‘apartheid’, which leaves a substantial part of the working class without political rights, facilitates a right–wing majority, as is the case in other areas of the country such as the agricultural areas of Andalusia and Murcia.

In all this time, the left has only won by narrow margins in the regional elections of May 2003, and unexpectedly in the legislative elections of 2004, after the Al Qaeda attacks in Madrid. It also did so in 2015, where the meagre 4.16% that Izquierda Unida (United Left) achieved at that time prevented it from entering parliament, frustrating a parliamentary left majority.

That is to say, only in moments of great social and political upheavals, such as in 2004 and 2015, where the right was highly discredited, could the left win or come decisively close to victory, dragging a sector of the middle layers towards it.

But these factors alone do not explain everything.

Why did the right win?

How is it possible that a person as insubstantial, insensitive and intellectually limited as Ayuso, could achieve a result like this?

There are several reasons. As mentioned, the debate around her disastrous administration remained on a lower rung of the debate topics as a result of the provocations of Vox [a far–right party] in Vallecas, and in the radio debate on Cadena SER, and the subsequent death threats issued against Pablo Iglesias, and socialist ministers and officials.

Vox Image public domainThe far–right party, Vox, staged a provocation in Vallecas. Their presence was resisted by local residents who were then set upon by the police. The media portrayed Vox as the real victims, but the PSOE candidate was happy to go along with this / Image: public domain

The right wing resorted to all manner of tricks and smears in the electoral campaign, stirring up the spectre of violence as the best means of mobilising their social base, and questioning the veracity of the death threats.

The PSOE candidate, Gabilondo, settled in a comfortable equidistance. He agreed with the right that “all” instances of violence should be denounced. Thus when Vox provocatively attempted to campaign in Vallecas, and local residents resisted and were subsequently savagely beaten by the police, the PSOE candidate did nothing to challenge the media portrayal of the residents as ‘criminals’ and Vox and the right as ‘victims’.

The response from Iglesias, who insisted on the dichotomy of “Democracy vs. Fascism”, did not have the impact that he expected. Empty words like “democracy” and “fascism” mean nothing in themselves to ordinary people, they have to be filled with class content. In the first place, it was incorrect to speak of the danger of “fascism”, exaggerating the strength of Vox, and claiming that it would lead to a mass movement aimed at crushing the labour movement, for which the social forces currently do not exist.

In general, people are sceptical of “democracy” and its laws. Isn’t it under “democracy” that companies are closing, that there is unemployment, that rents and electricity bills keep going up, and the current COVID–19 pandemic is being criminally managed? Instead of calling for confidence in the Constitution and the law, as Iglesias does, their lies and hypocrisy should be denounced, and the need to place resources in the hands of the people, under democratic management, in order to solve the major social issues should be explained.

By the way, didn’t the working class “democratically” elect the PSOE–UP left–wing coalition government a year and a half ago, in order to repeal the labour reform and the gag law, to reduce rents, prevent abusive increases in electricity prices, increase taxes on the rich, prevent profitable companies from laying off workers, and force the Church to pay taxes?

None of this was done. In the end, it only confirmed the statement that Iglesias used to make when he was in opposition: regardless of the government in power, the fundamental decisions are made by the economic powers from their offices. He and Unidas Podemos have had to “swallow” this as the price of their participation in government. So why should working families trust this “democracy”? Is it any wonder that Iglesias’ parliamentary cretinism has elicited shrugs of indifference from tens of thousands of working families?

Sanchez Iglesias Image La Moncloa FlickrPSOE leader, Sanchez, pictured with leader of Podemos, Iglesias. Iglesias has posed as a defender of democracy, but under the "democratic" PSOE–UP government, the crisis of capitalism has not abated and the COVID–19 pandemic has hit workers hardest of all / Image: La Moncloa, Flickr

This is also the case with the administration of this government. Iglesias and the minister of labour, Yolanda Díaz, consider the ERTES (furlough programme) to be the eighth wonder of the world. In fact, it represents a 30% reduction in wages for workers affected. To make matters worse, among the proposals that the government has made to the European Union in order to square the public deficit due to the enormous accumulated debt, in exchange for receiving the promised €140 billion there will be: a possible increase in the retirement age; the collection of tolls for using the highways; and, as it was leaked on the eve of the election when no campaigning is supposed to take place, the elimination of deductions in personal income tax for joint tax returns of married and common–law partners. The right could not hope for a better little gift on the eve of the elections in order to demagogically agitate against the “social-communist” government.

While neither PSOE nor UP offered an alternative to the dramatic social situation that has developed, Ayuso had it easy with her demagogic speeches in favour of “opening the economy.” For tens of thousands of politically passive, precarious and service sector workers, not to mention the thousands of small bar, shop and business owners, that was at least one concrete proposition that gave them some certainty. The petty bourgeoisie, small property owners and desperate workers, in times of crisis and uncertainty like the present, are ready to believe in the miraculous powers of characters like Ayuso. We assure you that you will be disappointed.

We see here how the management of the crisis of capitalism, with its half–baked policies, of not touching the interests of the rich, of cooling expectations, of failing to solve social problems, and of making working families pay for the crisis, always paves the way for the return of the right wing to government.

In all of this, what has become of Alberto Garzón, the figurehead of IU [Izquierda Unida, “United Left”]? He hardly spoke at a single rally. He doesn't even have an active agenda within the government. He cannot escape responsibility for this election result either.

And what can we say about PSOE? To begin with, they presented a dull candidate like Gabilondo, imposed by the apparatus, unable to convey any emotion whatsoever, and absent from any opposition to the right for six years, first in the guise of Cristina Cifuentes and later with Ayuso. It was clearly a losing bet.

In its opportunistic electoral calculations, the socialist leadership had opted to wink at the social base of the right, declaring that they would not form a bloc with Pablo Iglesias, and that they would not raise taxes on the rich. This left the base of the left perplexed and disoriented as soon as the campaign began. For a bad copy of the right, there was already the original of Ayuso. The desperate attempt to try to align Gabilondo with the left, adding himself to the denunciations of “fascism” came badly and late.

In reality, the socialist leadership never believed in victory. It has been scandalous that Sánchez, in order to avoid being identified with a defeated Gabilondo, effectively abandoned him and only participated sporadically in the electoral campaign, when his duty would have been to try to galvanise his social base as the leading figure of the party. His behaviour won’t save him from being discredited.

The Más Madrid candidate, Mónica García, suffered the least. It is true that she represented an already known and established entity, although she was still seen as new. She improved in votes and in percentage terms compared to the 2019 regional elections and managed to surpass the PSOE, which obtained the worst result in its history in Madrid. Appearing as a new, fresh figure, unattached to the past certainly benefited her, as did having had a much more prominent role in opposing Ayuso in the months prior to the elections than Gabilondo did.

Being a doctor by profession, she could appear as someone close to the people on the street. But make no mistake, Más Madrid, like Más País, with its leader, Íñigo Errejón, is to the right of Unidas Podemos. It does not engage in the “thorny” issues (the monarchy, Catalonia, debt, the banks), and the media have preferred to raise their profile and treat them with sympathy as against Unidas Podemos and Pablo Iglesias, whom they considered a much more dangerous enemy. Más Madrid also benefited from being in opposition both in Madrid and at the level of the central government.

Unidas Podemos: from failure to failure

What happened in Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country has been repeated in Madrid. Five years ago, Unidas Podemos had its greatest success in these regions. In Catalonia and the Basque Country, it was the most voted political force. In Galicia and Madrid, it was the most voted force on the left, surpassing PSOE. Now, it has been relegated to 4th or 5th place in all these communities, with around 7%–10%, or else it has disappeared completely as is the case of Galicia. Without exception, it has been overtaken by leftist forces that appear more radical (Bildu, BNG) or at least fresher and newer (Más Madrid).

2011 indignados Image Jesus SolanaPodemos exploded as a mass force out of nowhere on the back of the indignados movement and other mass movements seven years ago. It arose by challenging the 1978 regime, including the PSOE. It now governs with PSOE / Image: Jesus Solana

This isn’t in any way fortuitous. From having presented itself as a challenger to the ‘78 Regime, and having denounced the PSOE apparatus as part of it, proposing to unseat it, UP has gone on to flatter PSOE and to consider itself a subordinate force to it, crawling before PSOE, imploring it for a place in its government, throwing out its programme and any protest action in the street.

For Iglesias this was the peak of tactics and wisdom in politics. In the end, it has become his political grave. Unidas Podemos is now seen as part of the regime – as its left wing, but nonetheless a part of it, with its cloying and sickly vindication of the Constitution, law and order. For a bad copy of social–democratic reformism, there is already PSOE. As part of the government, it demanded the repeal of the labour reform, the reduction of rents and lower electricity tariffs. But it refused to mobilise independently in the street so as not to treat its majority partner in government “unfairly”. In this way, its powerlessness in government was doubled. Neither can it change the policy imposed by PSOE, nor can it mobilise against it. The scepticism its policy generated has translated into a growing loss of electoral support.

The failure of parliamentary cretinism

What has failed in Madrid is a policy of parliamentary cretinism, with Unidas Podemos obediently trailing behind the PSOE apparatus, which in turn obediently trails behind big business. As we explained previously, a great opportunity was lost last autumn, when the southern working–class neighbourhoods of Madrid rose up against the chaotic and classist neighbourhood confinement policy of Ayuso, who was completely discredited at the time. But the leaders of the PSOE–UP and the trade unions, CCOO and UGT, refused to call a general strike in the community of Madrid. That was the time for the labour movement to take the lead with a great show of force, showing a way out, which would have had the potential to splinter a considerable section of the middle class away from the right. That would have precipitated calls for early elections with the greatest possibility for a left victory.

The powerful neighbourhood movement in Madrid, where IU and PSOE have influence, hasn’t appeared on the scene since the autumn.

Another opportunity was lost the week before the elections when Iglesias and socialist ministers and officials received threatening letters that undoubtedly had an impact on public opinion. PSOE and UP should have immediately called a mass demonstration in Madrid in rejection of the threats, shaking off their prejudices and fears of being in the middle of the electoral campaign. The right does not stop at such nonsense. In fact, it attracts the petty bourgeoisie because it does not waver, it does not speculate, it always offers a firm and clear direction; which is what the reformist left has always lacked.

Such a demonstration would have undoubtedly been a success, creating an atmosphere of sympathy for the left, exposing the dirty bases of support of the right. Unfortunately, the opportunity was missed, and the right wing and the state apparatus were allowed to manoeuvre to downplay the matter, including the suspicious appearance of a letter, never sufficiently clarified, that threatened Ayuso and that was probably fabricated by the police to “victimise” her and counteract the spontaneous sympathy aroused in a part of the population towards Iglesias and Grande-Marlaska (PSOE Minister of the Interior).

In and amongst all this, it is not easy to assess the impact that holding the elections on a working day had, although it seems that it was not a decisive factor.

The resignation of Pablo Iglesias

Although Pablo Iglesias’ decision to leave the government and run as the Unidas Podemos candidate was key to the dynamism and drama of the campaign, in the end, it did not have the desired effect. The right used it to take the hysteria of its social base to an extreme, and in the dirty campaign that it deployed, introduced a perspective of chaos if the left won. What has become clear is that Iglesias overestimated his influence at the present time over the Madrid working class and a section of the middle class. Fatally, he has lost the irresistible pull that he had years ago. He has paid the price for his continual zigzags, left and right. Dramatic effect cannot substitute for a clear policy and programme. He lacked confidence in the working class, whilst his fondness for the plentiful tactics of political manoeuvres that he so frequently deployed caught his social base by surprise.

UP’s participation in the central government has been fatal, as we already anticipated. In opposition, without political ties, he could have proven useful, indicating a direction, bravely denouncing the ins and outs of the system. The expectations that Iglesias aroused for a radical change in living conditions and in society have been exhausted. This was the reason for his extraordinary impact on working families seven years ago. His fate then was sealed.

Alberto Garzón y Pablo Iglesias Image PodemosPablo Iglesias emerged as one of the most capable and articulate leaders of the left in the post–Transition period in Spain. However, what is needed are not articulate leaders but a party based on a revolutionary programme and faith in the working class / Image: Podemos

It is true that Iglesias has suffered criminal and ruthless persecution and harassment. The regime was determined to wear down, and physically and psychologically destroy the man who was perhaps the most capable and eloquent leader of the left since the Transition from the Franco dictatorship to bourgeois democracy in 1978. But faced with big business and a ruthless Francoist state apparatus, neither eloquence nor the most outstanding ability can substitute for the only tools capable of defeating them: the ideas and the programme of international socialism, and faith in the working class.

In reality, Iglesias’ policy has been a thousand light–years away from what a true Marxist policy ought to be. Instead of relying on the working class, instead of instilling in them the idea that their emancipation is their own work, instead of encouraging them to improvise their own bodies of power, instead of throwing open the doors of Podemos to true class fighters and activists in social organisations, he was busy – along with Íñigo Errejón at first – in marginalising all the independent and leftist elements of the movement that escaped his control. Internal democracy was curtailed. He deposed rivals and every regional or local leader (no matter how small or large) was hand–picked according to his assent or argument. Candidates handpicked by him, such as Carmena and Errejón, ended up betraying the movement. Now, again, without a congress, without internal debate, without programmes, without the base having anything to say, he has clearly named his “successor” in the most “chieftain–like” way imaginable, the labour minister, Yolanda Díaz, who politically stands to his right.

The way in which Pablo Iglesias has decided to leave could not have been any worse and can only have a demoralising effect on thousands of labour and leftist activists. Instead of having made a critical evaluation of his actions, he has addressed it in personal terms: “I don't want to polarise things”, “I don't want to be a scapegoat for the right wing”, “I don't want to serve to reinforce the reaction”, and so on. What should one make of all that Iglesias has said? That the problem is that he has been too leftist, that he has gone too far in his opposition to the regime? The conclusion that many of his supporters can draw from his statements is clear: we must turn to moderation. Do not push on sensitive issues. Do not bother the Crown. Integrate into the regime more openly.

Iglesias is leaving. To his merit, he was the man who made millions of working–class men and women move, the one who sowed panic in the bourgeoisie of this country and who until the last day has caused nightmares for pointing out the dictatorship exercised by the bankers and big businessmen, and the corruption of the monarchy, and who raised the flag of the Republic. We cannot know if the departure of Iglesias from the forefront of political activity will be definitive or only temporary. But the main task remains the construction of a mass Marxist tendency, democratically structured – not a tendency based on a single individual, but on the revolutionary programme of Marxism and on the active mobilisation of the working class and other oppressed sectors.

Perspectives

In the short term, the right wing is going to be drunk on arrogance and imperiousness. The conspiracies of the state apparatus and the insolence of the bosses will increase, thereby accelerating the erosion and fall of the government.

Sánchez and his advisers will probably conclude that they went too far to the left; when in fact the opposite is true. They will deepen their policy of class collaboration and turn to the right. It is hard to imagine that the current ministers of Unidas Podemos will present the same level of resistance that Iglesias presented to the failure of PSOE to fulfil the coalition government agreement.

As happened with Gaspar Llamazares when he replaced the “leftist” Anguita, we fear that the replacement of the “leftist” Iglesias by Yolanda Díaz at the head of UP will imply a shift to the right and moderation in this organisation. This will only further drain its social and electoral support.

We are at a moment of transition. Lacking a clear political reference point, the most active layers of the class, who distrust and hate the right, will only have the option of raising the banner of struggle again.

Elections are only a mechanism that, from time to time, measure the state of mind and political maturity of the oppressed classes and layers at a given moment, under specific conditions of time and place. But the class struggle is dynamic. Events happen from day–to–day. Unforeseen issues have a strong impact on consciousness and bring about rapid changes in the perspective of all classes. Parties and leaders arise and disappear as they are put to the test. Anger and frustration continue to accumulate, and the provocations and reactionary antics of the extreme right, which still cannot gain a foothold in the working–class neighbourhoods, are capable of unleashing an angry backlash from the working class.

What we have seen in Madrid is a temporary and unstable alliance between the petty bourgeoisie (small owners, professionals, etc.), and a wealthy layer of workers and backward sectors of the working class, trying to make their way amid the whirlwind of this colossal crisis we live in, willing to believe in social miracles. They will have a rude awakening. And that will sooner or later set up a left turn amongst all these layers.

Most importantly, thousands of young people and workers have been able to see the limitations of reformist policies to solve social problems. Increasing interest in a comprehensive, revolutionary alternative to the system will become increasingly apparent. The need for a revolutionary Marxist current rooted in the working class and the youth is more pressing than ever. There is no time to lose. If you agree with this perspective, join us.

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