For the fourth time in less than four years, Spaniards ready themselves to return to the ballot box on 10 November. The country has witnessed unprecedented political instability in the last period, as social polarisation and the extreme fragmentation of parliament has made it virtually impossible to put together working governments. At the heart of this turbulence lies the radicalisation of Spanish society in the aftermath of the economic crisis.
This time around, the incapacity of Pedro Sánchez’s Social Democratic PSOE to garner the necessary votes either from the left-wing Unidas Podemos (UP) - which demanded a coalition government in exchange for its support - or from the right-wing People’s Party (PP) and Ciudadanos - which, among other things, called for a hardening of the government’s stance on the national question in Catalonia - have sentenced the country to yet another election.
The failure of the left
Seven years of right-wing rule under the PP came to an abrupt end in June 2018. Following a corruption scandal affecting the highest rungs of the government, and in the context of social turbulence, marked by the women’s strike of March 2018, the PSOE dropped its policy of tacit toleration. It spearheaded a no-confidence vote that rallied all left-wing; and Basque and Catalan nationalist forces, bringing down the hated Rajoy government. Pedro Sánchez’s caretaker government called new elections on 28 April 2019. All things considered, these were a victory for the left. Despite the Spanish chauvinist hysteria that followed the Catalan independence referendum, which created a mirage of right-wing supremacy, the working class voted en masse to stop the right, with a record turnout of 71.8 percent. The rise of the arch-reactionary Vox in 2018 was important in galvanising the left-wing vote. The memory of Francoism is still fresh in Spain, and workers are very conscious of the class character of the right. Pablo Iglesias’ UP scored 14.3 percent of the vote, well below its 2016 results, but higher than the opinion polls indicated. However, the real victor was Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE, which experienced a Phoenix-like recovery from 22.6 percent in 2016 to 28.7 percent.
Although the PSOE harkens back to the First International and is one of the traditional organisations of the Spanish working class, today the party is thoroughly degenerated and is a plaything in the hands of the bourgeoisie, which uses it as an instrument to hold workers in check. The economic crisis, and the PSOE-driven austerity packages of 2010-11, jolted millions into awareness of the real nature of Spanish Social Democracy. The spectacular rise of Podemos in 2014-15 was in large measure a response to the growing discrediting of the PSOE and the quest for a more militant alternative. As Pablo Iglesias blew his trumpet against Social Democratic Jericho, the PSOE leadership gazed into the abyss of its Greek cousin PASOK, which had dwindled to the point of oblivion. Yet the party’s decline was reverted in 2019. What explains this trend towards the recovery of the PSOE to the detriment of UP?
Some might be tempted to allude to the economic recovery that began in 2016, and which has seen a steady fall in the unemployment rate. But at best this is a secondary factor. The so-called recovery has been accompanied by unprecedented inequality, exploitation, and precariousness that in many ways have aggravated, not mollified, class contradictions. Indeed, the crisis reached such depths that it dented the resolve of workers to fight. The recovery has provided confidence and strength to workers, and has been accompanied by an upswing in industrial action. The cause for the revival of Social Democracy must be sought in the realm of politics. First of all, eight eventful years have elapsed since the unceremonious fall of the last PSOE government under Zapatero. Moreover, Pedro Sánchez has attempted to pose as a more left-wing leader than his predecessors. More out of the cynical calculations of a political adventurer than out of principle, he refused to assist the formation of a PP government in 2016, which led to his temporary ousting by the party right and his triumphant return a few months later with the backing of the party’s rank-and-file members. Yet this has left the impression that he is somewhat different from the old party bureaucracy. The emergence of the far-right Vox also helped cluster the vote around the strongest left-wing force, which continued to be the PSOE.
However, the most important factor behind the recovery of the PSOE has been the disastrous, opportunistic policies of Pablo Iglesias and the leadership of UP, which have provided a new lease of life to decrepit Social Democracy. Driven by ambition, in 2016 Pablo Iglesias made little effort to try to stitch together a left-wing alternative to Rajoy, believing new elections would turn him from kingmaker into king. Of course, Pedro Sánchez was all too happy with this sectarian policy that relieved pressure from his left flank and helped him put the blame for Rajoy’s survival on Podemos.
Yet the June 2016 elections saw a slight drop in UP (the bloc between Podemos and the United Left), while the PSOE experienced a recovery. Iglesias then tacked rightwards. Not only did he offer Sánchez a helping hand to bring down Rajoy in June 2018 (a correct move); he behaved as a minister without portfolio of the new interim government, heaping praise on Sánchez and on his left-wing pies in the sky. Iglesias celebrated the PSOE draft budget as “the most progressive in the history of Spanish democracy”, and toured Spain to defend its implementation.
Yet there was a thorn amid these bouquets: the Catalan national question. In its origins, UP had stood for the right to self-determination of the Catalan and Basque peoples, and had campaigned courageously for this demand. This was important in educating the masses and combating the reactionary influence of Spanish chauvinism. However, the insurrectionary movement for the Catalan Republic in October 2017, and the furious reaction of the Spanish state, cowed Iglesias and his team into silence and inaction. The bloc with Sánchez in 2018 consolidated this trend, as Catalonia became an unwelcome obstacle on the road of collaboration with the PSOE, which, needless say, is an unflinching defender of the sacrosanct unity of the Kingdom of Spain. “Catalonia will not be a red line”, Iglesias told Sánchez, pointing to his willingness to ditch his principles on the national question.
What was the result of this uncritical alliance with the PSOE? Naturally, it blurred the political differences between UP and the PSOE in the eyes of the masses, and helped Sánchez recoup his tarnished left-wing credentials. Therefore, many who voted for UP in the past now opted for the PSOE, especially when faced with the threat of Vox. Iglesias’ policies suggested the political differences between UP and the PSOE are secondary, so why not vote for the biggest of the two to stop the far right? That explains the results of April 2019.
After the elections, UP continued with this suicidal policy, demanding a coalition government with Iglesias as vice president in exchange for their parliamentary support. After some hesitation, Sánchez refused to accept Iglesias as vice president but offered three second-rate portfolios to UP. Iglesias then turned down this offer. He was prepared to withdraw the demand for the vice presidency, but considered the three portfolios insufficient - he was after bigger quarry. After some ruminations during his August holidays, and with an eye on the opinion polls, which pointed to further growth for the PSOE, Sánchez returned to Madrid in September vetoing any coalition with UP point blank, offering at best minor positions within PSOE-dominated ministries. Iglesias, who had set a trap for himself, now retreated, and said he would accept the July offer of the three portfolios. But it was too late, now Sánchez would not budge. After unproductive and mostly cosmetic last-minute negotiations with PP and Ciudadanos, new elections have been called for 10 November.
Amongst the calculations of Sanchez and a section of the Spanish ruling class in deciding to call fresh elections is the fact they need a strong and stable government, able to navigate safely the stormy waters ahead. It would have been too risky to accept UP as part of the government, just before the sentencing of the Catalan political prisoners and on the eve of a new economic recession - which will demand austerity and cuts. This despite the shameful way in which UP have shown themselves as prepared to turn to the right.
Iglesias’ line has been simply disastrous and might lead to the undoing of his own party. It has further enhanced the PSOE’s left-wing profile at the expense of UP, which in the eyes of many has lost all political personality. It will take heat from voters who blame it for the failure to form a left government, and who have not understood Iglesias’ political pirouettes. Inevitably, he will have to lurch left in this campaign to differentiate himself from Sánchez, but he will have little credibility after the PSOE’s long honeymoon. Moreover, it is likely that Iglesias’ old comrade-in-arms, Íñigo Errejón, who represents the most-reformist wing in the movement, and who, sensing disaster, abandoned the ship a few months ago, will stand in the elections on a separate ticket, sapping additional strength from UP. One is left to wonder, however, if this turn of events is preferable to the PSOE-UP coalition actually going ahead. Iglesias would then have taken responsibility for all the capitulations and failures, while Sánchez would have taken credit for any successes.
The rational thing for UP to do was evident from the outset: vote in Sánchez, and then join the opposition, retaining the freedom to criticise the government, and thus emerging as a left-wing alternative with the inevitable erosion of the PSOE while in power. Instead of concentrating on the question of the number and weight of potential UP ministers in a coalition government, Pablo Iglesias should have put the question of the programme at the centre of his agitation: “Pedro Sanchez claims to be left wing, we are prepared to support him in any measures he takes in favour of the working class. He should start by committing himself to doing a, b, c and d”. This would have allowed UP to make inroads amongst PSOE supporters who voted for Sanchez with genuine illusions in his rhetoric.
What is the political significance of these mistakes? They are indicative of UP’s opportunistic degeneration. To a large extent, it was the tantalising sinecures of public office that impelled the UP bureaucracy to demand a coalition. During its origins in 2014, Podemos had a vibrant internal political life, and tens of thousands of class fighters joined its ranks. However, the party rapidly became ossified as the clique around Iglesias saw this mass membership as a nuisance, frustrating its crafty manoeuvres. It did not want to be held accountable. All pretences of internal democracy were gradually eliminated, and recalcitrant party figures (such as Catalan party leader Albano Dante Fachín) were purged. The party is now an empty shell, staffed by self-serving careerists who are conscious only of their own bureaucratic interests. There was also the naïve, reformist belief on the part of Iglesias that clever parliamentary combinations would really drive the PSOE leftwards, and that he could go down in history as the architect of the “most-progressive” government in Spanish history.
But most importantly, it is the arrogant contempt for the working class of the petty-bourgeois opportunist that explains UP’s policies. A leadership that has confidence in the working class and its capacity to learn and draw conclusions would have been happy to go into the opposition, certain that time and events would prove the correctness of its perspectives and its programme. But leaders that mistrust the masses are condemned to short-term machinations in the corridors of power, treating politics as a game of chess. The best the working class can aspire to are leaders adept at navigating the choppy waters of bourgeois politics.
It goes without saying, that not once in the course of this protracted political stalemate, has Iglesias mobilised his supporters to exert pressure on Sánchez. A campaign of rallies and demonstrations across Spain around a few basic demands (derogation of the labour reform, derogation of the gagging law, reversal of cuts in healthcare and education, etc) would have put Pedro Sanchez against the ropes and exposed the shallow nature of his “left” credentials. Instead, Pablo Iglesias and the UP leaders put all their faith in clever manoeuvres behind closed doors in the corridors of power. In fact, UP has not taken to the streets since its mass rally of January 2015, which marked the pinnacle of the party’s development. Iglesias is an admirer of Italian Stalinist Palmiro Togliatti and the post-1945 Italian Communist Party. He has ambitions of amassing great authority from the bourgeoisie, by exercising political control over the working class, becoming a powerful arbiter in the class struggle. But Spain in 2019 is very different from Italy in 1945. The working class will not be easily domesticated.
The right runs amok
The defeat of the Catalan uprising of October 2017 unleashed a wave of reactionary Spanish chauvinism. Rajoy’s downfall was but a temporary setback, for the right was confident it could stage a triumphant return. Ciudadanos, which in the past had posed as a centrist or even as a centre-left party, now veered to the right and pruned its liberal fig leaves. Vox, previously an irrelevant sect, seemed to emerge as a large force, towing a freight of Francoist hysteria behind it. Yet this atmosphere was superficial, as shown by the April 2019 elections. In fact, the right is now in a difficult situation, split between three hostile forces, trying to outcompete one another in the exploitation of the most barbaric prejudices that exist in the dark recesses of Spanish society.
This is not to the liking of the ruling class. It helps polarise society and galvanises the working class and the youth around the left. But, most importantly, it exacerbates the fragmentation of Spanish politics and makes it difficult to form lasting alliances. The government of choice for the bourgeoisie was a coalition between the PSOE and Ciudadanos. The latter, however have refused, putting impossible demands on Sánchez. They are driven by their concern for political survival, embroiled in competition with the PP and Vox, which trumps the temporary exigencies of businessmen and bankers.
The fact is that the Spanish ruling class no longer has any reliable parties at its command – a feature common to many countries in the present epoch. In ordinary times, bourgeois parties act as transmission belts for the ruling class. Politics is the grey, routine business of administering bourgeois interests. This machinery is oiled by economic growth, by the apathy that follows defeats and setbacks in the class struggle, and by the bribery of reformist leaderships to act as shock absorbers of popular discontent. The 2008 crisis, however, threw a spanner into this machinery. The widespread anger and unrest made it more difficult for established parties to win elections. It opened space for new parties and factions. Bourgeois politicians concerned about their careers could no longer become passive instruments in the hands of their puppeteers – they had to claim some autonomy and engage in demagoguery. This explains the “populist” drift of political leaderships in Spain and elsewhere.
Sánchez hopes to win the new elections, as most opinion polls suggest. Yet he is playing with fire, because his failure to form a left-wing government will generate cynicism and trepidation among many of his, and Iglesias’, voters. Indeed, there is understandable weariness among the masses about official party politics. But the prevalent disinterest is not a sign of complacency, but of rejection of bourgeois politics, its corrupt careerists, and its parliamentary talking shop. If today this is expressed through cynicism, tomorrow it can turn into anger. Whatever the outcome of the November elections, it is clear that Spain’s political crisis will not be resolved, and will in fact worsen. Weak, interim governments and unruly parliaments will be the norm. This episode of acute political instability will coincide with a turbulent new phase in the world economy, marked by a new economic crisis and by the disruptive effects of Brexit.
The new crisis will shake the consciousness of the masses. 10 years have elapsed since the outbreak of the previous recession, and none of the problems of Spanish capitalism have been resolved. The recovery was based on precariousness, austerity, and inequality, while political problems intensified. Among these are the national question, the fragmentation of parliament and the inability to form strong governments, the polarisation between left and right and the growing discrediting of the institutional pillars of the 1978 regime (the monarchy, the Church, the judiciary etc.). The mass struggles of the previous years have not been in vain. They have served as a school for the political maturation of the working class and youth. If the recession of 2008 initially created stupefaction, the coming one will produce wrath.