Spain: Amid tangle over new government, Podemos 'threat' sends establishment into frenzy

January 30, 2016
Podemos supporters.

Since Spain's December 20 elections produced no clear majority, debate has raged over what sort of government should be formed.

The governing conservative People's Party (PP) won 123 seats in the 250-seat Congress and the right-populist Citizens won 40. On the left, the main opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) won 90 seats, while radical anti-austerity party Podemos and the three alliances in which it took part together with nationalist forces won 69.

Decisive for determining what sort of government Spain will get — or if it will have to go to early elections — is which way the PSOE will jump in the wheeling-and-dealing now under way.

PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez is under intense pressure from the Spanish establishment not to come to an agreement with Podemos. Yet most polls on a preferred governmental alliance favour a PSOE-Podemos coalition.

In a January 24 article, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias called for a “government of change” and demanded the PSOE heed the interests of the majority.

Post December 20

One important moment in the negotiations over forming a government in the Spanish state so far has been a deal struck between the PSOE, PP and Citizens over the parliamentary speakership panel.

The deal made Patxi Lopez, from the PSOE's Basque affiliate, the speaker of parliament in exchange for the PP and Citizens getting a majority on the speakership panel.

That majority was then used to deny parliamentary group status to left regionalist alliances Together We Can (Catalonia), In Tide (Galicia) and Commitment-Podemos (Valencian Community). The panel also vetoed an agreement made by the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) to include the United Left-Popular Unity (IU-UP) in its group.

This bastardry robbed these forces of funding and parliamentary presence. It forced Podemos to offer to include them in its own group, with speaking time shared and profile for their spokespeople guaranteed.

Together We Can and In Tide accepted this arrangement, but the Commitment members of Commitment-Podemos have chosen for the time being to join the “mixed group” of miscellaneous MPs.

A second key moment came on January 22, when acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refused to submit himself as a candidate in a parliamentary vote on the prime ministership. This had been proposed by King Felipe after his first round of consultations with party leaders.

After weeks of saying he would be candidate for prime minister, Rajoy decided not to submit himself to a vote he would lose. He decided to pressure the PSOE by forcing the king to stage a second round of consultations.

The PSOE is divided between its former leaders and main regional “barons” — who want nothing to do with Podemos — and its current national leaders. The national leaders know they must at least appear to negotiate with the new radical force or lose even more credibility with their voters in a context where polls have Podemos ahead of the PSOE.

The PP's scheme is to have the divided PSOE fail to negotiate a deal with Podemos, then convince it to either join the PP in a grand coalition or abstain in a vote on a PP or PP-Citizens government. This is seen as the sole alternative to early elections.

A further decisive moment came with Podemos's January 22 decision to no longer insist that an independence referendum in Catalonia was a precondition for negotiating with the PSOE over a “government of change”. PSOE leaders had been using Podemos's demand as an excuse not to talk with “those who question the unity of Spain”.

Asked whether Podemos had abandoned its support for the referendum, Together We Can spokesperson Xavier Domenech said: “It's the best formula. We're ready to listen to others but we're going to support the referendum to the very last ... With it we won December 20 in Catalonia and the PSC [Party of Socialists of Catalonia, the PSOE's Catalan affiliate] had the worst result in its history.”

Offensive against Podemos

The positive popular response to Podemos's dramatic proposal for a “government of change” has set off alarm bells throughout the Spanish establishment.

On January 27, former PP Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said: “Podemos is a threat to our democratic system and our freedoms. Those people don't believe in a democratic system and they want to overthrow it, they don't believe in the rule of law, they don't believe in the independence of the judiciary...

“That gives them their Chavista-communist character.”

On the same day, former PSOE prime minister Felipe Gonzalez said: “[Podemos] leaders, with all due respect to their voters and those groups that have joined the different platforms, want to eliminate, not reform, the democratic framework of co-existence, and with it the socialists, and from positions like those practised by their allies in Venezuela…

“They are pure Leninism 3.0.”

As for Citizens, it is cajoling Rajoy to resign so that, whatever option finally emerges from the PSOE-PP tussle, it can plausibly pretend that it is not getting into bed with the corrupt old PP.

For the establishment, anything but Podemos.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

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