Spain: Failed Socialist Party manoeuvre sparks vital battle for Madrid

March 25, 2021
Supporters of Spain's right-wing parties rally.

Master political strategist Ivan Redondo controls the tactics of the governing Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) so closely, that some observers joke that PSOE Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is nothing but a hologram generated by Redondo’s laptop.

Gun-for-hire Redondo counts among his successes Sánchez’s 2017 recovery of the PSOE leadership and campaigns for the conservative People’s Party (PP), including racism-driven operations that twice won it the major Catalan industrial city of Badalona.

However, Redondo’s last two games have been flops. In the February 14 Catalan election, the bandwagon effect supposed to win the premiership for former PSOE Spanish health minister Salvador Illa set off a counter-reaction that increased the Catalan parliament’s pro-independence majority.

That dud was followed by the failure of the PSOE’s no-confidence motion against the ruling PP in Murcia’s 45-seat regional parliament on March 18. The motion was presented on the pretext that its leaders had abused their positions to jump the COVID-19 vaccination queue.

The motion was supposed to have the backing of the six MPs from the neoliberal Citizens, but failed when the PP purchased three of them with offers of ministerial positions.

The PP also hooked three dissident MPs from the reactionary xenophobic Vox. The bait was that the government would immediately introduce the plan requiring heads of schools to advise parents if their children were to be “exposed” to classes dealing with feminism or LGBTI diversity.

One of the Vox dissidents was also promised the job of minister of education to oversee this enlightened plan, the first time a Vox-related politician will hold a regional government portfolio.

The PSOE-Citizens no-confidence motion then failed, by 21 votes to 23 with one abstention.

Plots implode

The fiasco had been conceived as a “cunning scheme” between the PSOE and Citizens’ leader Inés Arrimadas — Citizens would get the premiership of Murcia and the PSOE would get the mayoralty of its capital.

For the Sánchez government, a successful operation would also have reduced its dependence in the Spanish congress on the votes of Pablo Iglesias’s more radical Unidas Podemos (UP) — an alliance of Podemos and the United Left — and Catalan and Basque parties like the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and EH Bildu.

The gain for Citizens would have been its first ever premier and apparent rebooting as a centrist party prepared to ally to left or right “for the good of Spain”, and thus achieving product differentiation from the PP and Vox.

This has always been big capital’s plan for Citizens — to provide the business-friendly but “left” PSOE with a junior partner to its right. However, most Citizens’ voters see their party as an alternative to the PP and not as an ally of the PSOE.

That was confirmed by the shower of resignations from Citizens once the Murcia operation became known. These included MPs in the Valencian and Madrid regional parliaments, a congress deputy and two senators — threatening Citizens with the end of its Senate group.

At the same time, the PP flung its doors open to Citizens defectors, proclaiming itself as pole of attraction of the entire “centre-right”.

Madrid as ground zero

The PSOE’s Murcia operation to detach Citizens from the PP raised the possibility of the same move being tried in the three other regional governments where Spain’s main conservative party governs in alliance with the neoliberals — Andalusia, Castilla y León and the Madrid region.

However, Citizens’ ministers in Andalusia resisted the temptation to risk their jobs, while in Castilla y León the PP government survived a March 22 motion of no-confidence.

The most important battleground was Madrid, where relations within the ruling PP-Citizens coalition have been poor for a long time. PP premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso, fearing that she too would be the target of a no confidence motion, dumped her Citizens’ ministers on March 10 and called a snap election for May 4.

The PSOE and More Madrid (a soft-left creation of former Podemos leader and Iglesias rival Iñigo Errejón) countered with a motion of no confidence, but the Supreme Court of Justice of Madrid ruled that the election took preference.

Ayuso, a Spanish version of a young Margaret Thatcher, then announced that her campaign slogan would be “Socialism or Freedom”.

Citizens, fearful it might not even meet the 5% threshold for representation in Madrid’s assembly, decided to switch leaders, and replaced outgoing Madrid vice-premier Ignacio Aguado with congress spokesperson Edmundo Bal.

The PP and Vox will now furiously scrap before their well-off northern Madrid voters over who is toughest on “socialism”. The result will determine how many ministries fall to Vox after an election that all polls predict the PP would win.

Enter Iglesias

The threat of an ultra-conservative coalition taking the capital convinced Iglesias, Spain’s second deputy prime minister, to declare that he too would offer to stand as a lead candidate — for UP but also hopefully at the head of a united ticket of all forces to the left of the PSOE, including More Madrid.

Iglesias announced his forthcoming departure from the Spanish government on March 15, anointed labour minister Yolanda Díaz as his successor, and spelled out the stakes in the battle. These were: to stop the fascist Vox from joining the corrupt PP in government; and to overturn Ayuso’s economic model — Madrid as a domestic tax haven where capital is welcome to exploit labour as best it can and to suck investment away from the rest of the state.

Ayuso responded to Iglesias’ announcement by boasting that his impending resignation was her work and changing her campaign slogan to “Communism or Freedom”.

For the UP leader, the coming contest will hopefully be a “battle for Madrid” recalling the heroic Republican defence of the capital during the Spanish Civil War.

The Iglesias campaign will focus on re-enthusing Madrid’s working-class southern suburbs, and convincing people battered by poverty and COVID-19 that it will be worth taking the trouble to vote on May 4.

A huge increase in the participation rate in popular neighbourhoods is the only way that the PP — ruler of the Madrid region since 1995 — can be beaten.

Polls taken since Iglesias’ announcement show the beginning of an Ayuso versus Iglesias polarisation. Over the past week, voting intention for the six main parties has changed as follows: PP, from 35.2% to 38.6%; PSOE, from 27.5% to 24.2%; Vox, from 13.4% to 11%; More Madrid, from 11.9% to 10.8%; UP, 5.4% to 9.5%; and Citizens, from 4.9% to 4%.

These trends show that Iglesias’s arrival has lifted UP out of the danger zone of non-representation, but not yet increased the vote for the broadly defined left (PSOE, More Madrid and UP).

The contest, however, is already polarising, with most former Citizens’ voters now choosing the PP as their best defence against “communism” — to the point that Citizens could disappear. That shift is mirrored by UP gaining on the PSOE and More Madrid as the left’s best defence against the right.


However, severe obstacles stand in the way of a win for the left led by the UP, not the least being the history of bitter conflict within Podemos that led to the formation of More Madrid and to the hollowing out of Podemos’ Madrid organisation.

How many of those activists, with bad memories of life in Iglesias’s top-down vote-catching machine, will bother to get reinvolved?

Nor did Iglesias’s announcement get a great reception from those whom he might have expected would welcome his offer to captain the entire non-PSOE left.

More Madrid candidate Mónica García said: “We women are tired of doing the dirty work only to be asked to stand aside at the historic moments” and “we women have more than demonstrated that we know how to stop the far right without being coached”.

PSOE lead candidate Ángel Gabilondo, appealing to voters abandoning the sinking Citizens, said on March 22: “Matters being as they are now, I say ‘No’ to Podemos. I don’t want a climate of confrontation, of extremism, I sincerely don’t want that. Not with Iglesias, that’s my preference.”

The campaign will be a set-piece battle over taxation, defence and extension of public services and each candidate’s reliability as a Spanish patriot.

Ayuso’s opening salvo was that “Iglesias is a pro-independence person, close to the [Basque separatist] ETA milieu, believes in expropriation, squatting, state intervention in business, promoting strikes and setting fire to the streets of Madrid.”

Iglesias will be in his element in the coming dogfight, and all Spain will be following the spectacle. If UP and the left pull off a miraculous victory, it will present a precious opportunity for starting to reverse 25 years of PP corruption and cronyism.

However, even in that still improbable case, a vital ingredient will be missing. As Anti-capitalists explained in a statement calling for a vote for UP or More Madrid: “To effectively unseat Ayuso we need broad social power, and that can’t be built with theatrical effects, but with effort, resources, openness and dedication.”

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

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