Jesus Posada, the right-wing People’s Party (PP) speaker of the national Spanish Congress of Deputies, received a delegation on February 12 presenting a People’s Legislative Initiative (ILP). The initiative had the support of more than 1.4 million signatories, 900,000 more than required by law.
The initiative called on parliament to amend Spain’s reactionary mortgage law, which not only empowers courts to evict defaulting debtors but also to embargo their assets and future income. Instead, it calls for legal changes to allow outstanding mortgage debt to be liquidated on surrender of the mortgaged property (called “giving in payment”).
The initiative also calls for a suspension of evictions and for the homes of people facing “giving in payment” to remain available to them as social housing at a rent no higher than 30% of their income.
If implemented, the proposal would begin to end the most shocking result of Spain’s economic crisis ― the 400,000 evictions since 2007 and the 400,000 more projected by 2016. It would also reduce the hundreds of suicides due to people losing their homes.
The initiative is the work of a coalition led by Spain’s most powerful and popularly supported social movement, the Platform of the Mortgaged-Affected. To date, PAH has blocked 571 evictions. The delegation to parliament was led by its brave and respected spokesperson, Ada Colau.
Posada welcomed the delegation with a diplomatic smile, had his photograph taken with them and said that he hoped their initiative would “have a fortunate journey through the House”.
Five hours later he was ordering Colau and other PAH activists expelled from the public gallery.
What happened? The day began with the PP majority saying it would vote against parliament accepting the initiative, on the grounds that it had its own proposals that would make the petition “obsolete”. At the same time, outside parliament and PP headquarters in Spain’s major cities supporters of the initiative were rallying to demand PP change its mind.
The PP’s “alternative” consisted of mortgage relief for the most destitute, and just 6000 dwellings in social housing from the stock of hundreds of thousands held by the state agencies dedicated to helping the crippled Spanish banking sector back on its feet.
Then a Basque MP Uxue Barkos informed the MPs that a couple in Mallorca had just committed suicide on learning that they would be evicted.
A shudder passed through the PP deputies. Could they really continue to stop parliament from considering the initiative?
The last thing the PP government of Mariano Rajoy wants is a public debate on housing and mortgage debt relief, which lies at the core of the Spanish economic crisis. All the more so when foreign investors in the Spanish economy and its state debt are still prone to panic at the slightest “bad news”.
The thought of Ada Colau having a national stage on which to repeat her denunciation of Spanish bankers would have the blood of the powers-that-be running cold.
On the other hand, the PP has been in political free-fall after recent revelations that former PP national treasurer Luis Barcenas maintained a slush fund of 22 million euros in a Swiss bank account.
Records published by Madrid daily El Pais showed “brown envelope” cash payments to nearly all leading PP figures. The revelations have driven support for the conservatives to an all-time low― just 23.9% according to the latest Metroscopia poll.
In this context, continuing to coldly reject an initiative with 90% public support would have been a pretty risky play. This was especially the case as in the very same session, the PP deputies had accepted an initative that called for a law declaring bullfighting a national heritage.
The aim of that initiative, supported by 590,000 people, is to bolster the flagging bull-fighting industry, which received 570 million euros in government subsidies last year.
It aims for a national law to override the a ban in Catalonia on bullfighting, passed carried last year by the Catalan parliament with the support of all parties except the PP. That would create one more issue with which to try to undermine support for independence in Catalonia.
Even the slowest PP deputy would foreseen the inevitable cartoons against a party that allows mortgage debtors to suicide while protecting the slaughter of Spain’s bulls.
Another parliamentary event that day would have done nothing to boost the PP deputies’ desire to hold out against “Ada Colau’s people”. This was a “visit of inspection” by European Central Bank (ECB) governor Mario Draghi, overseer of the European Union’s more than 40 billion euro rescue of Spain’s drowning banking sector.
Exquisitely greeted by Posadas, Draghi told a closed meeting of MPs: “I am acutely aware of the significant social costs that the adjustment entails, especially for those who have lost their jobs. I am very conscious of this human dimension of the recession.”
The thought of Draghi passing through the lines of demonstrators to address a selection of the “people’s representatives” in a closed meeting was too much for Plural Left MPs.
Initiative for Catalunya-Greens MPs, members of the Plural Left caucus, disobeyed the speaker’s orders and streamed the Draghi meeting live on their website, declaring: “They close the Congress, we open it!”
United Left MP Alberto Garzon denounced the role of the ECB live until the broadcast was cut off by parliamentary functionaries.
Under all this pressure, the PP deputies cracked, announcing that they would be changing their vote to support the initiative. Cheering and dancing broke out in the demonstrations around the country ― ten months of activist energy and dedication had won a small but important victory.
So why did Posadas then evict the PAHers from the chamber? The immediate cause was a provocation by PP deputy Teodoro Garcia Egea, who contrasted his party’s efforts in favour of the mortgage-affected with the supposed indifference of the former Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government.
Turning to the public gallery he addressed Ada Colau directly: “Senora Colau, representative of the Platform, I said it in the [economics] commission and I repeat it today: the PP parliamentary group and the Mortgage Platform [sic] are on the same track.
“And at the end of this track lie the general interests of the citizens and we shall continue working and collaborating to achieve them.”
The PAH activists in the gallery could not believe their ears. This from a party that had only started to look at the issue of mortgage debt after a woman in the Basque country committed suicide late last year!
They began chanting “Si, Se Puede” (Yes, We Can!) and “Bastards”. That was too much for Posadas, who, losing his exquisite institutional demeanor, called on the ushers: “Fuck, have them thrown out!”
After the session Ada Colau welcomed the vote, but warned everyone the Rajoy government would pull out all stops to reverse its February 12 retreat. The only guarantee of future victories, Colau said, was future mobilisation.
Do the events of February 12 vividly confirm what some commentators are saying, that the political institutions of the Spanish state have now entered a terminal crisis?
The monarchy, for example, beset by the scandal of the king’s son-in-law flogging royal endorsement in exchange for public funds, is at its lowest level of support ever, just 54%.
Certainly, the position of the Rajoy government is weakening, most importantly because the manhole covers on the country’s sewers of corruption are increasingly being removed.
More often than not, those responsible for the latest exposures are members of the political elite who are under attack from former allies ―in the faction fights within the PP and those between the PP and the party of the Catalan ruling class, Convergence and Union (CiU).
The scandals cover bribery, tax evasion, money laundering, backhanders, unauthorised telephone tapping, and government contracts “won” through payments to party funds.
In a recent editorial, left journal Sin Permiso described this corruption as the organic and inevitable product of the “oligopolic capitalism of mates” that has either directly run or set the rules for party politics in the Spanish state.
Until recently, the different elites abided by an implicit agreement not to reveal too much of each other’s filthy linen. That phase has now given way to one of all-out warfare. Former Madrid regional PP premier Esperanza Aguirre has attacked the Rajoy team and the PP in Catalonia is chasing down every piece of dirt it can use against CiU.
However, even in its weakened state the Rajoy administration can still survive: the conditions still do not yet exist to force it from office. Firstly, the PSOE is not calling for early elections, even though polls show around 50% in favour. PSOE Leader Afredo Pérez Rubalcaba is restricting himself to calling for Rajoy to resign and for the PP to find a clean replacement candidate from within its pigsty.
The Plural Left, led by United Left national coordinator Cayo Lara, is calling for early elections, not in the hope of winning a parliamentary vote but of underlining a perspective for the protest movement. In truth, a powerful new wave of social movement and trade union protest will be essential to knock out the underpinnings of a government with an absolute majority and the confidence of Spanish big capital and the European Union.
In this situation it almost does not matter how much more filth is uncovered about the Spanish establishment ― the PP, business, the church and the monarchy. Unless the unions and social movements act to mobilise the massive disgust and hatred with Rajoy and company they will hang on.
Which makes the next test, on February 16, when protests in support of the PAH proposals and against health and education cuts are scheduled across the country, all the more important.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly European correspondent, based in Barcelona. Read more article by Dick Nichols.]