On the morning of October 22, the day after parliamentary elections in the Basque and Galician autonomous communities of the Spanish state, the TV and radio political pundits were struggling to be wise.
Their powers of analysis were not tested so much by the rise of EH Bildu, the Basque left-nationalist coalition — the polls had predicted its 25% vote. The disorienting new phenomenon was result for the Galician Left Alternative (AGE).
Just six weeks old and already widely known as the “Galician SYRIZA”, in reference to the Greece's radical left coalition that came close to winning government in June, AGE had won 14% of the vote and nine seats in the 75-seat parliament in the autonomous region in the Spanish state's northwest.
Average of poll predictions for AGE before the election was three-to- four seats and 6%-7% of the vote.
The pundits were not alone in their shock. Xose Manuel Beiras, AGE spokesperson and lead candidate, and historic representative of left nationalism in Galicia, told La Voz de Galicia: “To go from zero to nine is incredible. It was reasonable to assume three … All the support we have received now allows us to totally modify the parliament.
“Moreover, for the first time in 10 years genuine nationalism can return to the Chamber.”
AGE, essentially an alliance between part of Galician left nationalism and the United Left in Galicia, had won the battle for the progressive vote against the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG), the electoral voice of left nationalism since the early 1980s.
Beiras had been co-founder of the BNG in 1982, and was later its national spokeperson and lead MP when it became the second biggest political force in Galicia. He stepped down from all official positions in 2005.
The BNG lost 125,000 votes (6%) and five seats. On October 29, BNG national spokeperson Guillerme Vazquez resigned his position.
The AGE vote was highest in Galicia’s cities and bigger towns. In Santiago de Compostela, the capital, it won 21.9%. There, it relegated the social democratic Socialist Party of Galica (PSdG), Galician affiliate of the Spanish Socialist Worlers Party (PSOE), to third place. The right-wing Popular Party (PP), which governs Spain, won 40.2%.
The same thing happened in A Coruna, Galicia’s second largest city. In its largest, Vigo, AGE won only 7350 less votes than the PSdG (19.5% as against 24.5%). In the ship-building centre of Ferrol the new coalition and the PSdG tied on 20.2%.
AGE’s total vote was two-thirds of the PSdG’s (20.6%), but AGE won only half the seats due to Galicia’s unfair voting system. With a proportional system, AGE would have won 14 seats.
All parties that won seats, except for AGE, lost votes compared to the 2009 election. Even the PP, which was returned with three extra seats (41) because of the even bigger collapse of the PSdG and BNG vote, lost 136,000 votes.
The AGE result is perfectly understandable — the campaign spoke to masses of people, especially the young, who felt abandoned by traditional Galician political options.
Its radical stance against the economic and political powers-that-be in Galicia, Spain and Europe was captured in its campaign slogan: “They Must Be Stopped!” This was combined with a platform to defend the welfare state, create work, protect the environment, and advance democratic rights and Galicia’s right to self-determination.
AGE meetings were the biggest and most enthusiastic of all parties and got bigger as the campaign progressed. Social networks buzzed with the good news and volunteers flooded in.
In mid-campaign Beiras told the El Pais: “I notice a recovering of the credibility of politics; what is striking is the absolute silence during the interventions … and the outbreaks of delight when you make fun [of opponents].
“That isn’t the reaction of defeated people, but of people on a war footing.”
A Madrid-based Galician journalist sought to explain the AGE result in a Twitter comment: “Beiras represents the disillusioned, anti-establishment, outraged and romantic vote.”
That was part of the truth, especially as the former BNG MP had become famous for his incendiary parliamentary interventions, including thrashing the desk with his shoe in 1993 while opposing a PP proposal for a 5% threshold for parliamentary representation. (One ritual adopted at AGE rallies involved people removing a shoe and waving it while chanting “they must be stopped!”)
But that is not the full story. The new coalition also won the support of broad layers of civil society fed up with the social and environmental wreckage created by what AGE candidates called the PP “demolition squad”.
Leading figures in Galician (and Spanish) culture, such as the novelist Manuel Rivas, produced a broadly endorsed appeal calling for support for AGE.
It said: “AGE isn’t one more brand that’s for sale on the election supermarket shelf. AGE is the diverse and dynamic expression of a need for transformation that only the people can carry out.
“AGE does not aspire to become the mediator between the immense majority below and the tiny minority above. It offers itself as a tool to help democracy achieve real meaning for the first time in history.”
If anyone had predicted the emergence of AGE at the start of the year, they would have been met with incredulity: the possibility of the “Spanish” United Left and any part of Galician nationalism coming together would have seemed inconceivable.
However, with hindsight, AGE was implicit in the growing crisis of the BNG, which exploded at its 13th national assembly, held in late January.
In 2007, Beiras had formed a current, Encontro Irmandino (EI, literally Brotherhood Encounter) within the BNG to fight what he saw as its weakening connection with social struggles and a growing compromised role in the institutions. This especially related to the government of Galicia (the Xunta), where it was the junior partner to the PSdG between 2005 and 2009.
As he told The Voice of Galicia on February 18: “The turning point was when the BNG won institutional power, between 1997 and 2001 … what has happened to other forces began then — the BNG became an organisation in which the different groups began to compete for their slice of power.”
At the BNG assembly, the position supported by EI and other currents — for the revival of the Bloc as a mass, assembly-based organisation of social struggle — narrowly lost.
EI then voted to leave a BNG that had “lost its bearings”, followed by other currents and individuals. All in all about half the BNG membership left.
The split unleashed a complicated and still unfinished process of realignment of the ex-BNG forces. In June, ANOVA-Nationalist Brotherhood brought together a number of these, with Beiras elected as spokeperson.
Other ex-BNG groups came together in Commitment to Galicia, which was also to stand in the October 21 elections, but without success. Some forces that had initially aligned with it, such as the Galician Ecosocialist Space, later joined AGE.
On July 25, Day of the Galician Homeland, Beiras issued a call for a “citizens’ revolt” and an “emergency” broad front of all social and political forces opposed to the PP’s destruction of Galician society and supportive of Galicia’s right to decide its future.
Implicit in this call was that for the left, fighting the neoliberal right should come before whether or not to take a specifically “Galician” orientation.
The Commitment to Galicia leaders said it would join such a front, but on condition that it excluded the United Left.
For its part, the United Left had already called for an electoral coalition of “the entire Galician anti-capitalist left”.
In June, United Left spokesperson Yolanda Diaz had told the web-based magazine Praza Publica: “We are in a period of emergency, at the end of an exhausted political regime where capital’s strategy of dismantling democracy and the welfare state is working.
“We have to create a new political agency. A Galician SYRIZA is indispensable; citizens are demanding unity in action from the forces of the left, and so we are committed to working out a common minimum program that brings everyone together in a front against this shock doctrine.”
Within the United Left, the forces supporting the need for a “Galician SYRIZA” won the debate against others pushing a reworking of United Left itself. Important in this was the fact it was questionable whether the United Left alone, despite its rise in the polls, could break through the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation.
With early elections called for October 21, ANOVA and EU came together to register AGE as a “technical coalition” open to other forces. The Galician affiliate of Equo, the all-Spanish green party, and the EEG then entered AGE, giving it the form it would have in the election campaign.
AGE has now become a point of reference for the left across the Spanish state, impatient for the coming clash between Beiras and PP leader Nunez Feijoo in the new Galician parliament.
Yolanda Diaz summarised its meaning in an interview on Galician local radio last week: “AGE broke taboos. We were able to unite federalists, nationalists and independentists … the success lay in its message of breaking with the system, of being against the powerful.”
Many questions now arise. Is a reconciliation between the BNG and AGE possible, as many are already suggesting? Should the United Left at the all-Spanish level, where it is stronger, follow the lead of its Galician affiliate and help initiate an AGE equivalent nationally? Does the example of AGE have any lessons for Catalunya and the Basque Country?
Such questions would not even be being asked today, were it not for AGE’s explosion into Galician and Spanish political life. It is an inspiring example in a country that needs all the inspiration it can get.
[Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of Green Left Weekly, based in Barcelona. For English translations of the AGE election platform and of an interview with Xose Manuel Beira go to the Links InternationalJournal of Socialist Renewal.]