Spain: Left knocking at the door

June 19, 2016
Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias and United Left (IU) leader Alberto Garzón.

The Spanish and European establishments have just days to stop the advance of the progressive electoral alliance United We Can in the June 26 general elections in the Spanish state. How are they doing? As matters stand, not well.

United We Can, formed in early May, brings together new anti-austerity party Podemos and the longer-standing United Left (IU), as well as broader coalitions in Catalonia (Together We Can), Galicia (In Tide) and Valencia (A La Valenciana).

The economic and institutional elites have given the ruling conservative People's Party (PP), the official opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the neoliberal hipsters of Citizens overlapping jobs of keeping this dangerously radical new player out of their neighbourhood.

Common to all three parties is a fear-and-loathing brief: each is free to blast United We Can as “extremist”, “populist”, “ideological”, “day-dreaming”, “destructive”, “sectarian”, “anti-constitutional”, “inexperienced”, “negative”, “anti-European” and “a threat to the unity of Spain”.

At the same time, the three parties' own wrangling has to be kept under control to ensure that United We Can and the other coalitions do not overtake the PSOE, Spain's traditional social democratic party, on June 26.

Such an outcome would put the PSOE, Spain's oldest political party (founded in 1879), under great pressure to become a partner in a United We Can-led government. This would reproduce at an all-Spanish level what is already the case in the city councils of Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.

On June 15, acting PP interior minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz — a right-wing Catholic with a visceral loathing of the left and Catalan “secessionism” —blurted out the truth: “Maybe an overtaking [of the PSOE by United We Can] would be good for the PP, but it would be bad for Spain.”

Polling trends

However, going by recent opinion polls, what Fernandez thinks is “bad for Spain” seems likely to come true — barring a startling reversal in momentum during the last week of the campaign.

Polls show United We Can and its allies heading the PSOE by between 3 and 5.4 percentage points — and edging ahead in seats.

The rigged Spanish electoral system of multi-member electorates of uneven size continues to favour the PSOE and PP. However, the latest Spanish poll with the largest sample, the May barometer of the Centre of Sociological Research (CIS), had United We Can and its allies leading the PSOE by at least 88 seats to 80 — and by as many as 92 seats to 78.

In the December 20 general elections, no party won a majority and no government was able to be formed. Podemos and United Left ran on separate tickets. Podemos and the coalitions it was part of won 69 seats and the United Left won two.

Polls indicate 18 of the new seats the forces to the left of the PSOE could win would be directly due to the creation of United We Can. The united ticket converts the often wasted vote for United Left on December 20 into extra seats for the new alliance.

Those extra seats would also strengthen United We Can in regions that have been most resistant to the breakdown of the old PP-PSOE duopoly.

The broader coalitions United We Can are part of would also gain seats: Together We Can up to three, In Tide one and A La Valenciana one (this due to the entry of IU into the coalition between Podemos and the Valencian regionalist bloc Commitment).

According to the CIS barometer, the three other main parties would be the losers: the PP by up to five seats (down to 118); Citizens by up to two seats (down to 38), and the PSOE by up to 12 seats (down to 78).

Nationalist forces in the Basque Country, Catalonia and the Canary Islands could also lose out: the ruling right-nationalist Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) by one (down to five) and the Canary Coalition by one (down to zero).

In Catalonia, the centre-left nationalist Republic Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the right-nationalist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), which together run the regional Catalan pro-independence government, could lose up to three seats (down to eight and six seats respectively).

As a result, the Catalan front in the election campaign takes the form of a double fight. There is a fight by the ERC and CDC to stop pro-independence voters deserting to Together We Can (which supports a Scottish-style referendum for Catalonia) and a second fight between the two pro-independence forces over which is the leading force within the independence camp.

Shifting leftwards

The other discernible polling trend is the rise in the total vote for the all-Spanish broad left (United We Can plus PSOE) against the all-Spanish right (PP plus Citizens).

On December 20, that vote was practically equal: the right managed 42.5% and the broad left 42.7%. By June 16, the average of the last fortnight's polls showed the total right vote at 44% and the broad left vote at 45.8%.

The potential result in seats had the broad left very close to an absolute majority (176 seats out of 350), an increase from the 161 seats it commanded after December 20. At the same time, the PP and Citizens could command as few as 156 seats (down from its 163 after the previous poll).

The projected increase in the all-Spanish left vote also seems due to a shift in support from nationalist parties to United We Can in the regions where the national right to self-determination is important.

United We Can is the only all-Spanish force that supports the right of the peoples who make up the Spanish state to decide whether to remain in the Spanish state. The swing to it looks particularly marked in the Basque Country — where the projected vote for United We Can exceeds the combined Podemos-United Left vote on December 20 by up to three percentage points.

A similar trend would seem to be taking place in Barcelona, where a May 24 Metroscopia poll had the vote for Together We Can rising from 26.9% to 34.1% (from 9 seats to 12).

If the leftward shift detected in the polls holds up, a government of the right (PP plus Citizens) or a government of the centre (PSOE plus Citizens) will be even less feasible than after December 20.

The only choices will then be between a United We Can-led left government, a grand coalition of the PP-PSOE (and maybe Citizens), or a minority government of the right sanctioned by PSOE abstention.

PSOE agony

So far, campaigning has not gone well for United We Can's opponents. First came the failure of the hysterical campaign scandalising the Podemos-United Left “Venezuela connection”. This was supposed to convince the voters that putting United We Can people into government would mean importing Venezuela's economic crisis into Spain.

After a week of ironic commentary from United We Can spokespeople, the PP, PSOE and Citizens, who had all tried to make mileage from the gambit, dropped it simultaneously. Their focus groups probably told them undecided Spanish voters were more concerned about joblessness.

Then came the one televised debate between the four party leaders. All polls but those of the far-right Madrid papers ABC and La Razon had Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias as the winner and PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez as the worst performer.

As the polls show it falling further behind, the PSOE leaders are practising total denial. “We do not consider that option” is their rehearsed response to media requests for comment on the latest poll findings, while they expend all their energy in persuading the PSOE base to get out to vote on June 26.

At the same time, their virulent and bitter attacks on Iglesias intensify. “We won't make Iglesias prime minister under any circumstances,” one anonymous “longstanding leader” of the PSOE said on June 16. “That would be the end of us.”

However, this blind hatred of all things Podemos clashes with a stubborn reality: a large majority of PSOE voters — 70% according to one Metroscopia poll — want their party to reach agreement with United We Can for a left government after June 26.

Knowing this, United We Can spokespeople ask insistently for Sanchez to come off the fence — will he be part of negotiating for a left government or not?

The longer the PSOE refuses to answer, the worse its position becomes — any possibility of a last-minute revival driven by its superior on-the-ground organisation will grow more remote. Its traditional supporters — who in general simply loathe the PP — will decide not to vote for it, or not to vote at all.

More likely than a PSOE comeback is a PSOE split; between those regions where PSOE leaders have some working relationship with one or other of the component parties in United We Can and those, like Andalusia, where premier Susana Diaz lives in fear and loathing of Podemos.

In the Valencian Country and on the Balearic Islands, the local PSOE has been part of bringing about social and cultural renaissances after the defeat of corrupt PP governments that suppressed Valencian and Balearic culture.

In the greater Barcelona region, the socialist mayor of working-class Santa Colomer de Gramanet found it impossible to support the PSOE governmental pact with Citizens after December 20.

How would such socialist militants react to a PSOE decision to allow the corrupt PP to continue to govern the Spanish state? After June 26, the answer to such a critical question will not be long in coming.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A longer version of this article will be published soon at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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