As the May 25 European elections approach, a question that concerns left and progressive people in the Spanish state is just how many left alternatives will end up running against the “parties of government” ― the ruling conservative People’s Party (PP) and the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).
Spain elects 54 deputies to the 766-seat European parliament on a proportional basis, with the country forming a single electorate, as in all 28 European Union member states. However, there is no electoral threshold, so that 2% support (about 250,000 votes) is enough to win representation.
The election is the first opportunity for voters in all of Spain to pass judgment on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's PP government, elected in November 2011. The latest poll shows the two-party PP-PSOE vote collapsing from 80% at the 2009 European poll to under 55%. The two parties are neck-and-neck at 25% and 28%.
To the PSOE's left, the poll indicates the United Left vote will rise from 3.7% to 14.5%.
The main unknown is the abstention rate ― more than 50% in the 2004 and 2009 polls. This could fall at this election. The experience of European Commission-run austerity has been showing millions that the seemingly remote European political sphere affects people’s lives ―for the worse.
But abstention may depend on the left options available. Will progressive voters have the sort of choice they got at the 2012 Galician regional election?
In that poll, the Galician Left Alternative united the different left constituencies ― the left nationalists ANOVA, the Galician United Left branch, the green party Equo and the Galician Ecosocialist Space.
The united platform excited progressives and was soon dubbed “the Galician Syriza” ― in reference to the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) in Greece that, by united broad left forces, is a serious contender for power.
Or will they face the usual “product range” European elections offer up in the Spanish state ― competing tickets of left nationalists, centre-left nationalists, Greens, United Left and the Anti-capitalist Left?
At the time of writing, despite popular pressure for unity against the conservatives and social democrats and with some lists still to be decided, the scene looks more like this traditional “market variety” than one of any Syriza-style.
The process of trying to find a basis for greater unity has highlighted how stubborn the differences among left forces are across the Spanish state. The methods of the indignado movement, which broke out in 2011 against austerity and for “real democracy”, have also added a new dispute ― over the pre-selection process more than the program.
In Galicia, a hairline referendum decision by ANOVA members to repeat the unity experience for the European poll has brought the group to the point of a split. Leading figures who had favoured an alliance with other left-nationalist forces have resigned their party positions.
Red-green differences have also re-emerged. The green party Equo’s Galician branch is caught between repeating the unity experience or taking in a Spain-wide coalition led by Equo (Spanish affiliate of the European Green Party).
Equo Galicia has criticised the decision to use the Galician Left Alternative brand name for the European poll while it is making up its mind.
The most important dividing line on the left in the Spanish state runs between those who support the state's democratic refounding on a federal basis and those who fight for independence for its “historic nations”.
The federalists include Untied Left and its Catalan sister party the United and Alternative Left (EUiA), Initiative for Catalonia-Greens and Equo. The nationalists feature Catalans, Basques and Galicians.
In Catalonia, the nationalist camp includes the Republican Left of Catalonia and the Popular Unity Candidacies. In the Basque Country, it covers the abertzale (patriotic) left party Sortu and other forces in the EH Bildu coalition.
In Galicia, it includes Us-Popular Unity and currents within ANOVA and the Galician Nationalist Bloc.
In other parts of the Spanish state (such as Valencia, Aragon, Andalusia and the Balearic and Canary Islands) it falls to the various left-regionalist parties to decide between an electoral alliance among themselves or joining one with federalist forces such as United Left.
In the case of Galician Left Alternative and the 2012 Galician regional poll, the conflict between federalism and pro-independence was resolved through United Left Galicia’s commitment to the region’s right to self-determination. At a February 8 special national United Left conference devoted to spelling out its road to a federal Spain, this commitment was reaffirmed.
United Left ticket
However, this stance has not led to a broadening of the United Left-led ticket to include new left-nationalist forces beyond ANOVA.
The ticket, adopted by a 77% majority of the United Left federal political council on March 1, provides near-certain winning positions for the Catalan-Greens and ANOVA and a possible winning position for the regionalist Aragonist Union.
Yet the Aragonist Union, which won a seat in the 2011 Spanish national election in alliance with United Left, has yet to decide whether it would not be better off running on an Equo-led ticket with other regionalist parties.
The United Left ticket is headed by three-term European deputy Willy Meyer and includes prominent trade unionist Paloma Lopez in second position.
The ticket was finalised after an arduous and contested pre-selection process among United Left’s 17 regional federations. A special elections commission was formed to work out where 17 non-United Left social movement figures would fit in the 54-member final list.
Wildly different reactions to the ticket showed the difficulties involved in satisfying aspirations to winnable positions while reserving places for high-profile social and union movement figures, observing an agreed youth quota and the strict alternation of male and female candidates, and guaranteeing geographical and IU affiliate representativeness.
For instance, Madrid United left coordinator-general Eddy Sanchez protested “the decision to exclude IU Madrid from the candidacy is a harsh blow to the federal principle”. He said it was, “an intolerable exercise in disloyalty and contempt for democracy”.
The United Left-led ticket process also closed off any chance of a joint ticket with the new force Podemos (“We Can”).
Podemos, sprung from the indigando milieu, is led by Madrid politics lecturer and media personality Pablo Iglesias and backed by the Anticapitalist Left.
It describes its mission as: “Converting indignation into political power that breaks with the present situation, that expresses new forms of relating to politics and amounts to a real threat to the bipartisan regime of the PP and PSOE and to those who have kidnapped our democracy.”
Commenting on negotiations between Podemos and United left, Iglesias acknowledged that their programs were close, but stressed that the Podemos pre-selection proposal for open citizen primaries, rejected by United Left, was non-negotiable.
Noting that United Left had opted for “longevity of service” (a reference to Meyer) and “traditional forms”, Iglesias said: “The key is method.
“We understand that what is missing is a mechanism of citizen involvement … We don’t want a ticket of politicians, but of citizens.”
The Podemos pre-elections are now under way, with final results due to be announced in early April. The expectation of some United Left “insiders” quoted in the Spanish media is that the new party could pick up one seat on May 25.
Left nationalist debates
Pre-selection turmoil has also touched the left pro-independence camp, starting with Catalonia. The Republican Left of Catalonia and the Popular Unity Candidacies rejected a proposal from the ruling Convergence and Union to form a patriotic ticket on the one-point program of support for Catalonia’s right to decide. Both then had to decide its alliance policy.
The Republican Left of Catalonia has ― so far ― decided to go it alone as the Catalan affiliate of the European Free Alliance, the European parliamentary coalition representing peoples without a state.
That may change, however, because of the Popular Unity Candidacies’ decision not even to stand in Europe.
Its decision came after 50 local open mass meetings at which it had not “observed a specific demand on the part of the majority of the pro-independence left or the popular movements to intervene in the European Parliament”.
Therefore, it said, it had “decided on this occasion not to stand in these elections in order to denounce this opaque and antidemocratic system”.
The decision has thrown into doubt whether the alliance in which it had agreed to take part in principle ― with EH Bildu and the Galician Nationalist Bloc ― can last in its absence. Within the Galician Nationalist Bloc, sentiment now seems to be turning towards forming an alliance with its fellow European Free Alliance member, the Republican Left of Catalonia.
It was probably naive to hope that the European elections would trigger “the Spanish Syriza”. However, we can be sure of one thing ― whatever the result of the Spanish state’s collective left on May 25, the need for greater left unity against marauding capitalism just won’t go away.
[Dick Nichols is Green Weft Weekly’s European correspondent. An extended version of this article will soon appear at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]