Spain: With Podemos and United Left joining forces, is a left government in sight?

May 27, 2016
Alberto Garzon and Pablo Iglesias
United Left's Alberto Garzon and Podemos' Pablo Iglesias.

Five months after the December 20 election in Spain failed to produce a government, the country is returning to the polls in the most polarised contest since the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1977.

The stakes could not be higher. The “second round” election on June 26 could open the door to a final breakdown of the two-party system and the start of a deep-going democratisation of the Spanish state and its political culture. It could also drive all parties defending the status quo into a last-ditch alliance against the forces for radical change.

The December 20 poll featured a surge in support for radical anti-austerity party Podemos and the regional coalitions in which it participates. However, the final vote for these new forces — born of the past five years of struggles for social and national rights — fell short of the vote for the traditional social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) — winning 20.66% compared to 22.01%.

At the same time, the total vote to the left of the PSOE — including the older radical coalition United Left (IU), the Basque left-nationalist EH Bildu and the Catalan centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) — was 27.59%.

With the governing right-wing People's Party (PP) punished by voters angry at austerity and corruption scandals, Spain underwent a political shift. The overall left vote reached 52.4% as opposed to 47.6% for the right.

With this result it was mathematically possible, on condition of some minimum support from Basque and Catalan nationalist forces, to form a left government of PSOE, Podemos and IU.

However, the leadership of the Spanish-centralist PSOE is as hostile to participating in a left government it does not control as it is to acknowledging the right of self-determination of the nations that make up the Spanish state.

PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez instead chose to negotiate a proposal for a “government of change” with the “hipster” neoliberal party Citizens, which he himself had dubbed “extreme right” during the election campaign.

In response, Podemos, its allies and IU voted down the formation of a PSOE-Citizens administration — and were rewarded with virulent PSOE abuse for being “accomplices” of the ruling PP. As for the PP, still the largest force with 28.72% after December 20, it was never going to support a minority PSOE-Citizens administration that removed PP hands from the levers of power.

Towards left unity

New elections then became inevitable, and by early May Spain seemed set for a repeat of December 20. However, the refusal of the PSOE to negotiate in good faith to its left focussed the attention of Podemos and IU on the critical problem: how to overtake the PSOE's vote and pressure it into supporting a left government.

In the run-up to December 20, IU had campaigned for a united ticket of all left and progressive forces. It was rebuffed by Podemos leaders, who judged that identification with an IU influenced by the Communist Party of Spain would damage its chances with voters disgusted with the traditional parties but not identifying as left.

The Podemos leadership conceded this judgment was wrong when it reopened negotiations with IU in April. These discussions led to the proposal for a single list in all the regions where the two parties had been rivals in December. The joint ticket, called United We Can, was endorsed by 98% of Podemos members and 87.8% of IU members, as well as by 92% of members of the green party Equo (the third all-Spanish party involved in the negotiations).

This result, which overcame minority opposition in IU, now means that voters will have single tickets to the left of the PSOE in 14 of the Spanish state's 17 administrative regions (“autonomous communities”).

In 11 regions, the list will be United We Can. In Galicia, Catalonia and the Valencian Country, the all-Spanish parties will be part of broader coalitions including left-nationalist and regionalist forces. These coalitions had already stood with great success on December 20.

United We Can and the broader coalitions will face competition from left and centre-left nationalist candidacies only in the Basque Country (EH Bildu), Catalonia (ERC) and Galicia (We — The Galician List).

IU has been guaranteed one sixth of the MPs elected on United We Can tickets, independent of any IU MPs returned on the three broader lists. This means IU will have parliamentary representation that roughly corresponds to its real level of support, as opposed to the meagre crop of two MPs for over 900,000 votes that it managed in December under the rigged Spanish system of uneven-sized multi-member seats.

All forces making up the joint tickets will stand on the platforms they presented in the December poll. However, they have also adopted a 50-point common platform called “Changing Spain: 50 Steps for Governing Together”, containing practical measures addressing the key problems of Spanish society.

The platform's economic focus is boosted public expenditure focused on energy sustainability, job creation and poverty reduction. It is to be funded through a war on tax evasion, higher taxes on the rich and by reducing the European Union's deficit reduction targets for Spain.

Social measures include an end to evictions, guaranteed access to water and electricit, and greater funding for education and health. Democratic reforms cover a referendum for Catalonia, a citizen debate on constitutional reform (which would confront issues like the monarchy and NATO membership), and a one-vote-one-value electoral system.

The platform also includes comprehensive proposals on the environment, commitments to a European debt conference, recognition of Palestine and self-determination for the Western Sahara.

Stopping 'the reds'

United We Can is already spooking the Spanish elite. On average, polls put the new coalition and related alliances in second place at 24.1%, as against the PSOE's 20.8%. In terms of seats, United We Can and the PSOE are neck-and-neck.

And this is before the start of election campaigning, where Podemos and IU are at their best. In the December campaign, Podemos lifted its support from 15% to 20% in last two weeks before election day.

Key will be the rate of participation: the more people that can be inspired to vote in spite of the “all-politicians-are-the-same” mood being fostered by the media, the greater will be support for the radical coalitions.

It is no surprise, then, that while the PP, PSOE and Citizens are each struggling to extend their share of the vote, that fight is now constrained by their shared goal of stopping a surge to United We Can. This guarantees a dirty war of red-baiting over the next month.

The connections, real and imagined, of Podemos leaders with Venezuela's Bolivarian government are again being scoured by squads of “investigative journalists” from the mainstream media.

On May 24, Citizens' leader Albert Rivera began his Spanish election campaign in the Venezuelan capital Caracas, as honoured guest of the anti-Bolivarian majority in Venezuela's National Assembly.

On May 22, PP leader Pablo Casado denounced Podemos' “Caracas project, of empty shelves, of chemists where 200 people wait to buy aspirin, of communications media closed down, of business people with their businesses expropriated, of citizens with their second home expropriated”.

The PP strategy of demonising IU-Podemos as a threat to the stability, security and unity of Spain may be successful in drawing some of the right-wing vote back from Citizens. PP insistence that a vote for it is the most useful way to stop the reds may explain why PP support is rising in the latest polls.

However, it remains to be seen whether it will succeed in shifting the overall social balance back to the right. Its campaign comes up against the enormous corruption scandals in which the party is mired and an economic “recovery” yielding no benefit for the vast majority.

PSOE woes

As for the PSOE, on May 24 Pedro Sanchez joined in the Venezuela-baiting. He claimed that Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias had to explain the financing of a Podemos-related foundation that had supposedly received Venezuelan funds.

He also asked him to justify why he had called recently released Basque left-nationalist leader Arnaldo Otegi a “political prisoner”.

Sanchez had previously rejected a Podemos offer to run a PSOE-IU-Podemos joint ticket for the Senate as a way of breaking the PP's absolute majority in Spain's upper house.

Sanchez faces an awkward job in convincing voters that the PSOE is a reliable anti-PP force. His credibility is damaged by the deal he did to try to form government with Citizens (the “PP lite”) and the many PSOE figures who openly called for a grand coalition with the PP.

He will also have a tough time explaining why a party that claims to oppose everything the PP stands for cannot participate in a left government, especially as popular support for the PSOE's big pretext for rejecting participation — a referendum for Catalonia — is growing.

The risk the PP, PSOE and Citizens all run is that Iglesias and IU leader Alberto Garzon will be able to present a calm and rational case for voting United We Can as the only feasible way to overcome the political deadlock, reverse austerity and start to treat the chronic illnesses of the Spanish state.

They also risk exposing the underlying motivation of the PP-PSOE-Citizens fear-and-loathing campaign — to frustrate any change that would make Spain's economic elites pay for the economic crisis they caused.

If United We Can's campaign succeeds, the PSOE will face the choice it is desperate to avoid: near-certain oblivion following a grand coalition with the PP or left government on terms set by the forces to its left.

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

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