Spain: Podemos meltdown in European and local elections

Issue 
Rally in support of Catalan independence in the Basque city of Bilbao in 2017.

The European establishment’s scare campaign about a far-right surge at the May 26 European Parliamentary elections worked out quite nicely for it.

Guarding the power structures of the neoliberal European Union (EU) becomes trickier now that the duopoly of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) has ended, with a loss of 75 seats.

However, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), supported by French president Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche group, has partly come to the rescue with an additional 38 seats — making it the biggest winner.

The Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens-EFA) grew by 17 seats. Its more conservative flank may also be vulnerable to S&D and ALDE pressure for political stability.

By contrast, the Eurosceptic, racist and xenophobic right fell 77 seats short of winning one third of the 751-seat parliament and achieving the leap in reactionary impact on the European political stage that it has already managed in Italy (see Daniele Fulvi’s analysis in this issue).

Turnout

Fear of a far-right surge showed in an unprecedented jump in voter turnout, which rose by 8.3% to 50.9%, the highest since 1994 and the first upturn in a trend of seemingly permanent decline.

The highest rise in participation (between 13.3% and 21.9%) took place in those countries where alarm at the threat of the far right is greatest or where conflict between the national government and the European institutions has been intense, namely Poland, Hungary, Romania, Austria, Germany and the Spanish state.

Observers reported that higher turnouts could be seen in middle-class and wealthier suburbs and towns, but there was little sign of mobilisation in working-class and poorer neighbourhoods.

If confirmed, this could help explain why the anti-Eurosceptic and pro-environment impulse at this poll was overwhelmingly expressed in a higher vote for Greens and liberals, at the expense of the United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) parliamentary group.

Losses large and small

The EPP’s and S&D’s losses were not as disastrous as predicted. Despite a big drop in support in the core EU countries of Germany, France and Italy, both groups made multi-seat gains in two other states: the EPP in Greece and Sweden and the S&D in the Netherlands and Spain.

The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party’s (PSOE) 20-seat detachment is now the biggest in the S&D group.

The European Conservatives and Reformists group’s 15-seat loss, overwhelmingly due to the self-slaughter of the British conservatives over Brexit, was partially offset by gains in the Netherlands and Poland.

The biggest proportional setback was experienced by the GUE/NGL, which lost a quarter of its MEPs. It suffered multi-seat losses in the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain and a single-seat loss in Ireland. Single-seat gains in Belgium and France were the only positives.

Anticipated advances in Slovenia, Denmark and France all failed to materialise.

The only countries where the vote of GUE/NGL affiliates rose over the 2014 result were Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal and France. However, in France this gain was divided between France Unbowed and the French Communist Party and in Denmark the Red-Green Alliance, standing for the first time, won a seat at the expense of the Peoples Movement Against the EU, which has hitherto been the Danish voice in the GUE/NGL.

The best result belonged to the Portuguese Left Bloc, which doubled its vote to 9.8%, coming in third behind the Socialist Party and Social-Democratic Party (the local EPP affiliate).

The Podemos disaster

The GUE/NGL’s greatest losses were in the Spanish state, where the European contest coincided with elections for local councils, 12 of 17 state governments, the Moroccan enclaves Ceuta and Melilla and the Balearic and Canary Islands' administrations.

The question hanging over these contests was whether they would confirm the basic trends of the April 28 Spanish general election: gains for the ruling PSOE at the expense of the radical Unidas Podemos; a rising vote for the far-right Vox and the new right Citizens at the expense of the People’s Party (PP); and continuing support for Catalan pro-independence forces, with the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) gaining at the expense of Together for Catalonia (JxCat).

On the right, the PP managed to hold off many advances by Citizens, while Vox lost votes. The PP’s best gain was to hold onto the Madrid regional government while taking Madrid City Council from the left.

The result for Unidas Podemos could scarcely have been worse. Its European parliament vote, achieved separately by Podemos and the United Left in 2014, fell from 18% to 10% (11 seats to 6).

In the state elections, where the United Left and Podemos ran separately in some regions, the radical left lost two-thirds of the 99 seats won in 2014, as its average vote fell from 13.7% to 6.7%. In Extremadura, it managed to hold four of the six seats won in 2015.

The “cities of change”, based on broad progressive alliances in which Podemos and the United Left also participated, were another scene of carnage.

In Galicia, the capital Santiago de Compostela, the largest city A Coruña and shipbuilding town Ferrol were all lost to the PSOE. Because of division between Podemos and other forces, Zaragoza, capital of Aragon, will pass directly into the hands of the “triple-headed” right of the PP, Vox and Citizens.

In Madrid city council, the decision of Podemos number two Iñigo Errejón not to lead the Podemos ticket but to throw in his lot with incumbent mayor Marcela Carmena led to a double loss: their ticket More Madrid lost a seat compared to 2015, while the Stand Up Madrid ticket of the United Left and the Anticapitalist current won nothing.

Only two of the cities of change continue to shine in this gloom — Valencia and Cádiz. Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city, was re-won by outgoing mayor Joan Ribó, of the Valencian regionalist force Commitment, but he will now have to govern in tandem with the PSOE after Podemos lost its three council seats.

In Andalusian provincial capital Cádiz, incumbent Anticapitalists mayor, José María González (“Kichi”), increased Podemos-United Left alliance, Forward Cádiz’s seats from 8 to 13, one short of an absolute majority. Forward Cádiz will now govern the city alone.

The left made gains in Zamora’s provincial capital, Castilla y León, where United Left mayor Francisco Guarido, critical of his party’s alliance with Podemos, won an absolute majority.

The experiences of Cádiz and Zamora show there was nothing necessary about Podemos’s losses on May 26.

Catalonia

The biggest loss for the cities of change was Barcelona. Incumbent mayor Ada Colau (Barcelona Together) was defeated by ERC candidate Ernest Maragall by just 5000 votes, with both sides scoring ten seats on the 41-seat city council.

The result showed the overwhelming influence of the Catalan struggle for self-determination, even on local government politics. If this had only been an election about running and improving Barcelona, Colau would have won, given the advances her minority Barcelona Together administration has put in place since 2015.

However, despite Colau’s efforts to frame the election as a battlers-versus-silvertails contest, the deeds of the Spanish establishment kept reminding voters that this was no normal election.

On May 24, the speakership panel of the Spanish congress, headed by Catalan Meritxell Batet, suspended as MPs the four Catalan political prisoners who had been elected on ERC and JxCat tickets on April 28. On May 29, ERC senator Raül Romeva was also suspended.

This followed the Central Electoral Commission’s vain attempt to disqualify the JxCat European elections ticket of exiled former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and his former ministers Toni Comín and Clara Ponsati.

In the grinding struggle against unionism, the ERC campaign stressed the importance of making Barcelona the capital of the Catalan Republic.

The importance of the ERC victory, the first in the capital since 1931, was confirmed by the reaction of Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) leader Miquel Iceta: “We will do everything to prevent Barcelona having an independentist mayor.”

Egged on by the Spanish establishment, the PSC has already floated the idea of forming a coalition with Barcelona Together to keep Maragall from office. The majority needed to achieve this would come through wooing former French prime minister Manuel Valls, who failed to improve the seat tally of his backers, Citizens.

The ERC was the big winner in Catalonia on May 26. It not only took the provincial capital Lleida from the PSC but could also win Tarragona. It overtook JxCat in numbers of councillors elected and also registered important gains in the PSC strongholds in the “industrial belts” around Barcelona and in Tarragona.

The PSC also emerged with more support, as unionist voters who had made Citizens the lead opposition party in the Catalan parliament in 2017 now deserted it in droves for their traditional political home. The PSC will be able to run major towns in Barcelona provinces, such as L’Hospitalet de Llobregat and Santa Coloma de Gramenet, with absolute majorities.

Conclusion

The ERC scored 820,000 votes, but this was not the highest score recorded in Catalonia on May 26. That went to Puigdemont’s European election campaign, with 987,000 votes. This figure was enough to get him and Comín elected to the European Parliament. They will, if Spanish law allows, be joined there by jailed ERC leader Oriol Junqueras.

Puigdemont received 450,000 more votes than his party, JxCat, in the municipal elections. This was the result of ERC, Catalonia Together and even PSC voters giving support to the candidate viewed as a symbol of Catalonia’s aspiration for sovereignty.

The Catalan pro-independence vote reached 49.7%, the highest ever.

The gains of the unionist PSOE and the pro-independence JxCat and ERC on May 26 will make the Catalan issue even more fraught in Spanish and European politics.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will soon appear on Links — International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Written with welcome help from Duroyan Fertl.]

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