SPAIN: Poll result belies volatile politics



MADRID — In the run-up to the May 25 local and regional government elections, all sides of politics were wondering what effect would the vast movement against the war on Iraq have on the result. Surely, the slavishly pro-US Popular Party (PP) government of Prime Minister Jos‚ Mar¡a Aznar was in for a pasting, given that opposition to the war topped 90% and at least 10% of the population (4 million) protested on February 15?

Aznar turned the elections into a referendum on his record — not just on the Iraq war but on all the other government policies that have stirred mass opposition and street protests. He brazenly argued that:

  • The mass protest movement against the pollution of the beautiful coastline of Galicia (caused by the sinking last November of the rust-bucket oil tanker Prestige) was mainly the work of political enemies and "outsiders";

  • The huge demonstrations against the National Hydrological Plan (PHN), which would slash water flows in the lower reaches of the river Ebro, reflected selfish resistance by richer regions (like Arag¢n and Catalonia) to urgently needed irrigation for dryer and poorer Murcia and Valencia;

  • The banning the legal Basque nationalist party Batasuna and related organisations was a question of principle in the fight against the terrorism of Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) organisation;

  • Deporting "illegal" immigrants who had risked their lives on flimsy rafts was the only way to avoid the country being flooded with undesirables; and

  • Mass student protests against the Spanish equivalent of the Australian government's tertiary education "reforms" were undermining the country's ability to generate globally competitive "human capital".

Red baiting

The other main ingredients in Aznar's campaign recipe were gross pork-barrelling and relentless baiting of the main opposition party, the social-democratic Socialist Workers Party of Spain (PSOE), which he declared guilty of "street opportunism" for its opposition to the Iraq war, of a "social-communist" alliance with the United Left (IU) and of a severe lack of policies.

Aznar's red baiting grew so frenetic that by the end of the election campaign, he was hardly referring to PSOE leader Jos‚ Luis Rodr¡guez Zapatero by name. Zapatero had become "the fellow traveller of Gaspar Llamazares" (the IU's national coordinator and a Communist Party of Spain leader).

The PSOE was hoping that six months of massive street protests would translate into a big electoral dividend, without it having to go much beyond rhetoric against Aznar's "politics of hate".

However, the election result was a cold shower for the PSOE. While it snuck across the line as the most-voted-for party, it failed to wrest the Madrid city council from the PP and lost government in the Balearic Islands, as well as in important cities like Almer¡a, Burgos and Granada. It also failed to make headway in the Valencia region. In a range of towns and regions, it retained power but lost support, becoming more dependent on smaller left and regionalist allies. The vote for the PSOE's Catalan sister party, the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC), fell from 37% to 33%.

While the PSOE managed to win the Madrid and Cantabria regional governments, much of the party's biggest gains came where they were least needed. This was the case in its most solid regional domains like Castilla-La Mancha and Extremadura (where the PSOE has entrenched itself as the "natural party of government" through the use of European Union development funds) and in Castilla y Le¢n (where PSOE gains still left it well short of the PP majority).

The PP managed to conserve its networks of regional and municipal patronage despite losing control of a few important cities and two regions (Madrid and Cantabria). Its one real thrashing was in Arag¢n (the heart of the protest movement against the PNH). Even in Galicia, the PP vote fell only 4%. Elsewhere its losses were contained and support actually increased in Murcia, the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands and Asturias, as well as in Navarra and the Basque Country (where the PP always campaigns as the front line of resistance to Basque nationalism).

Little wonder that Aznar produced a triumphalist reading of the election: "On May 25, the real Spain spoke, not what the opposition has been putting on show in recent months, but the Spain of commitment, of work, of moderation."

Behind the figures

But did so little really change on May 25 as the voting figures suggest? Whatever happened to the anti-war vote?

While PSOE's gains were much smaller than hoped for, it is also true that a repeat of the PP's "victory" on May 25 would take it to the brink of losing power in forthcoming regional and national elections.

This becomes clearer if the sometimes counterposed trends operating beneath the aggregate result are examined.

Spend a few days in even a small Spanish town and it's clear from the posters and banners still hanging from balconies that anti-war sentiment remains real. Election day itself provided further proof, when hundreds of thousands turned up to vote covered in anti-war badges and stickers, in defiance of an electoral commission ruling banning "political material" from around polling stations.

Yet a distinct anti-war vote was not in evidence across the breadth of the Spanish state. Other issues often counted more, and where there were clear shifts to the left, anti-war sentiment usually reinforced other trends.

If any single party gained from the anti-war (and youth) vote it was the IU, but this was not enough to prevent IU support from falling in many regions. Also, the explosion of anti-war protests in Spain was very spontaneous and "non-party political": no party, certainly not the IU, had the implantation or mechanisms to translate millions of feet on the streets into millions of votes.

Take the election for the city council of Barcelona, where on February 15 more than 1 million people demonstrated against the war (around 20% of the population of Catalonia!). Here the PSC lost five of its 20 seats. The parties which picked them up were the "red-green" Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV) — aligned with the IU's small Catalan sister organisation the United and Alternative Left (EUiA) — and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). It was anti-war sentiment combined with popular resentment at the PSC's technocratic and aloof rule of Barcelona that produced those results.

The shift to the left in Barcelona found no equivelent in Madrid, another site of million-strong demonstrations against the war. In the Madrid city council poll, the IU lost a seat to the PSOE, while the PP gained at the expense of both. Internal divisions within the IU were partly to blame, but Madrid was also where the PP most successfully mobilised its supporters with its hysterics against "social-communism" and separatism.

Where left-of-centre parties were seen to offer a clear alternative and/or are playing a leading role in the protest movements, people supported them. Besides Catalonia, this was also the case in Arag¢n, where because of its activism against the PHN, the left-leaning Junta for Arag¢n (CA) overtook the traditional nationalist Party of Arag¢n (PAR). In the Basque Country, Esker Batua (the local IU) nearly doubled its vote to 7.9%.

Left revived

Through his policy of identifying the IU with the protest movements, Llamazares has arrested the collapse that threatened to take the party beneath the 5% threshold. However, if the IU vote is taken by itself (without the contribution of its Catalan ally ICV), it has yet to regain the support it achieved at the 1999 municipal and regional poll, despite recovering from its sad performance at the last national elections. In cities of more than 100,000 inhabitants, IU gained council seats in 11 but lost them in 13.

When the ICV vote is added to IU's, it becomes clear that support for the left in Spain as a whole has increased. At the same time, both the IU and ICV emerged from May 25 with bigger differences in implantation, support and, potentially, internal political dynamics.

Both lost to the PSOE in some traditional working-class communities and support for the IU continued to fall in some regions where it was already weak (the centre, west and south). However, IU advanced strongly in parts of the north (Asturias, Navarra and the Basque Country) and ICV picked up significant support in regional Catalonia. The IU lost ground to left nationalists in Arag¢n but strengthened its position in the "red island" of C¢rdoba (Andalucia), the only provincial capital it governs, and in Seville.

May 25 also saw an uneven result for the nationalist and regionalist parties. At one extreme, in the Basque Country, the banning of Batasuna and related formations boosted the vote of the ruling Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and its smaller coalition partner Eusko Alkartasuna (EA), from 31.1% to 41.7%.

The other main beneficiaries were Esker Batua and the left-nationalist Aralar, a split from Batasuna by those opposed to its support for ETA's terrorism. In the Basque Country and Navarra, the number of voters who supported Batasuna's call for a no vote was around 150,000, as against the 272,000 who voted for Euskal Herritarok (EH), Batasuna's electoral front in the 1999 poll.

In Catalonia, the ruling Convergence and Union (CiU), which has run Catalonia as a highly gerrymandered fiefdom since the end of the Franco regime, lost votes to both the PP and the ERC, which now accounts for 34% of the nationalist vote. Smaller Catalan nationalist formations, both left and xenophobic right, also increased their support, the former mostly among young people, the latter in the countryside.

In the Valencia region, the nationalist Valencia Union (UV) continued its decline, while the semi-left Valencian Nationalist Bloc-Green Left (BLOC-EV) failed to translate its gains in local councils to the regional level.

Where nationalist and regional parties had been participating in government they sometimes suffered. This was the case with the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG), which lost the mayoralty of Galicia's biggest city, Vigo. It was also the case with the Andalucist Party (PA), which lost its position of powerbroker in Seville. In other regions, the regionalist vote rose as the easy way of punishing both the PSOE and PP.

Underlying trends

Beneath the cross-currents, the basic trend is an intensification of social and national struggles — especially in the two regions that traditionally lead politics in Spain: the Basque Country and Catalonia. May 25 was a (partially successful) counter-mobilisation by the right after a year of mass protest, but one that directly opens the door to sharper conflicts, in particular over Basque sovereignty and the PHN.

The extraordinary mass protest movements that Aznar's policies have generated have not gone away. Aznar still requires a real defeat of the movements and/or a crisis in the PSOE before the 2004 general elections, if he is to survive.

At the same time, the contradictions for Aznar to exploit in the PSOE remain deep. The protest movements have forced the social democrats to at least appear to be part of the "opposition in the streets", in competition with IU.

But May 25 also confirmed that the PSOE sorely needs a concrete project for government, especially as the PP vote is usually higher in national polls. Zapatero has the very tricky job of producing a package that is at once appealing to the swinging voter, doesn't further expose him to competition from IU, can't be outbid by the PP and doesn't violate the basic requirements of Spanish capitalism.

Zapatero is already coming under increased pressure from the PSOE's regional barons to shift the focus of PSOE politics to the "dissident" PP voter. His answer to date is that he will govern "from the centre to the left", with the aim of combining ties to social movements with running model capitalist administrations in the new cities and regions under PSOE control, especially Madrid.

The IU faces its own dilemmas. What will be the terms of any national electoral alliance with the PSOE? How will it handle the challenge of Basque premier Ibarretxe's plan for Basque sovereignty, which will become a very hot potato if, as seems likely, PNV-EA and Esker Batua achieve an absolute majority in next year's Basque regional elections?

What the results of May 25 conceal is that under the pressure of new and old struggles, politics in Spain is becoming increasingly volatile. In Catalonia and the Basque Country especially, the key to who will govern is increasingly in the hands of left and left-nationalist forces. With which major party and on what terms governing alliances are made will in turn have an impact on the social movements and hence on national politics.

With time it may become clear that the apparently bland results of the May 25 polls masked a turning point in the politics of the Spanish state.

[Dick Nichols is a former national co-convener of the Australian Socialist Alliance resident in Spain.]

From Green Left Weekly, June 18, 2003.

Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left, a vital social-change project, makes its online content available without paywalls. But with no corporate sponsors, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month we’ll send you the digital edition each week. For $10, you’ll get the digital and hard copy edition delivered. For $20 per month, your solidarity goes a long way to helping the project survive.

Ring 1800 634 206 or click the support links below to make a secure payment.