Spain: Rising United Left tackles new wave of challenges

Issue 

The latest opinion polls in the Spanish state have stirred concern in the elites, hopes on the left and storms of comment in the media.

Nationally, they show the radical federation United Left (IU) closing the gap on the social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). In the June Metroscopia poll, IU trailed just 4.7% behind the PSOE (16.8% to 21.5%).

Regionally, Spanish social democracy’s decline is most advanced in Catalonia and Galicia. In Madrid city council IU would jump from 10.7% to 20.5% of the vote, just 1.6% behind the PSOE.

If elections were held today, the governing right-wing People’s Party (PP) would lose many positions and be forced into coalition in its traditional strongholds. There is no guarantee the PSOE would be the leading party in many new governing alliances.

How far from SYRIZA?

With polls showing PSOE support becoming less “rusted-on”, it is little wonder that the phrase “slow PASOKisation” is doing the rounds here. This is a reference to the large drop in support for the former governing Greek social democratic party PASOK.

During a May solidarity visit to Spain, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Greek Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), told the media: “When we were a small party we were always asked if we would support a social democratic government, but now the dilemma has changed and it’s the social democrats that have to decide if they are going to contribute to a left government or continue to support the right.

“I believe that social democrats in Spain are going to face that dilemma very soon.”
Tsipras’s description of IU as SYRIZA’s “sister party” would have gone down well with IU members. However, among the broader left and social resistance movement, whether IU is already, or could become, a “Spanish SYRIZA” is a debate becoming more heated.

On May 19, Eldiario.es ran an article called “IU — Part of the Solution or Part of Problem?”, triggering a sharp exchange among the left.

Its author was Nacho Alvarez, University of Valladolid economics lecturer and editorial board member of Viento Sur, the magazine close to the Anticapitalist Left (the local affiliate of the Trotskyist Fourth International).

Alvares said: “IU confronts an enormous historical challenge. It has to choose between the certainty of winning some seats in the next elections or the possibility of loyally promoting a new political alternative, with real capacity to put the lives of people ahead of profit…

“It will also need [the IU] membership to mobilise enough capacity internally to exercise pressure to drive this process. An opposite result, the bunkering down of the bureaucratic apparatuses in the certainty provided by their electoral prospects, will only serve to delay and complicate the emergence of a true alternative.”

Alvarez’s piece provoked comment that covered almost all the standpoints heard on the left.

A typical response was: “If IU wins votes it will be within the corrupt system we’ve got. It will benefit from the decline of two-partyism and I sincerely don’t believe that it can aspire to much more than becoming an alternative to the PSOE …

“But that’s not the solution. We don’t need a change of labels under the same rules of the game … We need to reform the Electoral Act, the Constitution and the institutions. Recreate judicial independence, limit the power of the banks and end the privileges of the church and the monarchy.

“Or what amounts to the same thing, IU’s program but with the will to implement it.”

That confused post epitomised the “yes, but” attitude of many progressive people towards IU. This takes the form: “Yes, I agree with the program”, to be followed by a stream of qualifications covering the personalities of IU leaders, its internal disputes, its supposed manipulation by the Communist Party of Spain or different attitudes adopted regionally towards the PSOE.

Inevitably, IU members got involved to correct misinformation. One commented: “It is not true that IU has reached ‘government deals wherever possible’. In fact, only in Andalusia [where IU governs as junior partner to the PSOE]. In Asturias, where it was possible, no government agreement was reached. In Extremadura there was no government deal…

“The only thing in common between these three cases ... was that the membership decided.”

Another contributor said that IU had been engaging with the social movements for two years and “doing it relatively well”, and added: “Many of us would like to see IU definitively knit together all these movements into an anti-government common front that stands in elections as a Spanish-style SYRIZA, but that’s not something that can be achieved in a fortnight or even two years.”

It was against this background that the May 25 meeting of IU’s Federal Political Council adopted a perspective focusing on the need for IU to “contribute to shaping a broad Social and Political Bloc, an alliance outlining an alternative social model”.

The document said: “We must knock down dividing walls, seek out points of agreement, highlight that which unites us and downplay that which separates us, in order to coordinate efforts and, most of all, combine energies”.

Rejecting the idea that this “unifying political instrument” would “arise mechanically from agreement between IU and a group of more or less relevant political brand names”, it said “the Social and Political Bloc cannot be an organisational structure, even less an election platform”.

Rather, it would involve bringing together in a “meeting and coordination space” everyone involved in struggle who is reaching for an anti-capitalist solution to the crisis.

This was the message that Enrique Santiago, IU’s secretary for political-social convergence, took to a June 7-8 Madrid “Alternatives from Below” conference.

At the gathering, 200 social movement activists and members from parties like IU, Anticapitalist Left and Equo (the all-Spanish green party) came together to begin developing a minimum program for a united presence of the social movements and the political left.

Santiago urged the development of a concrete platform of 25-30 proposals that could be the basis of a united ticket for the 2014 European elections.

Sources of gains

To understand the challenge, it helps to remember that IU has been at a similar high point in the polls in a previous period of disillusionment with the PSOE (the mid-1990s) — only to see that support ebb back in the face of the People’s Party “greater evil”.

PSOE support is much more seriously eroded today (on latest polls it would get around 6 million votes less than the 11 million in won in 2008). But only about 2 million of these votes have shifted to IU.

With the PSOE leaders doing everything within their power to arrest the slide in support, the pressure is on the IU to consolidate its new bases of support, seek out further alliances and be seen as the real parliamentary alternative.

Part of IU’s rise in support is due to success in this last area. In early May, it produced an emergency €60 billion strategy for job creation, with targets of 3.4 million jobs in three years, a 70% rise in the minimum wage and a 35-hour working week.

The whole package would be financed by a war on tax evasion and an increased tax rate for big business.

However, IU’s biggest gains probably arise from measures such as the Andalusian PSOE-IU government’s passing of a law to force landlords to make unoccupied housing available for the homeless and its decision to keep schools open during the summer break to guarantee three meals a day to all children.

An important advance in joining with other progressive forces came on May 27. A joint statement by IU, its Catalan affiliate United and Alternative Left and Catalan electoral partner Initiative for Catalonia took an unambiguous stand in favour of the right of national self-determination for the nationalities within the Spanish state.

This made IU the only all-Spanish political group to take such a stance.

Challenges for the whole left

The main PSOE tactic against the IU’s rise has been to call for a national emergency coalition to tackle the crisis. It hopes to win kudos as the political force most prepared to put “the interests of Spain” first.

However, the People’s Party sees no need (yet) to do deals with the PSOE that would involve giving up its goals of radically weakening the unions and recentralising the Spanish state.

Its response has been to turn up “light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel” rhetoric on the economic crisis. But the fantasy that “we’re almost there, let’s not wreck things now” runs smack bang against reality — rising poverty as families run out of savings and looming new attacks on the pension system and unions.

It seems clear an alliance able to unite all the forces and individuals fighting for an anti-capitalist solution to the crisis will have to be a new creation.

The IU Federal Political Council issued a call challenging all those fighting austerity to “put the interests of majorities before the discrepancies, suspicions, mistrust or specific interests that would without doubt make impossible advance in the creation of broad spaces of convergence”.

The ball is also in the court of the other organised forces on the Spanish left, such as Equo and Anticapitalist Left. Will they rise to the challenge of compromise in the name of building a force that, if created, everyone would be happy to call the Spanish SYRIZA?

[Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of Green Left Weekly, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article can be found on Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]