Spain: Ruling party rout boosts right and left

May 28, 2011
A demonstrator at a "Real Democracy Now!" protest, against the government's bailing out of the banks while pushing anti-worker a

In Spain’s local elections on May 22, a tsunami of popular rage against the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero spread across this country of five million jobless.

The punishment came amid widespread suffering caused by the economic crisis, worsened by the austerity imposed by Zapatero's government to pay for the billions of euros spent bailing out big banks.

PSOE bastions since the fall of the Franco dictatorship were swept away.

In Catalonia, iconic Barcelona and provincial capital Girona succumbed to the conservative Catalan nationalists of Convergence and Union (CiU).

“Red” Andalusia turned blue, as the right-wing Popular Party (PP) grabbed the provincial capitals of Sevilla and Jaen from the PSOE and Cordoba from the anti-capitalist United Left (IU).

A further seven provincial capitals fell to the right. When all the power-sharing deals are done, the PSOE will be lucky if it governs in nine of the country’s 50 provincial capitals.

Other major cities, once working-class heartlands, fell to the PP or right-wing nationalist parties, often on the back of hateful xenophobic campaigns.

The PSOE also lost control of regional governments (“autonomous communities”―similar to Australian states) in Castilla-La Mancha, Asturias and Aragon.

The PP also tightened its grip over the autonomous communities it already held.

Yet all this devastation was produced by only a 1.9% increase in the PP’s national vote (compared with the 2007 municipal elections).

As the PSOE vote fell by 7.1%, where did the rest of it go?

The biggest winner on the left was the new Basque nationalist alliance, Bildu (“Come Together”).

Bildu is based on an explicit rejection of the militarism of Basque Homeland Freedom (ETA) and draws together forces ranging from Basque Solidarity (EA), Basque left nationalists and former supporters of IU.

Bildu was allowed to take part in the poll only after Spain's Constitutional Court overturned a Supreme Court ban just before the poll.

Bildu won a massive 25.5% across the Basque Country, as against the 12% Basque left formations have averaged in the past. In the vote for the autonomous community government in neighbouring Navarra it won 13.3%.

When combined with the 15.4% for the nationalist Navarra Yes! (NaBai), 5.7% for IU and 15.8% for the PSOE, the results put the parties of the right—the Union of the People of Navarra (UPN) and PP—in a minority in a region they have always run.

Bildu will now run councils across the Basque Country, including in such symbolic towns as Gernika (62.8%). The result promises a big shake-up of politics in the Basque Country.

The result for the IU was mixed. As was to be expected against a background of economic crisis, its overall vote increased (from 5.5% to 6.3%), but with large variations.

In Cordoba, where it has governed for 30 years with the PSOE as junior partner, the IU vote collapsed from 35.7% to 14.8%.

In other towns and regions where it has been linked with PSOE administrations, the IU vote also declined or stagnated.

This was the case in Andalusia and Catalunya, where IU’s Catalan organisation (EUiA) has an electoral alliance with Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV).

In the Basque Country, IU suffered from the swing to Bildu, losing its two councillors on Bilbao city council.

However, IU registered modest or good gains in a range of other cities.

Its biggest advances were in the council elections across Asturias (from 10.4% to 13.4%) and across the Madrid region, where its local council vote rose from 8.7% to 10.8%.

The challenge for IU will now be to straighten out its orientation toward the PSOE.

Over the years, this has oscillated between tame collaboration, stridently impotent denunciation and even idiotic attempts at alliances with right-wing parties.

In similar vein, the smaller left nationalist parties that have governed with the PSOE in recent years also suffered on May 22.

The clearest case was that of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), which paid a heavy price for its participation in the Catalan and Barcelona city council administrations.

Support for this traditional party of Catalan politics fell from 11.7% to 9%, and it was left with only two councillors in Barcelona.

In Catalonia, part of the disaffected ERC vote went to the left independent Candidates for Popular Unity (CUP), which had 101 councillors elected.

In Valencia, disappointment with the PSOE and IU fed the emergence of the Valencian Nationalist Bloc ― Municipal Commitment Coalition, which won 7.2% and 345 council positions, replacing the IU as the third force in Valencian politics.

Commentators are portraying the May 22 poll as the prelude to a PP walkover at the next national election, due in early 2012.

However, if this result was reproduced at that poll ― which never happens ― the PP would still be short of absolute majority and the biggest winners would be Bildu and the IU.

The national parliament would also see the arrival of other right-wing forces, such as the racist Platform for Catalonia (“a Moor is always a Moor, he'll never be a Catalan”), which won 67 council seats across rural Catalonia.

Combine such trends with the explosion of the Real Democracy Now protest movement since May 15, and it’s clear that the May 22 defeat of the PSOE’s faithful servants of big business doesn’t mark a permanent shift to the right.

Rather, it marks the beginning of a new phase of heightened conflict as millions search for an alternative to Spain's old PP-PSOE road show.

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