Spain: Two-party breakdown poses question of what comes next?

Protest against austerity measures, Madrid, October 7.

The economic, social and territorial crisis facing the Spanish state is morphing into a crisis of the two-party system that has provided either Popular Party (PP) or Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) governments for 30 years.

Those who have been gaining electorally are Basque, Catalan and Galician nationalist forces (left and right), and the United Left (IU) and Union, Progress and Democracy (UpyD).

However, only a brave gambler would put serious money on the future evolution of this crisis. While the two-party set-up has been severely weakened, a replacement with enough popular support to impose a different solution has yet to emerge.

Some contrasting numbers from the latest Metroscopia polls point to some contradictions in popular attitudes that help understand why.

No confidence

First, the actions and leaderships of the PP and PSOE have hit levels of disapproval never seen before. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy inspires little or no confidence in 84%, including in 64% of PP voters. PSOE opposition leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba inspires little or no confidence in 90%, including in 77% of PSOE voters.

By contrast, the demands of the September 25-29 “Seize the Parliament” protest in Madrid got 71% support.

Nonetheless, 78% want to see a repeat of the political approach of the transition from the Franco years, when, according to myth, “the politicians” put the interests of Spain ahead of their selfish party concerns. By this logic, the solution would be for the despised Rajoy to get together with the despised Rubalcaba for the good of the country!

Likewise, while the combined PSOE-PP vote is at its lowest point ever (53.8%, down from 84% at the 2008 national poll), 65% still want to see either a PP or PSOE win at the next election, with only 24% supporting other forces and 11% undecided.

At the same time, most want to see policies implemented that are anathema to the PP, unlikely to be adopted by the PSOE except in highly diluted form, and presently only supported by IU and other left forces. They could never be the basis of a program for a PP-PSOE alliance of “national salvation”.

Those policies, many of which the 15M indignado movement has put onto the political agenda, point to a radical refounding of the Spanish state through a democratically elected constituent assembly.

PSOE shambles

The reflection of this state of affairs in party terms is that while millions have abandoned the PSOE since 2008 and millions support policies to its left, the existing organised left has so far captured the support of only a small part of those deserting leftwards (11% in the case of IU).

Spain is still some way from the Greek situation, where, according to the latest polls, the extreme social polarisation is expressed in 30% support for the radical left party SYRIZA and 15% support for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. The social democratic PASOK has been reduced to a humiliating 5.5% in the polls.

Still, the PSOE certainly looks to be moving down the same road as PASOK. In last year's national elections, it lost 4.3 million votes compared to 2008 poll. In the 11 months since, it has managed to lose the support of another 1.5 million ― down to 23.9% support at the same time as Rajoy implements the most brutal anti-people policies since the Franco dictatorship ended.

In the October 21 elections in Galicia and Euskadi, the PSOE lost 336,000 votes, 40% of its total at the 2009 polls. If the latest polls for the November 25 election in Catalonia prove accurate, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), its Catalan affiliate, will fall from 18.2% to 14%, dropping 130,000 votes.

The PSOE is being crucified on three crosses at once. Still vivid in people’s memory is the last two years of the government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. It began with denial that the crisis was serious and then put Spain on the austerity diet the Rajoy government has intensified.

Those two years have also destroyed the PSOE’s relationship with most mass movements, especially 15M. Gone and forgotten are the days when Zapatero was showcased in the front row of huge anti-war marches.

The party’s right wing, led by former leader Felipe Gonzalez and backed by most of the party’s regional “barons”, favours the tactic of “constructive opposition”. This involves a standing offer of collaboration with the Rajoy government.

The idea is that Rajoy will begin to pay a price for refusing the offer.

PSOE pain is greatest on the third cross ― its position on the national struggle in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia.

In Catalonia, PSC leaders have backed an act of self-determination ―provided it is constitutional. This holds up the fantastical prospect of a change to the Spanish constitution being negotiated with the strongly Spanish-centralist PP.

Faced with an explosive rise of independence sentiment in Catalonia and the Basque Country, the PSOE is dusting off the idea of a new “asymmetric” federalism for Spain. However, there are almost as many “federalisms” within the party as there are members of the PSOE national executive ― each corresponding to how much benefit his or her region would stand to lose or gain from remodeling present arrangements.

Within Catalonia, the PSC ― always resented by other PSOE affiliates ― made sure that its minority “Catalanist” wing was kept under control in the party’s candidate pre-selections for the November 25 Catalan poll. It will therefore lose voters to the left without any guarantee of winning any to its right.

The only way to stop this rot is for the PSOE to take a sharp turn left on at least some key issues, and find a half-convincing answer to the question: “Exactly how will you lot be any different from last time?”

Yet proposals from the party's left, like former Donostia mayor Odon Olorza’s plea for the PSOE to “lead democratic regeneration”, meet evasive babble or stony silence from party barons.

PP hangs on

This PSOE feebleness strengthens the PP. This was vividly confirmed in the October 21 Galician election. The ruling PP regime of Alberto Nunez Feijoo, famous for bodgying the region’s budget statistics, increased its majority by three seats, even while receiving 146,000 less votes.

That was because the PSOE vote collapsed even more, as did the vote of the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG). At the same time, the 14% vote for the new Galician Left Alternative (AGE) was concentrated in the cities.

Even though the overall PP vote fell by 1%, in the battle for the last seat in Galicia’s four electoral districts, the weakened PP ended up taking a seat from the shell-shocked PSOE in three.

This “triumph” was spun by the PP in Madrid as a confirmation of popular acceptance of the austerity of the Rajoy administration ― people are doing it tough but they understand there is no alternative.

Armed with this result and its majority, the government will continue playing hardball on economic austerity, worker and union rights and the nationalist revolts. It will also try to let the next general strike, planned for November 14 by the union-led Social Summit, pass by as irrelevant.

Despite huge ongoing protest ― including a recent three-day strike by secondary school students, teachers and parents ― Rajoy will continue with his ultra-conservative social policies. These are all he has to feed to the most reactionary part of the PP’s social base.

They include restrictions on abortion rights, “tightening” the legal code and imposing an all-of-Spain high school curriculum, combined with kite-flying about re-centralising the state and restricting protest rights.

The central PP government representative in Madrid also had the organisers of the “Seize the Parliament” protest served with charges that could have produced 15-year jail terms. These were thrown out by the magistrate, who found that parliament had functioned normally during the “siege” and that protest against the “political class” was legal ― and even understandable.

Left unity and division

What needs to be done to consolidate the huge popular anger into a left political force that helps organise it more fully and becomes credible to the politically orphaned millions?

This is, above all, a challenge for IU, which over the last year has doubled its standing in the polls, to 12%-13%.

In the autonomous communities except the Basque Country, IU support has also been rising. Polls show its alliance with Initiative for Catalunya-Greens will win three or four more seats on November 25 (with 9%-10%), while in Valencia its support has doubled to 11.5%.

One area that needs serious attention is the IU orientation to the PSOE. In the three autonomous communities where IU can make a difference, its local organisations have adopted three different stances. These are participating in a PSOE-led government in Andalucia, supporting a PSOE government against the right in Asturias, and even supporting a PP government against the PSOE in Extremadura.

Its situation is blackest in the Basque Country. In the October 21 poll, the IU’s present and former affiliate organisations ran separately and neither won a seat. With a single candidacy, the two groups would have won three.

If that had included the green organisation Equo, the gain would have been four seats ― two from the PSOE, one from the PP and one from the rabidly Spanish-centralist UPyD (which would have been wiped out of the Basque parliament).

The highly positive counter-example comes from in Galicia, where IU joined with Equo and other forces to defy opinion polls and win 14% of the vote and nine seats.

Importantly, this campaign included strong participation by young people around 15M, who in other parts of the Spanish state have often been hostile towards IU.

The stark contrast between its Galician and Basque results will surely weigh heavily in IU thinking as it prepares for its 10th National Assembly in December. The decisions it takes there will have an important influence on whether the PP-PSOE two-party system lives or dies.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal will run an extended version of this article.]

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