Spain: Two-party system in trouble

May 24, 2013

Jose Maria Aznar, Spain’s messianically neoliberal former prime minister, announced during a television interview on May 21 that he was ready again to serve his country.

“I will act in accordance with my responsibility, my conscience, my party and my country, regardless of consequences, have no doubt about that”, intoned the Popular Party (PP) leader who took Spain to war in Iraq. Aznar was defeated in the 2004 national election after claiming that the Madrid train bombing was the work of Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA).

What did this pompous declaration say about the state of the political struggle in the Spanish state? Where does Aznar think Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the successor he personally groomed, is going wrong?

While claiming that he was not accusing the Rajoy government of “anything”, Aznar said that if he were PM he would give five areas priority attention: tax reform to stop “the process of punishment of the middle classes that is becoming very serious”; creation of a “viable state” and “institutional reforms”; “recovery of Spain’s international positions”; reform of the pension system, and confronting the rising movement for independence in Catalonia.

“Violating constitutional agreements, refusing to abide by legality and making a secession bid [is] no joke [but] a very serious matter”, Aznar said, in the same week the Catalan parliament adopted a mechanism for formally asking the opinion of Catalonia’s citizens on whether or not to stay in the Spanish state.

The former PM said: “I believe as a PP voter, that I’m in a situation like that of millions who would like to see a very clear political project”. He added that the way out of the crisis was “by offering the Spanish a very clear horizon of hope, not the listlessness of resignation”.

If all this sounds a bit like the late Margaret Thatcher, that’s because it is. Aznar, who once had himself photographed dressed up as mediaeval Spanish warrior hero El Cid, has been privately fretting: the PP government is conducting the class and national war with insufficient drive and frittering away its main asset, its absolute majority in parliament.

Partly as a result, the “enemies of Spain” ― communists, Basques, Catalans, atheists and feminists ― seem to be advancing on all fronts.

Twilight of duopoly?

Aznar is right to be alarmed. The already marked decline in support for the two traditional “parties of government”, the PP and social democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), now looks increasingly terminal.

The latest Metroscopia poll shows support for the PP has halved since the November 2011 national election (down to 22.5%), while that for the opposition PSOE has fallen by 30% (to 20.2%).

The left coalition United Left now stands within striking distance of the PSOE (at 16.6%), while disaffected PP voters have shifted in droves to the “modern, efficient and honest” Spanish centralist Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD, which sits at 13.1%).

In a number of regions, the signs of an impending final implosion of the PP-PSOE duopoly are even more striking. Recent polls show the PP losing control of Madrid council and United Left at least doubling its representation in parliaments where it already has a presence and entering those where it doesn’t.

However, the other main trend is the continuing rise in distrust with party politics of any type. According to Metroscopia, 54.2% of those interviewed were either undecided (20.8%), would not bother to vote (25%) or would spoil their ballot or leave it blank (8.4%).

By contrast, support for non-party social movements, such as the indignados and the Platform of Mortgage Victims (PAH), remains high.

A poll taken on the second anniversary of the indignados eruption on Spanish political life (May 15) showed the amorphous movement enjoying as much sympathy (63%) as when it was born and more than on its first anniversary (51%). Even among those who voted PP in 2011 support was 32%.

How these disaffected millions finally vote is the critical factor in the political equation.

Short of some unforeseeable miracle there is no reason to believe that the present pattern won’t continue for some time. The collapse in support for the PP has taken the form of a series of downward steps produced by each new round of austerity and attacks on worker and union rights.

Yet even while Rajoy pleads with the European Commission and the European Central Bank to relieve the pressure for further “reforms”, these powers-that-be continue to insist on more labour market flexibility and action against Spain’s “overgenerous” pension system.

Moreover, the deepening recession makes public sector budget deficit cut targets recently “relaxed” by the EC just as impossible to meet as the original goals. As official unemployment soars above 6 million and tax income shrinks, attaining these “easier” targets requires increasingly severe attacks on a welfare system already battered by three years of cuts.

More class war?

In this context, Rajoy’s approach is to continue stabilising the finance sector (with another €10 billion in bailout support), to hope for economic upturn, and to ask everyone to hang on. In the meantime, his “positive agenda” is to carry on appeasing the various parts of the government’s reactionary support base.

So Catholic bishops get laws that restrict women’s right to abortion and make religious instruction a school subject on the same level as mathematics. Spanish centralists get to reduce the role of Catalan in education in traditional Catalan-speaking communities (Valencia and the Balearic Islands).

However, Rajoy runs the growing risk that the two-party system eventually will collapse as a new social majority, based around United Left or some broader configuration, emerges as an option for government.

As class and national polarisation deepens, the PP will also continue to lose to the UPyD. A strong United Left result in next year's European elections would only accelerate that dynamic.

Aznar’s preferred alternative is to use the PP parliamentary majority to arrest this drift by stepping up class warfare. The first prong of his two-prong strategy would be “immediate tax cuts” targeted at winning back the support of middle layers (some sections of the working class and small business).

That would have the advantage re-inspiring the depressed PP rank-and-file by being at least one election promise their party fulfils.

Given Spain’s public deficit reduction targets, tax cuts could only be paid for by even deeper cuts to health, education and pension and unemployment entitlements, but since welfare beneficiaries overwhelmingly don’t vote for the PP and are the least organised part of society, why worry?

The second leg would be a much more aggressive attack on Catalan nationalism, seen as spearheading the forces of disunity within the Spanish state. It would envisage using the PP majorities within the judiciary to prepare the legal grounds for action including the suspension of Catalan institutions.

An anti-Catalan holy war for the “indivisibility of Spain” would also split the PSOE, intimidate the faint hearts in Convergence and Union (the governing right-nationalist federation in Catalonia) and rehabilitate the PP as more genuine Spanish patriots than UPyD.

Depending on the success of these initial moves, the Aznar strategy could then advance on further war aims ― aggression against organised labour and “excessive” unemployment benefits, and the remodelling of the state structures to lessen or eliminate the powers of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities (states) and slash their public services.


However, Aznar’s strategy is a high risk polarising approach. In the present atmosphere of near-universal hatred of “the political class”, it is more likely to generate more new enemies than win new friends.

First of all, it would add to attacks that are already under way with Rajoy and which are creating rising alarm within the PP itself. These include a radical municipality amalgamation plan that would eliminate municipalities that cannot meet “range-of-service” criteria in a country where the local council is the level of government to which people feel closest.

Other efforts include shifting the major burden of public sector deficit reduction onto the autonomous communities, which have responsibility for education and health, and an education law that promotes elitism and enshrines a Spanish-patriotic value-system reminiscent of Francoism.

It was risk aversion and the judgement that that the PP has reached the limit of feasible social aggression that dominated the reaction of PP grandees to Aznar’s interview. While acknowledging that they shared his “reform agenda”, now was not the time to risk even more social conflict.

Some also suggested, more cynically, that Aznar’s grand critique was simply designed to get the PP to pay more attention to defending him in forthcoming corruption cases that threaten to engulf the party.

Whatever the truth, Aznar’s recipe would almost certainly set off a social explosion, especially when, according to a recent Cadena Ser poll, 47% already want to see a new general strike.

Aznar’s approach would also preclude one of the Spanish political duopoly’s last options ― a grand PP-PSOE “anti-crisis” coalition government. For the PP this would be a last resort, as it would mean giving up important parts of its anti-worker agenda, but it could still loom as lesser evil.

In the noisy operetta that is the national Spanish parliament, it is easy to believe that PP and PSOE must be sworn and eternal enemies. But the situation in the autonomous community of Navarra shows the sort of conditions under which they can become buddies.

In the region’s 50-seat parliament, the Union of the People of Navarra, a corrupt and incompetent right-wing regionalist outfit with 19 seats, rules in alliance with the PP (four seats). It is kept in power by the refusal of the PSOE’s Navarra affiliate to support motions of censure coming from United Left and left-nationalist forces.

The PSOE is already thinking about similar scenarios at the all-Spanish level. When asked a fortnight ago what the alternative to the Spanish political duopoly was, long-term PSOE leader Ramon Jauregui had a terse response: “Chavismo”.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

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