Spanish election: will the right triumph?

A march 16 protest for Catalan self-determination.

Spain’s April 28 general election will be “existential” for the Spanish state, according to outgoing Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) foreign minister Josep Borrell — the scourge of the Catalan sovereignty movement. It will be a “referendum on the secessionist menace”, according to People’s Party (PP) opposition leader Pablo Casado.

This shared opinion of the “parties of government” was strengthened by the success of the March 16 Madrid demonstration, “Self-Determination is not a Crime: Democracy is Deciding”.

Organised by the Catalan National Assembly, Òmnium Cultural and the platform Women and Men of Madrid for the Right to Decide, it mobilised up to 120,000 supporters of national rights.

PP deputy organisational secretary Javier Maroto immediately attacked PSOE prime minister Pedro Sánchez and Madrid mayor Manuela Carmena for allowing the demonstration, tweeting that “with Pablo Casado that will never happen again”.

In response, Sánchez stressed the PSOE’s commitment to Spanish state constitutionality: “The democracy that guarantees the freedom of protest is the same one that judges politicians who break the constitutional rules and legality … Under a Socialist government the independence of Catalonia will not occur.”

Two days previously, the Sánchez government lodged an appeal with the Constitutional Court against the Catalan parliament establishing a commission to investigate the Spanish monarchy.

Candidates imposed

Given the brawl within the right between the PP and the “liberal” Citizens — now intensified by the rise of the neo-Francoist Vox — preparations for April 28 have been brutal. Sacred principles and immovable MPs alike have been dumped in the war for votes.

The PP’s preselection process has been pitiless. Scored by Vox for the “cowardly” performance of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government on the Catalan front, Casado has purged nearly all “Marianists” from his ticket. Two former ministers alone will recontest, with only 10 of the lead candidates in Spain’s 50 provinces and two Moroccan enclaves (Ceuta and Melilla).

In their stead comes a foul ultra-conservative mix: Spanish-patriotic “intellectuals”; Casado’s assassins within the PP machine; and individuals whose chief claim to a Congress seat is having a relative murdered by the Basque Homeland and Freedom, or a serial killer.

The “star candidate” is former MP Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, columnist for the Vox-sympathising daily El Mundo. Álvarez de Toledo is the PP’s lead in the Barcelona district, running against Citizens’ own star, Ines Arrimadas, opposition leader in the Catalan parliament.

Unionist voters will have their work cut out deciding which of the two will be their staunchest warrior against “secessionism”. Arrimadas has solid credentials based on 15 months of rancid abuse of Catalan president Quim Torra and Spanish flag-waving in the Catalan parliament. Álvarez de Toledo brings a big asset to the fight — she speaks not a word of Catalan.

As she told a March 16 Madrid meeting: “The more they say that ‘Cayetana is not from here, she doesn’t speak Catalan, she has no right to represent us’, the more my candidature makes sense ... The nationalist project in Catalonia can be summed up in the single objective of turning compatriots into foreigners.”

Spain’s rigged electoral system punishes all-Spanish parties winning less than 15%. This will make Casado’s job harder. Based on 52 constituencies of unequal size, the votes needed for a seat varies between less than 20,000 to more than 100,000.

The PP, now polling at just over 20%, will be competing with the PSOE for the last seat in as many as half the constituencies. The presence of Vox increases the chance of the PSOE winning the last position in smaller constituencies. To forestall this result Casado called on Vox not to stand in 25 seats — a request it rejected.

Principles dumped

Rivalry is not the only dynamic on the right. In Navarra, Citizens, the PP and the right-regionalist Union of the People of Navarra have achieved unity. They will run together under the banner “Navarra Adds Up”.

Their goal is to defeat left and nationalist forces in the general election and at the May 26 regional and local government elections.

As Spain’s most ardent neoliberals, Citizens have always demanded abolition of Navarra’s and the Basque Country’s special power to raise taxes and transfer funds to Madrid only after meeting local needs. Citizens leader Albert Rivera used to savage the PP for this “dirty deal done with the nationalists in a dark room”.

Now, faced with the prospect of beating the “enemies of Spain” on the important Basque national front, Citizens has simply dropped its opposition to Navarra’s “jackpot prize”. In the words of general secretary José Manuel Villegas: “There’s a need to come together in defence of the Spanish essence of Navarra, of the Constitution in the entire territory of Spain and to achieve a constitutionalist government.”

Catalan abstention in Madrid?

The scene is similarly complicated in the camp of Catalan independentism. It must once again answer the question: what line should Catalan MPs follow in the Spanish Congress?

Some believe they shouldn’t be there at all. The People’s Unity List (CUP) Political Council voted on March 10 not to stand, by 37 to 20, with four abstentions.

Two days later, however, CUP affiliate, Poble Lliure (Free People), citing the extraordinary political context, decided it would stand its own ticket. It was joined by the Pirates, We Are Alternative (led by former Podemos Catalonia leader Albano-Dante Fachin) and the independentist youth organisation The Forge, in a Republican Front.

How will any Republican Front MPs act in the Spanish Congress? According to The Forge, “no support must be given to any organisation that does not give a commitment to defending the right to self-determination.”

It remains to be seen how abstaining on the formation of any conceivable Spanish government will work out in practice, particularly if Republican Front votes determine whether Spain has a PSOE-led or right-wing government after April 28.

This conundrum also haunts the mainstream parties of Catalan independentism, the rival centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the centre-right Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat).

PDECat now disappears as an electoral formation, replaced by Together for Catalonia (JxCat), the same platform (also embracing PDECat) with which ex-president Carles Puigdemont won the December 2017 Catalan elections.

Preselecting JxCat candidates required weeks of negotiations between PDECat “moderates” and the Puigdemontists, ending in victory for the latter. They scored nearly all winnable positions, behind political prisoner lead candidates Jordi Sànchez, Jordi Turull and Josep Rull.

The incoming JxCat Congress caucus seems set to deny support to any all-Spanish party unless it agrees to real steps towards a Catalan act of self-determination.

Left alliances unravel

The national question has also created havoc for Unidos Podemos (Podemos plus the United Left). It has been slipping further behind the PSOE in opinion polls, coming in fifth behind Vox.

Creating alliances between Unidos Podemos and various left-nationalist forces was a hard job in the 2015 and 2016 elections, even when the prospect of overtaking the PSOE was real and hopes were high.

Today the dynamic of rising unity has reversed, as former partners increasingly diverge on issues like the relative importance of social and national struggles, how best to meet the threat of the right and how to do candidate preselection.

The retreat has been worst in Galicia. The alliances that began in 2012 with the creation of the Galician Left Alternative between the left-nationalist formation Anova and the United Left are unravelling.

By March 16, with the decision of Anova not to stand on April 28, Unidos Podemos was left without any Galician left-nationalist partner and now faces a contest with former ally En Marea.

In the Valencian country, the left-regionist force, Commitment, which stood with Unidos Podemos in 2016, decided in mid-2018 not to renew their pact.

In Catalonia, the Together We Can alliance (victorious in 2015 and 2016) has held together but important individual leaders have resigned over disagreements with what they see as a downplaying of the ongoing struggle for Catalan sovereignty.

Joan Josep Nuet has resigned as coordinator of the United and Alternative Left (Catalan sister party of the United Left and affiliate of Together We Can). Nuet will now stand on the ERC ticket.

A consolidated PSOE

The ruling PSOE and the ERC have so far avoided the turmoil and are leading in opinion polls in Spain and Catalonia respectively.

An implicit deal has been done between the PSOE’s regional chieftains (“barons”) and the Sánchez leadership. Despite some demotions of their retainers, the barons have not sabotaged the PSOE leader’s ticket for April 28 and Sanchez has left their tickets for the May 26 regional and council elections practically unchanged.

As a result, despite 57% of lead candidates for the Congress and 80% for the Senate being new, the March 18 meeting of the PSOE’s Federal Committee unanimously endorsed them for Congress and Senate.

The PSOE now looks certain to win a relative majority on April 28, but the critical question is whether the parties of the right can win an absolute majority together.

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