Spanish elections: Important battle won against the right

Issue 
PSOE supporters rally in Madrid on April 28.

The question on everyone’s lips in the last week of the Spanish election campaign was just how strongly the filthy brown tide of reaction would run — encapsulated in the vote for the racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-feminist, pro-gun and, above all, anti-Catalan outfit Vox.

The average of legal polling, allowed by the Central Electoral Board until one week before the vote, had Vox at 11.2%, yielding around 30-35 seats in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies.

However, illegal and internal party polls in the last week of the campaign — or deliberately scary leaks about them — were assigning the neo-Francoists up to 17%. With that level of support they would climb past the progressive Unidas Podemos and the forces allied to it, overtake the new right Citizens and come in third behind the governing Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the main opposition, the formerly governing but now much shrunken People’s Party (PP).

A possible late surge to Vox did not just show up in polling. Thousands turned up to its rallies to roar euphoric support for leader Santiago Abascal’s abuse of the “politically correct” and “feminazism”, to chant “Puigdemont to jail!” (in reference to Catalan president-in-exile Carlos Puigdemont) and to furiously shake Spanish flags when the leader called for “defence of the Spanish nation, no matter what the cost”.

Its final rally in Madrid, held under the biggest Spanish flag ever seen, drew between 10,000 and 20,000 people to hear the message that “Spain is in danger” and cheer the call for the indefinite suspension of Catalan self-rule.

The best measure of the surge was the reaction of PP and PSOE leaders Pablo Casado and Pedro Sánchez, respectively. Casado promised if elected to suspend Catalan self-government at his very first cabinet meeting, while Sánchez’s campaign brandished the Vox bogey to urge potential left voters to back the PSOE as the most reliable counter to fascism.

They did not pass

Yet the spectre of a huge Vox surge never arrived: it achieved 10.2% (24 seats), leaving it in 5th position behind Unidas Podemos.

Spain has now joined most European states, with the exception of Ireland, Malta, Luxemburg and Portugal, with an extreme right party of hate in its parliament. But, revolting as this is, it could have been a lot worse.

The reason is because the rise of Vox rang alarm bells within the mass of the population, setting the participation rate climbing to 75.8%, six percentage points higher than the 2016 poll. More than 26 million people cast a ballot on April 28, 2.2 million more than in 2016.

It was the highest participation since the 2004 election during the Iraq War and following the Madrid terrorist bombing, when the PP’s José María Aznar was ousted by the PSOE’s José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero.

The mood was similar this time: for millions it was a matter of “No pasaran” (They shall not pass).

The biggest leap in participation was in Catalonia (from 65.6% to 77.6%), reflecting popular determination to defeat the three right-wing parties competing for who could be most vicious against the “Catalan secessionist threat” and most ruthless with the “coupmongers” (the 12 Catalan leaders presently being tried in the Spanish Supreme Court).

As a result, the right took a pasting: it went from holding 11 seats in Catalonia’s 48-seat Congress to holding only seven. In the Spanish Basque Country (Euskadi) its rout was complete: not one of the region’s 18 seats will be held by a party of the right, with the PP losing its last two seats and Citizens and Vox gaining none.

At the level of the Spanish state, the right’s vote fell from 46.5% (169 seats) to 43.2% (149), while the vote of the all-Spanish left (PSOE plus Unidas Podemos) fell just marginally, from 43.8% (156) to 43% (165).

The rigged Spanish electoral system awards disproportionately more seats to parties as their vote moves higher above 15%. The combined number of PSOE and Unidas Podemos seats rose because the PSOE’s 28.7% of the vote scored it 35.1% of the seats.

As the space of the all-Spanish parties shrank, the “third pole” of nationalist and regionalist forces grew, from 9.8% (25 seats) to 13.8% (36). The number of self-proclaimed pro-independence Basque and Catalan MPs in the Congress has grown from 26 to 32.

On election day, 200,000 more people voted for the right than in 2016, 780,000 more for the left, but more than 1 million more voted for regionally based parties of all stripes. More than 700,000 extra votes went to the Basque and Catalan forces.

Without the contribution of the overall vote in Euskadi and Catalonia, the triple alliance of the right would have won one million votes more than the PSOE.

It is now impossible for the right to govern in the Spanish state — a gain for progressive politics in the whole of Europe. However, the PSOE will need the support of at least one other party to be able to return to government, either in minority or in coalition.

People’s Party losses

Who were the biggest losers, and why?

The biggest disaster was the PP’s: its support halved to 16.7% and 66 seats as 3.5 million voters abandoned ship — its worst ever result. Citizens (15.8%, 57 seats) is now treading on its heels in competition for leadership of the right.

The PP’s most deserved meltdown took place in Catalonia. There the histrionic aristocrat Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo — protegée of Aznar and parachuted in by Casado as lead candidate over the head of the local organisation — reduced PP’s Catalan representation from six seats to one (herself).

Similar PP debacles took place in the other regions where national and/or regional identity is strong: Euskadi (from 2 seats to none), the Valencian Country (13 to 7) and the Canary Islands (6 to 3).

Other major disaster zones were Andalusia (23 seats to 11), Madrid (15 to 7) and Castilla La Mancha (12 to 6). In smaller constituencies, the former PP pie typically got divided in three, with one slice each for the PP, Citizens and Vox.

In Murcia and Extremadura, the PP went from five seats to two, handing one seat each to the PSOE, Citizens and Vox.

The only (very partial) exception to this rout came in Galicia. Local premier Alfredo Nuñez Feijóo continues to follow the “moderate” line of former Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy and PP’s losses there were confined to a third of their 2016 total.

Nonetheless, the PSOE overtook the PP in Galicia, and is now the leading party in 15 of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities (states), including the PP’s Castilian heartlands. The centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) is the leading force in Catalonia and the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) in Euskadi. In 2016, the PSOE led in none of these regions.

The PP’s downfall had two basic causes: it tried to match Vox in bashing the Catalan sovereignty movement but came across as a pale imitation of these ardent Spanish patriots with their vision of “reconquest” of the rebellious Catalans; and it never lost its stench of corruption, an incitement for former voters to desert to the apparently clean Citizens.

Unidas Podemos losses

A partial mirror of the PP’s fiasco was the setback suffered on the left by Unidas Podemos and the Catalonian coalition En Comú Podem (ECP). These forces shed 1.3 million of the five million votes they won in 2016.

The radical force lost most where it had gained most in 2015 and 2016 — in the “historical nationalities” of Catalonia, Galicia and Euskadi. In 2016 it was the leading force in both Euskadi and Catalonia. At this poll it came in third in both constituencies.

In Catalonia, ECP slumped from 12 seats to seven; in Galicia, Unidas Podemos went from five seats to two; and in Euskadi, it went from six seats to four.

In Castilla-La Mancha, where Unidas Podemos participates as junior partner to the PSOE in the regional government, it lost both of the seats won in 2016. In Castilla y León it lost all three of its seats.

Two seats became one in Aragon, Asturias and Navarra while one seat became none in Cantabria, Extremadura and La Rioja. The least disastrous losses were in Andalusia (11 seats to 9) and Madrid (8 to 6).

The only autonomous communities where Unidas Podemos did not lose seats were the Valencian Country, the Balearic and Canary Islands (where it maintained the two it held in each archipelago) and Murcia, where it held onto its only seat.

In the Valencian Country, Podemos managed to retain its five seats, while the left-regionalist Compromis, its former coalition partner in the alliance A La Valenciana, lost three of the four seats it had won as part of that formation in 2016.

In Galicia, En Marea, the coalition between Unidas Podemos and Galician left-nationalist forces in 2016, lost all its seats.

These losses were partly due to the disillusionment of many Podemos activists and members with the behaviour of their leaders, including Pablo Iglesias and his partner Irene Montero’s purchase of a €600,000 villa in a posh Madrid suburb, and the desertion of number two leader Iñigo Errejón to an alliance with Madrid mayor Manuela Carmena.

However, two deeper political factors also explain the losses. The first is Unidas Podemos’s confused and at times tepid orientation to the right of self-determination of the Spanish state’s component nations, most importantly the ongoing Catalan struggle.

When asked, Podemos candidates will always say that they stand for this right and recognise the plurinationality of Spain. However, it is not an issue on which they feel keen to go into battle — against the Spanish establishment, the monarchy and pervasive Spanish-chauvinist sentiment.

The upshot was clearest in Euskadi and Catalonia, where many progressive supporters of self-determination, who had swung to Unidas Podemos and ECP in 2015 and 2016, decided to again vote for left-independentist forces.

In Catalonia, this shift was responsible for at least four of the ERC’s six-seat gain; in Euskadi, it accounted for the left independentist EH Bildu doubling its presence in the Congress from two to four.

Equally damaging has been the Iglesias leadership’s orientation to the PSOE, which — after Unidas Podemos failed to overtake Sánchez’s party in 2015-16 — became that of seeking to be a junior partner in a PSOE administration.

Iglesias and ECP lead candidate Jaume Asens argued — forcefully and correctly — that the stronger the vote for their forces, the less likely the PSOE would be to risk a post-electoral pact for government with Citizens. There is evidence that this argument boosted the Unidas Podemos vote in the last fortnight of the campaign from around 12-13% to its final 14.31%.

However, what has long been missing from the Unidas Podemos message, and which accounts for its falling further and further behind the PSOE since 2016, is any clear sense that it has a qualitatively different project to Spain’s social democracy.

One particularly gaping hole was the failure to present Unidas Podemos as a thorough-going republican alternative to the Spanish monarchist establishment, supportive of a popular constituent process that would reconstitute the Spanish state on democratic foundations.

Given this — and the pro-PSOE media pressure for a socialist vote as the best way to defeat Vox and the right — it is no surprise that Unidas Podemos also lost the votes of many former PSOE supporters who supported it in 2015-2016.

Detailed analysis remains to be done, but a provisional estimate would be that, of the radical force’s lost 1.3 million votes, half a million went to left independentist forces (ERC and EH Bildu), while 800,000 returned to the PSOE and its Catalan affiliate, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC).

Vox and Citizens gains

The PP’s lost 3.5 million votes deserted to Vox (2.5 million) and Citizens (1 million).

Vox gained the biggest rise in support, scoring 2.6 million more votes than in 2016, directly reflecting Spanish-nationalist fury at the successful holding of the October 2017 Catalan referendum on self-determination in the face of Spanish police violence.

Vox based itself on seeking revenge for humiliation of the referendum and has become the pole of attraction for all the usual hatreds of the far right. Its 10-point election program called for an “impenetrable” wall against immigration through Ceuta and Melilla, forced repatriation of “illegals”, recentralisation of the Spanish state into a single administrative unit, “defence of the Spanish language” and the repeal of all laws embodying “political correctness”.

Vox gained most from the PP’s debacle in Andalusia (6 seats), Madrid (5), the Valencian Country (3), Castilla-La Mancha (2) and Murcia (2).

By contrast, it picked up no seats in the “periphery” of the Spanish state: the Canary Islands, Cantabria, Galicia, La Rioja, Navarra and Euskadi all failed to return a representative for the neo-Francoists.

Citizens picked up 25 extra seats mainly because its vote passed the 15% threshold (from 13% to 15.9%), a clear example of how the rigged electoral system favours all-Spanish parties once they cross this mark.

In Andalusia, the four new seats Citizens won from the PP (taking it to 11) required 58,200 votes a seat, while Vox’s 6 extra seats required 101,870 votes a seat.

In Castilla-La Mancha, Citizens’ vote rose from 13% to 17.5%, but its haul of seats went from zero to four. In Castilla y León its vote rose from 14.2% to 18.9%, but its seat score rocketed from one to eight.

In Madrid and Galicia, Citizens overtook the PP and won two seats from En Marea in Galicia.

Citizens’ biggest failure was in Catalonia, where it made no gains on the five seats it won in 2016. Its vote rose from 10.9% to 11.5% (down from 25.4% in the 2017 Catalan regional poll). Of the five seats lost by the PP, one went to Vox and four to the PSC-PSOE but none to Citizens.

PSOE and ERC gains

The overall winner of the election was the PSOE. While its vote rose less than Vox’s, the two-million strong rise in support translated into a 38-seat increase (to 123), making the continuation of a minority Sánchez government a real option.

The PSOE benefitted from the lift in the participation rate. If around 800,000 of its extra votes came for Unidas Podemos and its allies, these are clearly not enough alone to account for the Spanish social democracy’s final gains.

In Catalonia, Euskadi and Galicia, there is some evidence of disillusioned PP voters fed up with Casado’s Catalonia-bashing shifting to the PSOE, but this would be a marginal trend on an all-Spanish scale, where votes rarely cross between the left-right divide.

PSOE gained more than Unidas Podemos lost across the whole of the Spanish state. In Andalusia, for example, Unidas Podemos lost 136,000 votes while the PSOE gained 239,000. In Aragon, the PSOE vote rose by 65,000 while the Unidas Podemos vote fell by 36,000. In Madrid, the 350,000 rise in the PSOE vote nearly tripled the Unidas Podemos loss of 120,000.

The rise in the participation rate appears to have won the PSOE around 25 of its 38 extra seats, at the same time stopping any chance of a government of the right.

In Catalonia, the voting flows were more complicated than in the rest of the Spanish state, driven by the 12% (700,000 voter) rise in the participation rate. These were voters motivated both by fear of the right and Vox, but also by the need to assert the legitimacy of a Catalan right to decide.

The PSC/PSOE made the biggest vote gain (400,000), corresponding to a rise in seats from 7 to 12. The ERC made the biggest gain (from 9 to 15), corresponding to 386,000 extra votes.

Both drew on the surge in participation and the 234,000 drop in support for the ECP.

The rise in participation meant that Citizens’ vote rose by 100,000 (from 10.9% to 11.6%) but it only maintained its five seats. The pro-independence Together for Catalonia (JxCat) —Puigdemont’s party — increased its absolute vote by 16,000 but declined from 13.9% to 12.1% and lost one seat.

The basic feature of the Catalan result is the leap in the pro-independence vote. In 2016, the pro-independence vote amounted to only 32.1% of the total, with unionist parties scoring a total of 40.4%.

This time the unionist vote rose to 43.2%, chiefly due to the surge in the PSC vote. The pro-independence vote (ERC, JxCat and the left pro-independence Republican Front) rose by twice as much, to 39.3%. If the pro-sovereignty ECP vote is added to the independence vote, the support for a Catalan right to decide (at 54.27%) maintains its 29-19 seat majority in the Catalan caucus in the Spanish congress.

The basic pattern in Catalonia appears to have been that of a shift to the left and to support for the right to self-determination.

The ECP’s losses went to the PSC/PSOE and to the ERC, helping raise the number of pro-independence MPs in Madrid from 17 to 22.

On both sides of the independence-unionist divide, voters preferred those forces favouring dialogue — the PSC/PSOE and the ERC — over Citizens and JxCat.

Conclusion

The defeat of the right on April 28 is a cause for celebration for all progressive people and certainly was here in Spain.

The PSOE’s brand of “soft cop” unionism — opposed to a Catalan right to decide and backed by the European powers-that-be — failed to make a dint in the pro-independence and pro-sovereignty camp in Catalonia and Euskadi, which strengthened its position.

The manner of the PSOE’s win has also made it politically impossible for it to government in alliance with Citizens, the dream of Spain’s economic powers. This was dramatised on election night, when PSOE activists interrupted Sánchez’s victory speech with chants of “Not With [Citizens leader Albert] Rivera!”.

The issue of a Catalan independence referendum remains, and the PSOE’s main reason for sabotaging negotiations over it in February — using the spectre of a right-wing victory at the polls — has been removed by its own victory.

The rabidly unionist right has not been defeated, but it has been weakened, and the Supreme Court trial of the 12 Catalan leaders now stands out more starkly as an unjust farce.

The Catalan movement, and democrats everywhere, must now redouble their calls for the Spanish government to withdraw its prosecution of the case, release the political prisoners — four of whom have been elected to parliament — and finally begin negotiations over how Catalonia is to have the Scottish-style referendum that 80% of its people want.

[Written with the welcome help of Julian Coppens. Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will appear on the web site of Links — International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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