Spanish state: New local administrations emerge after dirty deals

June 22, 2023
Arnaldo Otegi EH Bildu
EH Bildu leader Arnaldo Otegi speaks to the media on election day. Photo: @ArnaldoOtegi/twitter

The results of Spain’s May 28 local government and regional elections were concretised in the investiture of incoming administrations on June 17.

Under the Spanish system, parties that win a relative election majority aren’t guaranteed government: they can still lose out to a rival coalition that scrapes together an absolute majority for their program and lead candidate by the day of investiture.

Only if such a coalition doesn’t emerge does the ticket with most votes get to run the new administration.

In constituencies with many candidates — especially in the regions where the national self-determination struggle combines with class and social conflict — absolute majorities are infrequent.

Inter-party horse-trading then breaks out, sometimes producing winning coalitions that formal program and election campaign passions would seem to preclude.

In Catalonia, where voting was only for councils, 30% of election day winners failed to become mayors.

The outstanding example was Barcelona Council. Here the radical left Barcelona Together (BeC), of outgoing mayor Ada Colau, voted with the conservative People’s Party (PP) to give the mayoralty to the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) — the Catalan franchise of the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) — while remaining outside the council administration.

The loser was a pro-independence coalition of election winner Together for Catalonia (Junts) and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC).

This transpired despite assertions by BeC spokesperson Jordi Martí right up until the day before investiture that “we will not engage in any triangulation with the PP and PSC to make [PSC candidate Jaume] Collboni mayor” and despite BeC’s avowed commitment to Catalonia’s national right to self-determination (in contrast to the PP’s and PSC’s adherence to “inviolable” Spanish state unity).

Collboni will govern with only 10 seats on the 41-seat council.

Lesser evil: ‘communism’ or ‘separatism’?

Success and failure in forming coalitions to beat election day winners can be revealing about real political dynamics here. Which force embodies the greatest evil from the point of view of the others? Who is to be kept out of power at all cost?

The easiest regions to decipher are the Spanish Basque Country (Euskadi) and Navarra (Nafarroa).

In Nafarroa, the PSOE’s local affiliate, the Socialist Party of Navarra, handed the mayoralty of the capital Pamplona (Iruñea) to the right-wing Union of the People of Navarra rather than see it recovered by the left-independentist EH Bildu.

In Euskadi, the obsession of the ruling Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and the local franchises of the PP and PSOE — the People’s Party of Euskadi (PPE) and the Party of Socialists of Euskadi (PSE) — has likewise been to keep administrations from falling to left independentism.

The PNV and PSE have had an agreement in place since 2015 to block any EH Bildu election winner, and then divide the spoils. This time, their pact stopped EH Bildu from winning Euskadi capital Vitoria (Gasteiz), taken by the PSE, and the provincial assembly of Álava (Araba), prize for the PNV.

In the investiture of the Gipuzkoa provincial assembly, the PPE came to the rescue with a vote in favour of the PNV and PSE after their alliance had tied that of EH Bildu and Podemos.

Overall, investiture day left the map of local government in Euskadi little changed, despite the PNV vote falling from 36.3% to 31.7% and EH Bildu (29.2%) winning more councillors than the PNV (1050 to 981).

The question now is what price the PNV will pay at the July 23 general election for its growing dependence on the PSOE and PP for containing EH Bildu.

Far right advance

The scene on June 17 in the rest of Spain was one of left devastation at the hands of the right and far right.

Deals between the PP and the racist, Islamophobic, anti-feminist and anti-Catalan Vox took 52 cities which the PSOE had “won” on election day, five of them provincial capitals. The PP now controls 32 of Spain’s 52 provincial capitals.

In Asturias’s second city, industrial Gijón, longtime stronghold of the left, a deal between the PP, Vox and local right-wing outfit Forum Asturias secured victory for the latter over the PSOE, Podemos and the United Left.

In the inland Catalan city of Ripoll, hometown of the young Muslims involved in the 2016 Barcelona bombing, the winner on May 28, Islamophobe and ethnic ultranationalist Sílvia Orriols, became mayor with only six of the council’s 17 seats.

The other parties — Junts, ERC, PSC, the People’s Unity List (CUP) and a local ticket — failed to agree on a candidate and program with which to defeat Orriols, who has promised to close a local mosque and deny social services to migrant families.

‘Deals of shame’ or ‘nothing bad’?

When PSOE Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez reacted to the left’s defeat on May 28 by calling a snap general election, he had in mind splitting the PP between its Vox-tolerant and Vox-averse wings and scaring those potential left voters who stayed home on May 28 into voting.

The possible political price of Vox-dependence for PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo became clear after May 28, when PP-Vox deals for regional government in the Valencian Country and the Balearic Islands yielded the following obscenities:

• Vox’s original candidate for deputy-premier of the Valencian country, Carlos Flores, was found to have been guilty of violence and psychological abuse of his ex-wife. Núñez Feijóo, aware of the political mileage this would give to the PSOE, insisted that his candidacy be withdrawn. Vox complied, but only after promising their wife-basher a lead position for Valencia in the general election.

• The first act of the new Valencian deputy premier and minister for culture, Vox member and former bullfighter Vicente Barrera, was withdrawal of all government funding for promotion and teaching of the local variant of Catalan (Valencian).

• The new Vox speaker of the parliament of the Balearic Islands, climate change negationist, anti-abortionist and euthanasia opponent Gabriel Le Senne, was also exposed as a denier of gender-based violence and author of opinions like “women are more belligerent because they don’t have a penis”.

All this has been too much for one PP candidate. While sordid PP-Vox deals spread like mushrooms, Extremadura PP leader Maria Guardiola refused to negotiate with Vox to remove the PSOE administration of the region.

She said on June 20: “I cannot allow those who deny gender-based violence to enter government” and “If we have to go to new elections, we will”.

Insouciant Madrid PP leader Isabel Ayuso didn’t understand: “I spent four years doing deals with Vox and nothing bad happened. Life goes on.”

Lesser evils in Barcelona

In Barcelona, BeC justified its decision to invest Collboni with the claim that its achievements in running the council would have been destroyed if Junts lead candidate Xavier Trias had become mayor.

The claim is questionable. While Trias certainly won the election by mobilising all strains of reactionary “anti-Colauism” and avoiding all but a few concrete commitments, BeC’s mantra that the PSC program was “left” while Trias’s was “right” is tendentious.

In fact, Collboni and Trias spent the election campaign competing with each other in anti-Colauism and wooing the Barcelona economic establishment, with both coming out in favour of its pet projects — airport extension, more expressways and reduced restrictions on tourism.

Collboni’s first move was to offer Trias a deal of joint government, with two years each as mayor, which Trias rejected.

Nor was the BeC decision made after comparing the Junts-ERC proposal with Collboni’s. The decisive factor was PSC leader’s promise to maintain BeC appointees in council employment: the door would also be open for BeC councillors to eventually return to office as junior partners to the PSC.

That this could not happen immediately was due to the terms of a deal worked out between PP and PSOE head offices in Madrid: obsessed with blocking a pro-independence council, the PP would vote for Collboni as mayor, but on condition that BeC be excluded.

Colau’s team certainly believe that their decision is best for their project for Barcelona, but what of the impact on broader Spanish state politics? The installation of Collboni is a victory for the main enemy of progressive politics — not Xavier Trias and the conservative majority in Junts, but those who repress the right to national self-determination in the name of Spain’s unity.

With its vote on June 17, BeC gave that enemy a helping hand.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A longer version of this article will appear on the website of Links — International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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