Gordon Campbell on the left’s current challenges in Spain

In December, the elections in Spain ended in a four way stalemate. Neither of the two old major parties – the ruling right wing Partida Popular (PP) or the moderate left PSOE – has since been able to put together a government, not even with the help of their potential allies on the left (Podemos) or on the right (Cuidadanos). Talk of a grand coalition including everyone but Podemos never came to anything. Meanwhile, the hopes of the millions of people who voted for change in December by breaking away from the old order and voting for either Podemos or Cuidadanos have been totally frustrated. So far, all that this pent-up desire for change has achieved is that no-one can currently form a coalition to govern the country.

In fact…since December, politics in Spain has looked like the jockeying at the start of one of those big yacht races. Everyone has been trying to position themselves to cross the starting line for the next election with a favourable wind, while blindsiding their opponents. The tactical to and fro has been less about forming a government, and more about avoiding blame for when inevitably, fresh elections will need to be called.

Tonight, the final step in this pantomine will be played out. In recent weeks, the old left wing party PSOE has formed a partnership of convenience with the new pro-market party Cuidadanos. This unlikely pair have even put forward a 66 page agenda of economic policies and constitutional change. Inevitably, this duo’s attempt at ruling will be voted down tonight, and fresh elections will be called. The whole aim of the PSOE/Cuidadanos deal has been to force the old corruption-stained PP and the ultra left Podemos to vote it down together, leaving them to cop the blame for the the Spanish people having to go back to the ballot box. By so doing, PSOE/Cuidadanos get to pose as the honest brokers who were willing to reach across the political divide, for the good of the country.

For its part, PP also gets to win, a little. It gets to pose as the country’s necessary evil. You may not like them, its strategists concede, but at least these old grey heads used to be able to govern, before all of these young firebrands came along to bewitch the electorate with the promise of a change that they couldn’t – finally – deliver. The real target of all these manoeuvrings is Podemos.

Podemos was founded only two years ago, as the anti-austerity counterpart of Syriza, in Greece. When Syriza got crushed by the European Union last year, the formerly sky high support for Podemos began to wane ; and the 69 seats it achieved in December was partly and somewhat artificially buoyed by a series of deals it did with regional parties. (Podemos stands alone for instance, in supporting a referendum in the Catalan region on independence.) The immediate goal of Podemos is to supplant PSOE as the main party of the left, just as Syriza decimated the old socialist party in Greece. Since December, PSOE’s tactics have been to resist Podemos’ persistent attempts to embrace it, and to paint the new upstart as a bunch of idealistic extremists who must not be allowed near the reins of real power.

Tonight’s vote is, as mentioned, the last step in the aftermath to the December elections – in which PSOE won 90 seats, Cuidadanos won 40 seats, PP 123 seats and Podemos 69 seats. Earlier this week, PP and Podemos voted down the attempt by PSOE/Cuidadanos to get a ruling majority of 176 votes in the 350 seat Parliament. In tonight’s vote, PSOE /Cuidadanos merely need to get a plurality of the votes cast. Theoretically, if Podemos abstained in tonight’s vote, the PSOE/Cuidadanos pairing would get a slim majority and could then rule as a minority government – at least until it tried to enact an unpopular policy and either Podemos, PP or a related group of regional parties pulled the plug on them. So far, Podemos has shown no interest in going down this minority government route. Once today’s vote fails, as the El Pais newspaper points out here, the PP will almost certainly step back to centre stage and revive the prospect of a ‘grand coalition’ that would include everyone but Podemos, which will be left with very few options except another futile attempt to embrace PSOE.

Why does this wrangling matter to the outside world? Well, Spain is a living case study of the parameters of possible change to the neo-liberal consensus. Only a year ago, Podemos had looked like it could take its anti-austerity message all the way into government. Yet the aftershocks of Syriza’s fate seem to have put boundaries on what the left can realistically hope to achieve within European democracies. In the longer run, Podemos still represents Spain’s best hope for substantive change ; and it will be fighting the next election as a more seasoned, broader-based party. The question is whether the electorate having been (a) battered by the austerity policies enacted by the PP and (b) frustrated by the fallout from the December stalemate, will revert to the old order once the next elections are called, probably for June.

Claude Francois, A Temps Perdu

And while we’re still in Europe and talking revolution – what could be more revolutionary than a French version of “If I Had A Hammer?” From 1963, this is the much beloved Claude Francois, who later gained a degree of dubious fame by accidentally electrocuting himself in the bath. Safety memo: don’t jump up to fix that flickering overhead light while you’re standing in a bath-tub full of water. That was tragique, but this is charmant.

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2 Comments on Gordon Campbell on the left’s current challenges in Spain

  1. That’s an astute analysis, Gordon, but it misses out the most critical factor in Podemos’ decline in the polls. That factor is the formation of Cuidadanos. Its rise in poll graphs pretty much precisely mirrors Podemos’ fall. And that’s clearly the point. Horrified at the prospect of Podemos holding a significant degree of Parliamentary power, their opponents created Cuidadanos as a superficially similar ‘outsiders’ party of the centre right. It worked a treat. If you can’t beat them, copy them, then beat them.

  2. Astute and insightful analysis as always, Gordon.

    Here are a few maps outlining the regional strengths and weaknesses of each party at the last Spanish Election (via Adam Carr’s excellent site)


    Interesting to see Podemos (and the Left-Centre Left in general) doing fairly well not only in historically Left-leaning urban areas like Barcelona and Seville but also in traditionally Right-leaning (PP) (albeit, at times, fairly evenly-split) cities like Valencia and Madrid.

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